Alison Bruce talks about detective fiction

Why did you choose to write crime fiction? 

My mum read things like Agatha Christie and British, cosy crime, but then she tended to watch American crime on the TV. Dad would sit reading his book, being very disapproving. And then when I got older I noticed what he was reading. He was reading American hard boiled crime, but he obviously didn’t really approve of the tv dramatisations.

And then when I was really quite young, quite often at tea time on BBC 2 they would put old films on, and I suspect they just weren’t quite as savvy then as now and thought “oh, old film, bung it on”, so in quite quick succession I saw GaslightTo Kill a Mockingbird and Night of the Hunter! I can remember watching Night of the Hunter thinking, “I can’t watch, I have to watch”. And it struck me then how amazing it was to have an effect on somebody by telling a story.

And so I didn’t actually come to it planning to write crime, I liked storytelling. I initially had come up with an idea that I thought would make a good film, so I went on a screenwriting course and the guy giving the course said it’s really hard to get a film made unless it’s a book first. So I thought, I’ve read books, it can’t be that hard to go and write a book. And of course I didn’t know what I was doing at all.

But as far as it being crime rather than anything else, I do have some other story ideas in my head, but mostly I’m fairly unsuccessful at not murdering somebody! I get a few pages in and I start saying “who’s going to die?” I wasn’t planning on killing anyone but I must, so I always end up in some murderous situation somewhere! And I’ve been interested in crime in the real world since I was really small.

Why do you think detective fiction is so popular?

I think there are a few things. I think there is the puzzle. People like to know the why. If people see a headline in the newspaper, they are drawn to read the rest, it might be something awful happened and they want to know who and why.

I think when you read something horrendous, there’s a part of your subconscious wanting to learn, so you can reduce the risk of the same thing happening to you later, because you’ve read about it. Somebody is walking home alone in the middle of the night and vanishes and you think, I won’t do that, I’ll make sure my daughter doesn’t do that, because you’ve read something. And people do like to be scandalised, if that’s the right word.

You can enjoy a frisson in a safe way, can’t you? It’s frightening, but it’s not happening to you, and you can explore that feeling of fear while you’re safe at home with a book.

Yes. You’re also safe pretty much with every book in the knowledge that you’ll get to the end, and there’ll be some sort of resolution. I do think that’s important. You can put yourself in the shoes of the person who is perhaps the underdog and you’d like to think that, in a situation you wouldn’t ever want to be in, you would be the survivor or the one that comes up with the smart answer. So yes, I think there’s a bit of living it safely, like you say.

I think people explore other people’s viewpoints, explore why other people do it. It’s magnified because murder is so huge. What actually pushes somebody to the point of murder? I think most people ask themselves, could they commit murder at some point? And I think for most people they probably think they could under certain circumstances. If a book sheds a light onto somebody’s dark side and you associate with that dark side, it can make you look at yourself in a different toned mirror.

Do you need to have everything plotted in your head before you start writing?

I need some of it. I need to know who and why. I do tend to plot quite meticulously. But I’m finding more recently I get so far in the plotting and can’t plot anymore, I have to write, but by that point I know who’s done it and why. When I tried writing a book and not plotting, I wrote myself into a corner. I was about 30,000 words in when I got to the corner. That’s when I threw them away. None of my characters could have committed the crime because they all had perfect alibis and it didn’t make sense, so I had to bin the whole thing! Okay, so in that 30,000 I would hope that there were some well constructed scenes, but they’re no good to anybody because they don’t fit in anywhere, so they just have to go.

So then if I approach the same story and plot it first, and I know the beginning and the end, I can do what I like in between, I can be completely creative with my prose. I can do whatever I want and write with the security of knowing that it’s not going to be thrown away, because as long as I end up in the right place it’s all good!

 I think the psychology of the killer’s really important. The killer’s not necessarily, as I’ve discovered, the guiltiest person in the book. This came to me when I wrote The Backs. Pretty much universally any comments I had from readers about characters in that book would be how much people hated the murder victim, not the actual killer. I quite like that, I think it’s interesting that people can forgive somebody on the page for certain things more than others, because on the face of it committing murder is more serious than what the other person did, but it doesn’t always come out like that.

How do you keep track of all the complexities in a plot? Do you have spreadsheets and notebooks? 

