Do Lead Characters Need to be Like-able in Crime Books?

The New Yorker published an article (May 16 2013) that in the title posed the question ‘would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?’ (in case you haven’t read Lolita, the answer is no), and talked about reader’s resistance to unlikeable characters—especially female characters. Claire Messud was interviewed about her own female character (that she also did not want to be friends with) as well as other novelists who expected empathy for their characters but commented that if the author looks for identifiability it may represent their own insecurities and that a ‘flawless character is insufferable’.

Messud and Attwood testified to their experience over years as novelists as likeability of female characters being an issue—need for more ‘sugar and spice’. In light of how Australia tore down its female prime minister and Trump’s continued rants of locking up Hilary, it’s hard not to wonder if this is true.  I have no doubt it is in romance (though men have to be noble, and largely doctors (800) if the tweet I saw recently is true re how often they turn up, compared to poets (2)); in one of my husband’s books his editors (female) suggested that he make the unlikeable female character more likeable by having her do some vacuuming.

But surely its not true in crime? I mean, we aren’t meant to like the bad guy obviously (serial killer especially depicted as heinous)…but what about the protagonists?

Aim

Examine my own experience of lead crime series characters and their genders and like-ability—and hopefully stimulate you to think about this and send me your own versions of the below table. Be warned—it takes a while!

Hypotheses

(non-researchers—please note that hypotheses are statements to be proven or disproven, not statements of the researchers beliefs)

That gender of author will be strongly correlated to gender of their main character.

The likeability of male characters is going to be higher than female characters.

The likeability will be less correlated to success of books for male characters than it will be for women characters (I admittedly don’t rate success here, but will include as general knowledge in discussion).

Methods

So I did my own test on crime series protagonists. I rated on three factors:

  1. Their moral/heroic compass,
  2. How like the common man they were (identifiability) and finally
  3. Would you like to have them to dinner.

I then split them up according to country (of where it is set, not always the case as to where the author lives), and gender of authors and main characters. I might be mostly working as an author these days, but the researcher academic is lingering not far beneath the surface…Of course I need you to all give me your own ratings for this to be valid, and in doing so not know the hypothesis (in which case don’t read the discussion below the tables!).

As it’s my opinion only, it will show my bias to kickass strong women and (sadly), classical heroic men, also with strong integrity, but I have given a range (in brackets) where I think there might be (or in Jack Reacher’s case, should be), a significant disagreement.

The books included had to be in a series (with an intent, if not actual, of more than two, some were more than 30), and if other than Australian (where I was much more generous), had to be well known/readily found on crime book shelves around the world. And I had to have read at least one—my ratings are a tad more robust in the books where I have read most or all (underlined authors). I excluded spy books, and Sophie Hannah and Tana French—even though they both write series, they follow different characters.

Zero is lowest (A. most immoral, B. either least like you or least like someone you WANT to identify with, and C. no dinner invitation going to happen)

Five is highest—A. moral, high integrity B. like most people re family/job OR someone you WANT to identify with and C. comfortable/fun at dinner

[For the * see discussion below]

AUTHORS- BRITISH ISLES

LOCATION

MALE

MALE

CHARACTER

FEMALE

CHARACTER

A.     

MORAL

/HEROIC

B.     

IDENTIFIABILITY

C.     

DINNER

COMPANION

Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes (private eye)   5 2 3-5
Michael Robotham Joe O’loughlin (psychologist)

 

4 5 5
Peter Robinson Alan Banks (Cop) 4-5 3-4 3
Stuart McBride Logan McRae (Cop)   3-4 4 4
Adrian McKinty Sean Duffy, (cop) 4-5 4 5
Ian Rankin John Rebus, (cop) 3-4 3-4 3 (the whiskey bill would be too high)
Colin Dexter Inspector Endeavour Morse (cop) 4 4 2-3
FEMALE
Val McDermid Tony Hill (psychologist) 4-5 3-4 3-4
  Carol Jordan (cop) same series 3 2 2
Elizabeth George Thomas Lynley (cop) 5 3 (5) 5(3)
  Barbara Havers (cop) same series 3-4 3(4) 3(4)
PD James Adam Dalgleish (cop) 5 3 (5) 3 (5)
Lynda La Plante Tennison (cop)

