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Gytha Lodge reveals secrets of her spine-tingling ideas

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Imagine waking up in your marital bed and the person next to you isn’t your spouse. Then you discover they are not breathing – and you can’t remember what happened the night before.

That’s the shocking scenario at the start of Cambridge author Gytha Lodge’s latest crime novel, Lie Beside Me.

Gytha Lodge Picture: Keith Heppell
Gytha Lodge Picture: Keith Heppell

Coming up with an amazing hook like this is essential for her to start writing her story, she explains.

And the idea for this book came to her after thinking back upon her (long ago) student drinking habits.

Gytha, whose previous work, She Lies in Wait, was a bestseller, says: “I definitely had a few instances at university where I couldn’t quite remember what had gone on the evening before. I think that’s really awful. But one particular instance where I had big gaps in my memory I found out my drink had been topped up with vodka. It was just not a nice thing to realise that people could do that to you. That time I had ended up with this guy’s jacket and no idea how I got it. I just really worried about what happened and how it ended up with it, but actually turned out I had just walked out of a club wearing it and nothing bad had happened.

“Even though it turned out to be fine, I felt awful. I’d had that crushing kind of sense of doom when you think ‘oh my God, what did I do? I just shouldn’t get that drunk again’.

“One of the nice things about writing is you can use those feelings and feel in control of that story by putting an imaginary character in that situation. I think it’s a very empowering process, even if you know it’s a bit harsh on your imaginary character because it was definitely worse for her than it was for me.”

In the gripping third thriller from her series starring DCI Jonah Sheens, Lie Beside Me, out in paperback this month, follows binge-drinking Louise, who wakes up with a headache and a fuzzy memory.

She rolls over towards her husband, Niall – the man who, until recently, made her feel loved. But it’s not Niall who’s lying beside her. In fact, she’s never seen this man before. And he’s dead. As Louise desperately struggles to piece her memories back together, it’s clear to DCI Sheens and his team that she is their prime suspect, though they soon find she’s not the only one with something to hide. Did she do it? And if not, can they catch the real killer before they strike again?

Gytha says: “Louise has developed two sides to her character – drunk Louise and sober Louise. It’s essentially a dissociative personality issue when she drinks, which is fairly common in people with alcohol issues. And she much prefers the personality of drunk Louise because drunk Louise doesn’t have any of her neuroses.

“She’s not shy, she’s not worried about how she looks. She’s not worried about whether she’s eating the right amount or saying the right things. She’s fun, she’s witty, and her old self is stripped away.

“And the trouble for her is she’s ended up with a best friend and husband, neither of whom she’s really quite happy to be sober Louise with, and that’s a real problem because it pushes her to be drunk more and more often.

“But then her husband starts to disapprove and he doesn’t handle it very well. He is quite judgmental and makes her feel worse.

“When Louise wakes up that morning it is a lot scarier than it would be for most of us because she knows the sorts of things that drunk Louise is capable of. And those have included definitely getting phone numbers of men in bars and finding herself pressed up against someone that she shouldn’t have been. So she doesn’t trust herself basically.”

Gytha Lodge Picture: Keith Heppell
Gytha Lodge Picture: Keith Heppell

The novel alternates chapters between Louise and DCI Jonah Sheens, with Louise writing letters to her husband, trying to explain what happened.

“So we get into her head,” says Gytha. “But of course because it’s a letter to her husband, it’s not always going to be completely open and honest. She doesn’t tell the whole truth.”

Gytha learnt the importance of being able to explain an exciting book pitch in just a few lines at the famous University of East Anglia MA in creative writing course. After going to the university in Cambridge, she then became a playwright for seven years before applying for the MA. From there she was signed by a major literary agency, Curtis Brown, and has not looked back.

Gytha says: “Like a lot of people I had sent a lot of manuscripts off before in the past and they hadn’t been picked up by anyone. And then in the middle of the UAE course I was taught how to pitch a story in a few lines and I suddenly had all these agents, first of all asking for full drafts and then asking to work with me. So I actually had my pick of agents, which was such a different situation and it was it was unbelievable.

“I know now I have to think of something really spine-tingling. That’s exactly what we got shown, and particularly with one really terrific film supervisor that we had, who basically was just showing us that if you want someone to be intrigued, you need to catch them really quickly.”

The detective in her series, DCI Sheens, has his own mysterious back story, which Gytha plans to carry on through many more books – in fact she has already written book five.

“Originally his father was from the traveller community, his mother married into it and then found that his father was abusive and an alcoholic,” says Gytha.

“She eventually left, which is something that is very hard to do and isn’t really done. And it was tough on her and then she’s ended up with massive alcohol problems of her own. So Jonah ended up quite lonely growing up but free of it and, conversely, ended up very determined to be part of the law and order side of things.

“Despite being a DCI, he holds on desperately to his chance to interview witnesses themselves, which is something that a lot of DCIs don’t get to do. He is someone who’s incredibly good at it, because he basically tears them apart – something his father was also good at. He sort of dislikes himself for doing it, but he knows it’s the way to get the answers.”

Gytha will be talking about her book series with fellow crime writer Chris Whitaker, author of We Begin at the End, at It’s Criminal, Murder and Mayhem, an event at Cambridge Waterstones.

It’s Criminal: Murder and Mayhem with Gytha Lodge and Chris Whitaker takes place on Thursday, January 20, from 6pm to 7.30pm at Waterstones, Cambridge. Book tickets, priced £5 (£3 for Waterstones cardholders) via the Waterstones website.

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