I do get myself in trouble sometimes. I write from the beginning of the book to the end and that stops a lot of problems creeping in.

I find pictures of characters help. Once I made a mistake with a character’s hair, it started out as a blonde bob and later was auburn curls, so pictures help prevent mistakes like that! Sometimes I use pictures of actors, I’ve also used pictures from Facebook of my stepdaughter’s friends – I did that with The Silence because it was quite complicated with all the students and their families, so I had family trees and student groups. My stepdaughter came home one day and said “I see you’ve killed one of my friends”!

Do you seed clues into the plot so that people who try to resolve it might be able to, or do you hold information back so they can’t? 

There might be something that happens in the beginning that is somehow mirrored in the end, something that you think is a bit of scene setting at the start actually turns out to be really important at the end. So that’s going to blindside the reader, because they think it’s just a bit of back story, when actually it turns out to be crucial.

What the writer wants is that the reader thinks they know what’s happening, based on them identifying what they think you’re trying to tell them, and then realises that it’s going to be wrong, so they come up with a third option, which can’t be the same as the real answer.

So do you misdirect the reader in order to set up a shock revelation later?

It’s more you want to surprise the reader, but not make them feel ripped off. You can’t make them feel conned if they get to the end and think “that’s not fair!” –   If they think it’s not fair, then it’s probably not fair!

It’s like the reader has an unwritten, unspoken deal with the author, and if the author lets you down on some fundamental level, then you’re probably not going to go back to that author again, because it shatters your ability to suspend disbelief. You might forgive them that once, if you’ve read their other books, but if it’s the first time you’ve read an author, you probably won’t return to them.

If something in the plot just doesn’t make sense, or if it’s been so blindingly obvious from one of the early pages and you’ve slogged through another 300 pages just to be proved right, or if the author builds up something and then it doesn’t pay off, the reader will feel let down. The more you, as the writer, build it up, the more you’ve got to pay it off.

If you imagine breathing in, you take a deep breath, you’re holding your breath because of the tension, you have to allow the reader to exhale fully at the end, otherwise, they’re still holding their breath and they’re annoyed. You don’t want to annoy the reader. Don’t stretch expectations and then fail to deliver.

Where does Gary Goodhew come from? Is he based on someone you know, or on a combination of several people?

I’m very into the 50s and every six months I would go to this rock and roll weekend, and I would see people that I wouldn’t see for six months in between. Once you tell people that you’re writing a book, they keep asking how the book’s going. So I was talking to this guy and the next time I saw him he said “did you finish that book?” and I said no, not yet.

So this went on for six months at a time, which is a bit of a sobering milestone, when you think “I don’t think I’ve written anything since the last time I saw you”! So eventually he said “can I be a character in your book then?”

And I just I didn’t know if that was a thing or not, is that, you know, cheating? He wanted to be younger and better looking! I think that’s a real budget facelift if you ask me, but anyway I thought he could be a detective, he could be answering the phone to some anonymous phone calls a girl was making in the book I was writing. He’s not really anything like Gary Goodhew, but that’s how it started.

And I quite liked this detective who was just accidentally there, he was only supposed to be there for a page or two, a chapter or two. By the time I got to the end of the book (and I didn’t know I was going to write another book until that page) I’m sitting there finishing this page, crying because I’m saying goodbye to him! And that’s when I thought I’ve got to bring him back. My friend’s name is Gary Goodhew, and that’s how it came about. Goodhew sounds like “of good colour” – a good person and dependable.

Some of the best things when you’re writing are accidents, and I think that is because they’re not really accidents, that’s your subconscious doing the work and your subconscious is constructing something in a more naturalistic way than your conscious mind does. Whenever I have a happy accident, I completely own it. So if my conscious mind didn’t do it, then my subconscious did, and that’s mine.

It must be quite difficult in a crowded genre to make your detective stand out. What do you think distinguishes Gary Goodhew from other fictional detectives?

I think you get trends of detectives and unless you read everything you don’t know if you’re being different. I don’t know whose calculation it is, but I’ve heard that after about 100,000 words your own writing voice becomes established, and then you can completely divorce reading and writing. You just write how you write and people write how they write.

