Crime authors to speak at Heffer's murder mystery book event
As the wind whips through the frosty streets, a gathering in the city of some of the country’s most murderous imaginations is about to chill the blood further still.
Murder Under the Mistletoe, an event at Heffer’s Bookshop, will see more than a dozen crime authors giving readings and chatting about their books over festive drinks. Well-known names will be there, including Quentin Bates, Rachael Blok, Alison Bruce, Dominick Donald, Stephen Done, Mick Finlay, Elizabeth Haynes, Susi Holliday, Christina Koning, Anna Mazzola, JS Monroe, WC Ryan, William Shaw and MB Vincent.
We spoke to three of the writers ahead of the event on Thursday about their novels out in time for Christmas.
Forget my name, by JS Monroe
What if you are outside your front door and look through the window only to see there are strangers living in your house? Then you realise - you can't remember your name.
In JS Monroe’s latest psychological thriller, his heroine has arrived home after a week working in Berlin and discovers her bag has been stolen, and with it, her identity. Her whole life was in there - passport, wallet, house key. When she tries to report the theft, she can’t remember her own name. All she knows is her own address.
Now she's outside Tony and Laura's front door. She says she lives in their home. They say they have never met her before, but one of them is lying.
The idea for this book came to author Jon several years ago as he commuted home from his job as a journalist on the Telegraph.
He revealed: “I used to get the train back home and then would often have this creepy thought about what it would be like if I looked through our window as I arrived back and saw another family sitting at the table. The idea haunted me for ages and then I decided it would make a great start for a story.
“I like to dig myself a really big hole at the beginning of a story and then work out how the character can solve the problem.”
Jon has been writing under name JS Monroe to differentiate his psychological thrillers from the five spy novels he wrote under his real name, Jon Stock.
“I felt I had done everything I wanted to do with spy thrillers so I started writing under JS Monroe last year, with the novel Find Me. It’s a gender neutral name because most readers of psychological thrillers are women but also because I wanted people to see I was writing something different from my other novels.
He set the book in a Wiltshire village, similar to to one where he lives, and carried out lots of research to help understand his lead character. In the novel, the local GP examines her and discovers she is suffering from memory loss.
Jon says: “I’m fascinated by neurology and so I loved speaking to doctors about the condition she presents with - anterograde and retrograde amnesia - which means she has no memory of her past and can’t remember events that have just happened. Apparently it can be brought on by a stressful event. I found that people were more than willing to help me as a novelist and I could ask experts all sorts of questions.”
The villagers have several different theories about whom she may be, including a psychiatric patient who killed her flatmate or even a Russian spy.
“Expect lots of twists,” says Jon. “I wanted to push the idea of the unreliable narrator to the extreme and it was lots of fun.
“I want readers to put the book down when they reach a big twist and say ‘Oh my God!’ and then have to read everything again up until that point. I hope I have pulled it off.”
Under the Ice, by Rachel Blok
It is the week before Christmas and the cathedral city of St Albans is blanketed by snow. But beneath the festive lights, darkness is stirring. The frozen body of a young girl is discovered by the ice-covered lake.
The police scramble for clues. A local woman, Jenny, has had visions of what happened the night of the murder. But Jenny is an exhausted new mother, whose midnight wanderings pull her ever closer to the lake. Can Jenny be trusted? What does she really know?
Then another girl goes missing, and the community unravels. Neighbour turns against neighbour, and Jenny has no idea who to believe. As Christmas Eve approaches, Jenny discovers a secret about her past - and why she could be key to everything…
Rachael Blok dug into her own memories of early motherhood to help create her character Jenny.
She says: “I know St Albans well and lived there when I had a new baby. I remember struggling to push her buggy around the lake in winter and walking past the cathedral and thinking it was beautiful and spooky all at the same time.”
So when the school teacher came to write her first novel, she knew immediately where it would be set. But she also wanted to explore those first few months of being a new mum and the dazed feeling of constant tiredness as well as the heightened emotions it can cause.
She says: “I wanted to capture those early months of motherhood when you are not sleeping and everything is quite hazy and it’s normal to cry because the baby is crying all the time or you are rowing with your husband. Jenny’s husband isn’t very sympathetic towards her and thinks she should pull herself together.
“She has a four month old and she is, naturally, quite sleep deprived. I started to think about how sleep deprivation affects your thinking. Then I combined that with the idea that she goes sleepwalking as well and I think the readers are left unsure if it is just tiredness and mental anxiety causing her confusion or if it is something more.”
The ‘something more’ is a possible sixth sense, as Jenny believes she can hear voices and may even have seen a ghostly figure during her ramblings. She also seems to be turning up clues about the murdered girl who is found in the city’s lake, but can’t remember why she has them. It leaves her wondering if she is going mad.
“As she finds more clues the police begin to suspect her more because she discovers them when she has been out sleepwalking in the park.
The first things she finds are a phone and a purse and it turns out they are directly related to death of a girl in the lake. The police don’t seem to have any real clues about it themselves.”
Half way through the book another girl goes missing and, once again, Jenny seems to have an uncanny way of turning up evidence about her.”
It’s now a race against time to find the girl and prove Jenny’s innocence, but first she has to discover what the voices and the ghostly figure mean.
A House of Ghosts by WC Ryan.
At Blackwater Abbey, on an island off the Devon coast in winter 1917, Lord Highmount has arranged a spiritualist gathering to contact his two sons who have been lost in the Great War. But as his guests begin to arrive, it gradually becomes clear that each has something they would rather keep hidden.
Then, when a storm descends on the island, the guests will find themselves trapped. Soon one of their number will die. For Blackwater Abbey is haunted in more ways than one.
“It’s basically all my favourite types of books mixed together - a cross between a country house murder, a spy novel a ghost story and a romance,” says author Bill Ryan.
“I’ve decided to set it in the most haunted house in England, built on the remains of an ancient monastery and graveyard - it was a lot of fun to write.”
After a suggestion from his publisher that his next book could be a ghost story, Bill knew he wouldn’t need to do much research as his childhood was steeped in spooky tales.
“I have been in houses where I have experienced ghostly things so I have used those to some extent. And I have lived in a house which had a ghost, he reveals. “I never actually saw it because I was quite young but everybody else did.
“There was a woman who stood at the bottom of our staircase and she was very convincing as in people thought she was real until they asked about who she was and they realised she wasn’t anyone in the house.
“I think we are losing this connection with the supernatural now but certainly when I was growing up, all my older relatives had spooky tales from before the era of electric lights.”
One true life ghost story in particular inspired an aspect of the book: “I decided to include a mysterious mirror in the novel as my friend’s family actually had such a mirror in which the older generation females claimed they could see things like faces or possible future events.”
The period of the First World War also appealed as a setting, because it was time of great upheaval and when interest in spiritualism was at its peak.
“So many people lost family members during the war and often they didn’t know if they had actually dies because the information they received was that the person was missing, presumed dead,” he says. “The bodies often literally disappeared. Seances were a popular way of trying to find out what happened.”
The book is also a murder mystery as more than one of the visitors meets an untimely end on the island. And one of the visitors is possibly a spy.
“It’s all very Agatha Christie,” says Bill. “I used to live down in Devon near Burgh Island, where she set a couple of novels, so if I’m writing a novel about an island off the Devon coast I can’t really fail to give a bit of a nod to Christie.”
Tickets for the event are priced at £7 in advance or £9 on the door and can be purchased by calling 01223 463200 or in person at Heffers bookshop.