Separate series

Its possible my ratings are heavily biased by Helen Mirren’s portrayal

5 5 5
  Anna Travers (cop) 4 4 4
  James Langton

Same series

3 3-4 3
Faith Martin Hillary Greene 5 5 but… 2 (sorry, she’s boring)
Agatha Christie Miss Marple

(general busybody…)

5 5 but… 3 (5 is someone gets murdered over dinner)
Hercule Poirot

(private eye)

5 1(5…he’s smart after all) (3)5
BOTH
Nicci French Frieda Klein

(psychotherapist)

2-3 2-3 (should be 5) 2

 

NORTH AMERICAN LOCATION

MALE

Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe (private eye) 4-5 3 (5 for men) 5
Dashiell Hammitt Sam Spade

(private eye)

4-5 3 (5 for men) 5
Jonathan Kellerman Alex Delaware

(psychologist)

4-5 4-5 3
  Milo (cop)

Same series

3-4 3-4 3
Lee Child Jack Reacher (ex-Military cop) 0-5* 0-5* 2 (for god’s sake he doesn’t talk and he might kill someone)
James Patterson (yes, he’s done more, just picked the ones I’ve read) Alex Cross (cop) 5 4-5 4
Lindsay Boxer (cop) different series 5 4-5 4
Michael Connolly Harry Bosch (cop) 3-4 3-4 3-4
Stephen White Alan Gregory (psychologist) 5 5 5
  Sam Purdy (cop)

Same series

3-4 4-5 4
FEMALE
Sue Grafton Kinsey Milhone (private eye) 4-5 4-5 4-5
Linda Fairstein Alexander Cooper

(lawyer)

4 4 4
Tess Gerristen Jane Rizzoli (cop) 5 5 3
Maura Isles (pathologist)

Same series

4 4 3
Patricia Cornwall (up until when she went to UK then occasional) Kay Scarpetta

(forensic pathologist)

5(beg of series) 4-5(beg of series) 4-5 (beg of series)
Kathy Reichs Temperance Brennan 5 3 3 (er… wouldn’t be able to have wine)
Karin Slaughter Sara Linton (paediatrican/pathologist) 5 3 (sorry, this is because as a doctor I find the combination of roles wrong, otherwise 5) 3
Lena Adams(cop)

Same series

3 3 3
Jeffrey Tolliver (cop)

Same series

4-5 5 4-5
Will Trent (agent)

Same series

3 3 3
Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum

(private eye)

4-5 5 (women) 5
Louise Penny Armand Gamache 4-5 4-5 4-5

 

 

 

EUROPEAN

Male

Steig Larsson Lisbeth Salander 0-5* 0-5* 2 (she isn’t a dinner party gal)
  Mikael Blomkvist

(journalist)

Same series

4-5 5 4
Jo Nesbo Harry Hole (cop) 4-5 3-4 3-4
Henning Mankell Kurt Wallander (cop) 4 3-4 3
 Female
Fred Vargas Commissaire Adamsberg (cop) 4-5 3-4

(he’s just so…French!)

4-5
Anne Holt Hanne Wilhelmsen

(cop)

4-5 3-4 3-4
Camille Lackburg Patrick Hedstrom

(cop)

4-5 4-5 4-5
 Erica Falck

(crime writer)

Same series

4-5 4-5 4-5

 

 

AUSTRALIAN

MALE

Peter Temple Jack Irish (private eye) 4-5 3-4 4
Garry Disher Hal Challis (cop) 4-5 3-4 4
Ellen Destry (cop)

Same series

4-5 4-5 4-5
AUSTRALIAN

FEMALE

Jane Harper Aaron Falk (cop) 4-5 4-5 3
Kerry Greenwood Miss Fisher 4-5 4-5 4-5
Corinna chapman (cook)

Different series

4-5 4-5 4-5
Emma Viskic Caleb Zelic

(private eye)

5 5 3-4
JM Green Stella Hardy

(social worker)

5 5 5
Sue Williams

 

Cass Tuplin (fish shop busybody) 4-5 5 5
Kathryn Ledson Erica Jewell

(IT worker/private eye)

4-5 4-5 (women) 5
Tara Moss Makedde Vanderwall (model/psychol) 5 3(5) 4-5
Kathryn Fox Anya Crichton (pathologist) 5 5 4
Katherine Howell Ella Macroni (cop) 4 4-5 3
Anne Buist Natalie King