It felt as though he was the detective that I wanted to read, that I hadn’t found. He’s quite young and at the start of his career, that wasn’t particularly common. He’s a little bit idealistic because it’s the job he’s wanted since he was a kid. It’s almost like fulfilling a dream, so he’s still got that slightly idealised view of it. And he really doesn’t want to become cynical. And so he’s really a long way from being what’s become a bit of a stereotype.

Is it actually more interesting to subvert the dysfunctional loner, the alcoholic, burnt out cynic? But harder to write, perhaps?

Yes. I’ve worked with very experienced police officers, two of them I’ve been working with on the policing degree at Anglia Ruskin University are both ex-Met Detective Chief Inspectors, and they’re both quite jovial. They’ve got a bit of that morgue humour going on, they’ve seen some dreadful things, but they’re married with happy family relationships as far as I know, they’re not jaded, and they’ve both done 25 plus years, so it doesn’t always follow, no. They contribute to their communities, working with young people, doing things like leadership training with teenage boys, that sort of thing.

It was challenging to write Gary at first because he’s quite nice and it’s actually harder to write somebody who’s quite nice. When I was first looking for an agent, I met with the agent for Lee Child. He said I should make Gary Goodhew more like Jack Reacher, more alpha male, and that’s the main reason I didn’t go for him really, because I just disagreed for what I felt were logical reasons, partly because Jack Reacher’s been done, partly because he’s an ex military vigilante running around America with a gun – that doesn’t work in Cambridgeshire. You know, they send out the firearms unit and he’s dead by Chapter 2! It’s just not done. So that was not going to happen.

You can jump from fight scene to fight scene, those chapters are the easy ones to write, the words come quickly, they’re exciting for the writer and the reader. I can write violence, I’m not squeamish, the challenge is where you’ve got to get the characters from A to B where nothing’s happening, and make it interesting, they’re the tough ones.

Gary’s understated. If there’s a big fight and he does nothing, that’s not who I want to portray. When it comes to the crunch he will do something brave, but other times he doesn’t jump in, he stands back a bit, he thinks. And that’s a bit of a challenge, but I like that.

Your Gary Goodhew books are set in Cambridge – do you enjoy portraying a Cambridge that’s somewhat different from its familiar image of a pretty university town?

I lived in the West Country when I was writing my first book in what became the Gary Goodhew series, initially the book was set there, so when I moved, it made sense for the book to move. There were several authors writing about Cambridge crime at the time and I was worried that they would find out what I was doing and you know, I’d be in all sorts of trouble! I don’t read anything set in Cambridge, that’s one of my only rules really. I already have to contend with the real Cambridge and my pretend Cambridge without factoring in somebody else’s as well, so I stay away from anybody else’s Cambridge!

When you’re writing about somewhere real, it’s great because you can go there and it’s going to be a much more interesting place than one you’d ever make up for yourself, but you end up with a slightly distorted view of it, because it’s like frosted glass with some bits more magnified, because the bits that you find most interesting you bring to the forefront.

You’ve done a degree in Crime and Investigative Studies at Anglia Ruskin University, now you’re involved in the rollout of a new policing degree at ARU, so I wondered if you really want to be a detective yourself?

I don’t know, I find it interesting. I think I was at primary school and the teacher asked me what I wanted to do when I left school, and I remember saying I wanted to be a pathologist, and they were horrified, and there was just this moment of absolute repulsion when I thought “perhaps I don’t want to do that then.” But when I was older, I realised I hadn’t got the passion for biology to do something like that. It’s the solving the puzzle, it’s the investigation bit that I loved, so pathologist wasn’t the job for me. I thought for quite a long time that it would suit me to be a Scene of Crime Officer and possibly that would have been an interesting path to go down.

I have a connection to both writing and also to criminal justice in some way. I’ve got two cousins, one’s a journalist for the Evening Standard and his brother’s just retired as a police officer. I had an uncle who worked for GCHQ and his brother was a mathematician, they used to enter the competition to do the Times crossword puzzle in the shortest time, and if you won you would be sent a dictionary, so they would have a competition to see who could get the most dictionaries in a year! My aunt was an immigration officer, which is kind of in the policing neck of the woods.  So you’ve got these different branches of the family with these threads that seem to run through it, writing, maths, puzzle solving –  perhaps it’s in my genes!

I love maths, it’s my favourite subject, it teaches you how to think logically and how to work through problems quite quickly, and they don’t have to be number problems. English is the most important subject and obviously communication skills are vital, and subtleties of language are really important, but maths teaches those critical thinking skills.

Did you do your degree because you were interested in the real world of crime investigation, and did it help with writing fictional accounts of it?

I’ve got all sorts of new ideas from doing my course. I learned about some fascinating things, I found mass fatality incidents were one of my favourite modules, forensic anthropology was another one that I found really interesting. I’ve got a bit of that coming in my next book, and then there are a couple of things that I was going to include that didn’t actually work with the plot, so they’ll be moved somewhere else.

I got to know a Senior Home Office pathologist on Facebook and I absolutely loved doing research with him, I’ve only met him once in person. We’d have very long, complex and dubious conversations about what I’m going to do with my victims in my books, sometimes there was a lot of hilarity.

Finally, as we’re a reading blog I should ask you about your reading habits! Because you’re so busy with teaching at Anglia Ruskin, and with putting together the new policing degree that’s about to be rolled out, not to mention your writing, your reading time must be limited, so do you read mainly to research for your writing?

I’m doing a lot of reading at the moment that is just research reading. I’m quite a slow reader, I haven’t got that ability to read quickly and pick up on everything now, so I read quite slowly. And if I’m going to sit down with a book, then I should be sitting down writing my book.

Sometimes I’ll read a physical book, sometimes an ebook, sometimes an audio book. I’m really short of time, so audio books have become a bit of a go to for me cos I can put them on in the car.

If it’s a physical book, you’ve got to get out of bed or turn the light off, or you fall asleep with the light on and then wake up at 4:00 in the morning and switch the light off, then can’t get back to sleep. But there are authors who I will always buy in hardback, like M.W. Craven, Harlan Coben and Abir Mukherjee.

Alison Bruce
Alison Bruce has long been one of the most
adroit crime fiction practitioners in the UK
.
Barry Forshaw, Financial Times
Alison Bruce is the author of nine crime novels and two non-fiction titles. Her first novel, Cambridge Blue (2008), was described by Publishers Weekly as an ‘assured debut’ and introduced both detective DC Gary Goodhew, and her trademark Cambridge setting. She went on to write six further novels in the DC Goodhew series before writing the psychological thriller I Did It for Us (2018). Her latest novel, The Moment Before Impact, is described by Ian Rankin as ‘tense, twisty, terrific’.
The other books in the DC Goodhew series are The Siren (2010), The Calling (2011), The Silence (2012), The Backs (2013), The Promise (2016) and Cambridge Black (2017). Other works include two true crime books and a selection of short stories. Her work has attracted both critical acclaim and a loyal readership. In 2013 and 2016 Alison was short-listed for the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger in the Library Award.
Alison was awarded a first in BSc (Hons) in Crime and Investigation at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge which included subject areas such as: crime scene investigation, policing practice, major investigations, mass fatality incidents, fire investigation, forensic pathology and forensic anthropology. This included practical skills such as: lifting fingermarks, bone identification, testing for bodily fluids and recovering trace evidence.
Alison is currently working on the UK’s largest policing professionalism contract which is delivering policing degrees to the Metropolitan Police and to 7 police forces including Cambridgeshire.
Alison never underestimates her readers and aims to challenge them with expertly crafted plots, vivid characters and the kind of realism which will put them in the front row of an investigation.

2 comments

  1. I think another reason for the popularity of detective fiction is that the perpetrator is generally unmasked, thus affording the reader a pleasing sense of justice being rendered. This sense is perhaps heightened in the special fascination we feel with fictional and real-life detectives who, with bloody-mindedness and a deep sense of righting a wrong, solve cold cases, thanks to new forensic techniques and the sometimes ethically controversial (because of data privacy issues) use of genealogy websites. Justice is finally done, and seen to be done.

  2. Thank you for an interesting interview.
    Many readers develop an attachment to the character of the detective hero, some of whom are “old hands” who may be rather cynical, having seen it all, with character quirks and definite enthusiasms: Morse and Maigret may be good examples. But your Gary Goodhew is youngish, not jaded, a nice man. Do you know if your readership demographic differs from devotees of the older detectives, reflecting a younger average age of reader ?

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