(psychiatrist)

3-5 2-3 (might want to 5) 5 for fun (2)

 

Results

  1. There’s a lot of crime book series…
  2. Likeability was hard to measure. I included three measures to try and make sense of this but still struggled.
  3. The moral/ heroic picked up basically solidly good (and often boring), those that wavered who tended to be moody drunks (Rebus) or ones with strong moral codes, you just might not agree with them—Reacher and Salander. Both these characters are strongly moral—but to their own code, not the Law which let’s face it, outside fiction, we really do want people to stick to.
  4. Identifiability. Boring arose a bit here—or strong correlation if they were in anyway medical/psychologist (for me). I included here having families/ kids though that isn’t strong for me, age didn’t seem to matter too much—but admirable qualities did. The identifiability had me including those I’d like to identify, maybe, (eg Lynley, though I suspect the average British Lord is very dull, ex-Lord Jeffrey Archer the exception) and also gave me someone too ordinary character I didn’t want to dinner with (eg Hilary Greene).
  5. Dinner question: There were some people you just didn’t want to dinner (sullen, alcoholic, non talkers, poets and classical music people who I think would be boring…) and others I just want there for entertainment value. In who I want to dinner I am look for interesting people with social skills—and neither this, nor the other markers actually relate to how much I like the book. However boring characters—too gritty (men only), too stodgy, too main stream, too moody, too boring—also correlates with me not wanting them to dinner.
  6. The majority of authors, especially female American authors, stick to their own gender for their main character; interesting to note that this isn’t the case with two recent Australian award winners, Jane Harper and Emma Viskic. Its less true of the British female authors too, who often have two main characters, one of each gender. This may be a bias of sampling with respect to the Australian authors—as a relatively new author in Australia I know a lot of the new writers and their series (virtually all female bar the above exceptions), and haven’t included the equivalents from other countries because they aren’t published here!
  7. I am a little harder on the female characters physicality than the male, and if they are indecisive or morally bankrupt—but I am equally behind them if they are decisive and have a strong moral compass (even if I don’t agree with it). Lena is morally questionable and Will is weak (Slaughter)—I rate her worse. Carol Jordan is infuriating and then just frankly criminal (and I rate her lower than the weak Tony Hill). Poor Hilary Greene. I’m ashamed to say her worrying about her weight annoys me. I don’t care if she’s overweight—just either do something about it or shut up. Barbara Havers clothes sense makes me want to scream. I’m not as unsympathetic to my friends…(sigh).
  8. My favourite authors from this lot (ie if see their new book and take straight to the counter/click on my kindle if I can’t wait that long) are 5 male authors (two Americans, two Australians who set them in the British Isles and one Scandinavian), all with main male characters (and one with a female co-lead)—an ex-military cop, a cop, and two psychologists, and a journalist with…well whatever Lizbeth Salander is; and two female authors, both with joint leads, one of each gender.

Discussion

I started off wanting to know if we more critical of female characters in crime books. To be Attwood’s ‘sugar and spice’ there is a tendency for women to be portrayed as softer/weaker/ less decisive. In thrillers, even if the protagonist, these women are the ‘victim’.

In a crime book we want some moral integrity—we need this to separate the good and the bad guys. Wishy washy doesn’t work for me. While I felt I was a bit more critical of the female leads, and overall seemed to be drawn more strongly to the male ones,  I want to look at this a little closer.

From the above table are five male authors and two female authors of whom I click and buy everything; they are all currently International best sellers (Child, Robotham, Larsson, McDermid, George) or have been (White) or are on the ascent if he isn’t there already (McKinty). What do they have in common, if anything, regarding this question of female protagonist likeability?

Robotham and White’s characters are both male psychologists, and as a psychiatrist I have a natural affinity for them—so they do well, even though they are male, on being ‘like me’. I don’t feel this about Nicci French’s Freida even though she’s a woman (though to date I have read them all)—the reason French doesn’t fit into my top group is because I don’t like the character—she’s morally weak and makes very dubious decisions from an unclear platform. I was very nearly at the same point with McDermid—as far as I’m concerned she finished the series in the nick of time and both male and female characters were driving me to distraction; Tony Hill was increasingly pathetic and Carol Jordan had me screaming with anger. You’ll note in in my ratings I’ve been harder on Carol.

Loughlin and Gregory as characters (Robotham and White) don’t tax me, and the stories are great.

The others writers don’t have characters of either gender that I identify strongly with on the face of it. But I wanted to with Salander and Reacher. The characters, in my mind done equally well, have gender forming the character, but that didn’t affect  my response which was the same; total escapism, the delight of having complete confidence in yourself (as you become them) and knowing you are right and better than the Law. Hell, I’m a vehement anti-gun person and somehow I can overlook Reacher is using them left right and centre.

With McKinty? Not sure if its plot (or the setting in the Troubles) or his writing, but he’s succeeded where a lot of other procedural male crime writers haven’t—I’m with Sean Duffy all the way. Just less gritty—it must be because he has daughters (so does Robotham)—not sure about any of the other though!

Which only leaves Elizabeth George. One character is a male toff I’d probably hate, but, well, he’s a gentleman…(didn’t feel this about Dalgleish who was too stuffy)…maybe its because she makes him suffer in his personal life and a one person cheerleader for the disaster that is Barbara Havers; and Barbra herself who George really has it in for. I nearly stopped reading when she did something morally and ethically a ‘would strike you off in an instant’ offence (about the Pakistani girl), and in the latest she’s off tapdancing for Christ sake. But she isn’t weak…just wrong. And even Isabelle Ardery another unlikeable character who is a drunk bad mother shows strength at the end. And that I am fairly sure why I keep clicking/walking out of the bookshop with her books.

In contrast to these top picks, when I looked at the character faults in the table overall, the only thing that stopped me reading a whole series was gritty male characters written by male authors; they score medium to high on moral/heroic, mostly okay on dinner invitations, but low on identifiability—including whether I wanted to identify. I have zero in common with Jack Reacher, but he gets 5 on heroic and a  5 on wanting to identify with him. I actively don’t aspire however to being overweight and having alcohol issues…

So perhaps rather than likeability per se, it’s about whether we identify or want to identify with the character. There are more women readers than men overall, but I suspect more male readers of those gritty male crime books percentage wise compared to women. It would be reversed in many of the other books, particularly with the Stephanie Plum/Erica Jewell type heroines which would be I think the mirror image of the gritty male protagonist.

Probably the safest bet is to write a likeable bloke with a few relationship problems and if they have a challenge not one that makes them too moody or difficult. Seemed to have worked for Robotham, White, Harper, Viskic, and McKinty. The characters around them can be more difficult.

And being a woman reader, when I read a female character, there are going to be more things I don’t want to identify with, that I gloss over with male characters—if they are a bad father, overweight, drink too much…it annoys me, but not as much.

Conclusion

I have better research skills than demonstrated here—but maybe the real reason to write this was to get you to think and tell me your ratings and what you conclude.A good topic for a PhD maybe!

I still think we are harder on female characters—but if the fabulously successful Larsson and Child can be pinups—when you take a great risk with your character, perhaps there are also great gains to be made. But even—or rather, especially in crime books—integrity and morality is critical. You may not want them to dinner, but they won’t bore you, and just maybe make you think.

And if the plot and writing is good enough, I’ll read on anyway.

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Which Walk in 2018?

The first incantation of our book out late last year, Two Steps Forward was called Walk to the Stars, referencing the meaning of ‘Compostela’ in the Camino’s destination, Santiago de Compostela, that stretched ahead of us for 87 days, over two thousand kilometres away on our first day out of a old farmhouse in central France. ‘Field of Stars’ also evokes the myth—that a shepherd was directed to the bones of St James in a Spanish field in the ninth century. We were not walking for religious reasons, but the knowledge that we were walking a pilgrimage route that millions had walked, was never far from our minds. It was there in every cross we passed, every church the Way took us via.

We have done many other shorter walks—Coast to Coast and Hadrian’s wall across the top of England, The Kerry and Wicklow Way in Ireland, The West Highland Way in Scotland, the Overland in Australia and Queen Charlotte Track and Banks Peninsula in New Zealand, all of which were beautiful and offered their own magic. But nothing really compares to the Camino, which we did twice.

So what is the magic of the Camino that weaves around some two hundred thousand or more that walk it each year, and has produced at least one movie so far (Martin Sheen’s The Way), one other well-known novel, The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho, and countless memoirs?

Religion is the obvious thing that sets it apart from other walks, but while there is a significant number of Catholics walking it, many at most say ‘spiritual’ as their reason. The Irish woman we met on the walk was doing it because she had grown up hearing about it—but she was protestant.

Unlike our hero Martin, no one is likely to be doing it to make money—but certainly some are up for the challenge. For us, this is probably where the reasons to walk collide—and throw in a bit of being steeped in history to tie it all up.

A walk of 800km (the traditional Camino Frances, from the French border to Santiago) is grueling (and doing the feeder routes to start, even more so). The second title we came up for the book, was Left, Right. Two people, two opposing views of the world…and yes—left right left—and lots of it along two thousand kilometres. You can’t get up every day and rely on telling yourself  ‘only seven hundred kilometres to go’ or ‘only another month’ to get you out of bed in the morning. It requires—demands—a change in the way you face each day, and for us it was learning ‘forced mindfulness’—taking each day as it comes, seeing the beauty in all of nature’s gifts and in the simplest of exchanges. It was being in the moment, a period of no need for social media, the outside world and, especially, no need for ‘things’. I haven’t really been clothes shopping ever since—just the occasional needed item.

So will 2018 bring another Camino? After all, we hinted at a follow up walking novel at the end of Two Steps Forward. We’ve been trying to do the Assisi walk from Cluny to Assisi and then onto Rome (following the dove sign) for some time…but it’s a narrow window of opportunity to get over the Alps and both spring and autumn are taken up with tours and perinatal psychiatry conferences (my other job). Also want to do the Shikoku 88 Buddhist temple walk but need to do that in May (cherry blossoms—will be my third attempt to see them) and that is already booked too!

So this year? Thames Source to the Sea I think—not quite a Camino (between one and two weeks and I suspect FB each night), but at least will keep the boots dusted off (Graeme)…and a chance for me to try out my waterproof Topos…

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Best Books 2017

This year everyone I give Christmas presents to, is getting a book. And some I don’t normally give presents to…because the book jumped off the shelves into my hand with their name on it! There are a number of reasons for this decision, which might, to those who don’t read (REALLY?), uninspired:

  1. Reading is good for your Mental Health!
  2. Books with major publishers at least, tend to be reasonably well written—I’ve just seen a number of Hollywood movies I couldn’t say the same about…Great characters, great stories…who doesn’t want to disappear into one?
  3. If everyone read as much as I did a whole lot more authors wouldn’t need a day job!
  4. We’ve been so busy with the Two Steps Forward book tour, the only shops we have time to be in are Book Shops!

As it happens, while the younger members of my family (niece the exception, go Samantha!) might groan at the sight of a book (instead of the latest Nintendo/Play Station etc), it was actually a lot of fun trying to pick which book for which person. I tried to buy only authors I’d read and knew (either personally or met through presenting with them at festivals), which still meant I had lots of scope! Exception was for young readers—yes I do know Andy Griffiths but I thought they probably had his books, and judging from the queues he gets, he doesn’t need my help! And also a couple of ones I couldn’t go past—advice to wives and husbands from the 1950’s…priceless, as well as a Canadian crime book (Louise Penny) for my girlfriend who would be reading it from the train in the Rockies. Other wise there were books from Tania Chandler, Helen Garner, Ann Turner, Di Morrissey, Lianne Moriaty, Matthew Reilly, Gary Disher, and classics from Carlos Ruiz Zaphron, Marcus Zuszak that everyone should read. Such diversity—from romance to crime and some nonfiction. The stores are brimming with fabulous books – so get your final presents there!

For me, the memorable books from 2017 were a varied lot, not necessarily published this year. The one that gripped me was nonfiction—Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. I was walking the Overland and each hut had a copy, so I read a little more each night and could hardly put it down. I had read article about the doomed Everest expedition (and there was another in today’s New York Times about retrieving the bodies of two Indian climbers), but this gave so much fascinating background and insights—as well as being very moving, and it made me really think about what it means to be human and what would I do—help the climber who might die anyway (as might I) or accept its every man for themselves and they knew the risk (as I am never going to pay $60,000 to do something I think inherently stupid, this is rhetorical, but the most moving parts—including in the New York Times story today, was those that sacrificed their chance to summit in order to help—and for the Indian woman who was rescued by a Brit—and save.)

There was the usual run of great crime books-usually with Ice or Snow in the title! I was seriously disappointed by a John Grisham, and loved The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter, which I think is her best—though less crime and more family dynamics, which might not appeal to everyone. I found a Tim Weaver book I had missed (thank you Tim’s Bookshop in Canterbury—he has a great crime section with complete sets of less known writers. Brilliant! He also sings a mean song, and did, right before our presentation!)

We’re temporarily living in the country and a lot of books in storage while our apartment—with library—is being completed. Meantime the shelves here are groaning and I suspect it will be worse in a week. Least I hope so. Please Santa, give me a book!

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Book, Film or Both?

I love a good film as much as the next person (and have probably watched the Harry Potter  films more than ten times each – comfort watching puts on less weight than comfort eating!). But I read far, far more (and always read the book before seeing the movie)…and these days almost have to be on a plane to get a chance to watch a movie.

I followed my husband’s screenwriting course with interest, learnt a lot during the multiple short movies he made during the course, and shared the highs and lows of making a “feature” movie 18 years ago (we knew nothing…but did show it at the Kino). But when Causeway optioned Medea’s Curse (sadly not renewed, funding as it is), though I dreamed of seeing Natalie King on the screen, watch from the side lines during filming (happy to provide coffee and donuts), I never wanted to write the screenplay myself.

Graeme wrote The Rosie Project, and The Best of Adam Sharp screenplay as originals before or at the same time as the book – but we sold Two Steps Forward to Fox Searchlight (Ellen DeGeneres) as a book, handing it over to the mercy of Hollywood (actually they’ve been tinkering with the original Rosie Project too). The book is set on the Camino de Santiago – a long version from Cluny in France to Santiago, and only overlapping in locations with Martin Sheen’s The Way on two towns – St Jean Pied de Port (the start of the traditional Camino Frances) and Santiago (where all Camino de Santiagos must end!). Quite aside from how much the walk impacted on us, and whether the story is any good, the visuals would be fabulous…I’d be very happy to provide the donuts but I suspect Fox Searchlight, if they ever make it, have their own donut providers.

Undeterred though by Hollywood’s whims (they’ll wait and see how well the book does), we’re filming not one but two book trailers. So yes, on Friday I was out buying donuts. But unlike filming of Voluntary Act 18 years ago, I am not acting in it. (For the other trailer Graeme and I will be filmed typing in varying locations, with words popping up on the screen….about the level of acting I’m up for).

This trailer has a “real” Zoe and Martin (thank you Kim Denman and Dion Mills).

There is something quite special about your character suddenly coming to life. It happened for me at the Ubud Writers festival where an actor with a fabulous Irish accent read Liam (the hero out of my Natalie King books). I had heard him for so long in my head…knees actually trembled hearing it from a hot guy standing next to me!

Friday though it was Martin (Dion), an uptight (“anal” was mentioned by the director…) 50ish British engineer…I have to say Dion was a little wilder in the hair department than I’d imagined (he’s doing a play currently set in the Dystopian future and can’t change it) but we kind of got to like it.

Zoe (Kim) is Californian and trying to get in touch with the universe, but doesn’t bring quite the same level as organisation to the task as Martin (above the items to be packed were lined exactly along the line of the floorboards…)

Today it was the location shoot. Sadly not a trip to France and Spain, and evocative of the book rather than being strictly accurate, but lots of fun and chemistry between the talent, and hard work, innovative guerrilla tactics from the fabulous Ben Plazzer (director), Steve Mitchell (producer on this, but screen writer on The Heckler which he did with Ben) and Paul Hughes (cinematography). I doubt Steven Speilberg ever had his hand run over to ensure a tulip fell….this was a sole tulip we had planted in a buried vase and it proved to be almost indestructible!!!

Oh and I do get to be Zoe’s body double in this book trailer! Some of the footage we shot on the real Camino will be incorporated. A new job for the CV…

Those of you have walked the Camino can have a giggle at the trailer which will hopefully be out around the same time as the book (October 2nd in Australia, later this year Netherlands, early next year Germany, April UK, April/May for Canada and USA and waiting dates for our other publishers).

And look out for the book of course – this is fiction, not memoir (inspired by our Camino, walked twice from Cluny in central France) – a life affirming feel good book about starting again.

 

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How My Husband and Ex Became Friends…

More than half a lifetime ago, midst an unhappy (is there any other kind?) marriage breakup, I fell in love and had a wild wonderful six months; the kind of feel-good, fun, we’ll-be-young-forever type love perfect to make you feel better after months of you-are-never-going-to-be-happy and who-will-ever-love-you. Instead of running off to England with him (he was from Manchester…actually, still is) I got back with my husband for a doomed last attempt and by the time that broke off my man from Manchester was 17,000 km away. I fell in love again…and married…someone else. We’re still together 28 years later (having lived all around the world) and have two children, and a joint novel coming out in October this year, set on the Camino, Two Steps Forward. But I hear a Mancunian accent—“me moom”(= my mum) or “Aye up”—and I am transported back…

One day, some years ago, after the first of two walks from central France to Santiago (which inspired Two Steps Forward), my husband, Graeme, and I were staying in France. It was warm, and we were drinking Beaujolais. Into the email box came “Aye up”.

Over the years, my Mancunian ex and I had kept in touch. I’d seen him a few times when I was in the UK at a conference, and he and his wife took me out to dinner once (and I really liked her). His accent hadn’t changed. But this “Aye up” was bad news—he and his wife had split. He sounded like shite. A year earlier a friend in similar circumstances had killed himself. As well as a novelist, I’m a psychiatrist—recently separated and divorced men in their middle age are at a high risk. Naturally, I suggested he come and cry on my shoulder. Over a Beaujolais or two.

It will surprise you to learn that my husband was not enthusiastic. I mean, it had been twenty-five years or so since they had met, so why the issue? Graeme hadn’t been my suitor at the time, but let’s say they didn’t get on well.

“Wanker” might have been mentioned by one or both back then.

Finally, years later, after a Burgundy or two, Graeme: “Okay. But no longer than three nights.”

Me: “Great. He arrives Friday and leaves Wednesday.”

My ex was still cute and didn’t look like shite at all, and his accent was still capable of making my stomach fill with butterflies…but it had been a long time since I had spent more than two hours with him.

What the hell had he put on the shelf in my fridge? Didn’t he know he needed to exercise regularly? OMG is he actually cooking LAMB’S FRY? Doesn’t he know how much cholesterol is in that?

And worse. He and Graeme were like best buddies. Like as in fishing buddies. Like going to the pub and getting drunk together buddies. And…telling dirty jokes. Really? I didn’t even know Graeme knew…why was he reciting the entire Eskimo Nell? How…or why does anyone ever learn it?

At the end of the five days, he turned to Graeme and said “Thanks mate for taking her off my hands.”

At least he made head way in the grief process.

Meantime, Graeme: “I’ve got a great idea for a book. What if he arrived and his accent had done more than just took you back down memory lane (along with the butterflies)?”

Roll on a couple of years (and a trip with said ex and husband to potential towns in UK for setting, as well as one or two more stints in the French abode) and The Best of Adam Sharp hits the book shelves.

No, I am not Angelina, Adam is not my ex and Charlie is not Graeme. But the house…well let’s say our friends who have stayed there had to go “la la la” while the audio version of the sex scene was running…images a bit too familiar. Of the house I mean. Oh, and it is true that like Angelina, I have sung at a few gigs, and do have a special mug…

 

 

 

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Dangerous to Know launched

I’ve now been away for nearly six weeks–we started in London with my husband’s book launch for The Best of Adam Sharp (required trivia knowledge in honour of the book’s hero…not my strength, though the young people on the table were impressed I knew the Madonna song from a mere couple of bars…). Since then we’ve done edits on Two Steps Forward (and enquiries about it when it was mentioned in the Real Estate section of the Age…while we are away our house is up for sale and the paper did a feature!), I’ve given a paper at the International Women’s Conference in Dublin, walked a few days of the Wicklow Way and now just before we went home, launched Dangerous To Know in London at Luyten’s and Rubenstien’s bookshop in Nottinghill. Thanks to all who came and who are blogging about the book (and all those who buy it, I hope you enjoy!)

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When Love is a Killer

Earlier this week a major newspaper headlined how husbands were more dangerous than terrorists. Given Russia has just essentially legalized domestic violence and the prevalence of gun related deaths in DV in the USA, love being a killer isn’t just a hypothetical. Crime fiction, and thrillers in particular, have headed towards the domestic noir. Here’s some of my thoughts on when love goes wrong – did a live FB of this with #mysterythrillerweek which still goes for another 10 days so check it out.

Stalking:

Stalkers make good villains in psychological thrillers because they can be scary…and sitting in the safety of the arm chair we want to be scared, but know that we (and ultimately our hero/heroine) will survive. Of course some authors will play with this a bit and allow a character you have followed to die, so be careful who you identify with! They also make good villains because they are closer to home than serial killers who overpopulate crime books, certainly with respect to the real number; even if we haven’t been stalked we hear about it in the news, and there’s always some slightly creepy person (next door neighbour, ex-partner, guy who looked at you weirdly in the train) that helps set the imagination off. Also, as many stalkers do know the victim, this takes us into our homes where we can get really, really scared.

There are five types of stalker (classified by Mullen, an Australian Professor of forensic psychiatry).

  1. Rejected partner – occurs after the breakdown of a relationship and the stalker is ambivalent, angry at times but at others wants to try and resume the relationship
  2. Resentful – the stalker perceives some real or imagined mistreatment and seeks revenge
  3. Intimacy seeking—lonely, often mentally ill, includes the “erotomania”
  4. Incompetent—want a date or sexual relationship but are insensitive/ poor social skills
  5. Predatory—less of these than the others in the real world but overrepresented in fiction and these ones end up in prison: the psychopaths, usually male and targeting female who they have not met.

In MEDEA’S CURSE I use a stalker to drive the tension: Natalie King is a forensic psychiatrist, so she knows about the above types and the risks…so when the stalking escalates from notes at her work to notes at her home and then a break in, she knows she’s in trouble…

 

A parent’s love: why do some parents murder?

This is, fortunately, rare, but as a professor of perinatal psychiatry, this is my area of expertise—and worldwide, with the exception of African-American men in the USA between 20-35, the highest risk of being murdered in in the first day then first year of life. My forensic work is largely with women who commit neonaticide (infant in the first 24 hours after birth, usually with a hidden pregnancy) or infanticide (killing your child under the age of twelve months in most jurisdictions that have this law). I also do abuse cases and parenting assessments. A nasty custody case is the basis of the third Natalie book due out early next year, This I Would Kill For.

With respect to mothers who are involved in these cases (fathers and stepfathers become more common perpetrator as the child gets older; in custody battles they may kill themselves and their wives as well), there are a number of factors involved. Originally the infanticide law was put in place for social reasons in the UK when there was no social supports and servant women were unable to care for babies (and were often pregnant against their will to the master of the house) and the infanticide law allowed some mercy (it is treated as manslaughter, and in some places/times no gaol time is done).  Certainly unwanted babies are still left to die in third world countries, but also in the western world – often in neonaticide cases, by poorly educated, young, naïve women fearful of being judged and with poor problem solving abilities.

In infanticide a number of other factors come into play—psychosis, intellectual disability, drug abuse and depression with complex social factors in particular. Rarely a Munchausen’s by proxy may be in play. In MEDEA’S CURSE Natalie in pulled into a missing child case where the man’s previous partner was convicted of infanticide…and I open up the world of complex interplay of relationships and expectations postnatally on women. There is also a case in the background of possible Munchausen’s or personality disorder.

 

Narcissistic Love: when he/she just won’t let you go…because they own you and you owe them…

There’s a lot talked about and written in narcissism of late. Anne Manne explores it in The Life of I. She starts off citing Anders Breivek (the man who committed the massacre in Norway, brilliantly written about by Asne Seierstad in One of Us)—his massacre had nothing to do with love, but he does highlight why narcissists turn up in crime fiction.

All of us have personality features that make us who we are—and even those with narcissistic traits don’t necessarily have a personality disorder. But under stress our worst often comes to the surface—and there can be a lot of stress in relationships, so love can indeed go wrong when someone does have a narcissistic personality disorder. These people feel easily slighted, have a sense of entitlement, and have little regard for others feelings. And narcissistic love is about doing what you are told…and being owned. All is well when you are seen as an extension of them, and do as they desire…but rage, and a dangerous rage, can be the consequence of such acts of treachery as leaving them.

In DANGEROUS TO KNOW I explore this when Natalie tries to help her research supervisor, charming Associate Professor Frank Moreton, deal with the grief of his first wife. She quickly finds herself involved in a family with secrets and the threads of narcissism run deep, back to the patriarchal grandfather.

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