Spoiler Alert: if you haven’t read The Locked Room yet this interview contains information about some plot developments.
Why did you decide to set the book in lockdown?
Well, I thought long and hard about it, and I think it’s a decision that lots of writers are going to have to take, particularly writers who write contemporary fiction, serious fiction. The book before was The Night Hawks, which ended in December 2019, so I knew that I was going to have to make a decision with this book.
And of course, because I write a book a year, I didn’t have long to think about it, and I had few options really. One of them was to set it in 2019, in which Covid and lockdown didn’t happen, and I’m sure lots of people will take that route, and that’s perfectly valid to my mind. Or I could have set everything in the last few weeks of 2019, made everything happen in those few weeks, but it’s a really tight timeline, and that would only be putting it off, wouldn’t it? I would have to come there eventually and so in the end I decided to go for doing Covid and lockdown.
Maybe if I was writing as a debut novelist I might not have gone that way, but having written a book about Ruth every year for the last 14 years, I thought that people might want to know what happened to her and the cast of characters during lockdown. I remember reading something about the Spanish flu’ outbreak, that there are hardly any contemporary fictional accounts of it. It would be a shame if there were no contemporary crime fiction that included Covid, I’m sure there will be people who do, and people who don’t. I guess a nasty little “writer-y” bit of my brain also thought, well, it’s quite a good opportunity really, because I’ve always wanted to write a locked room mystery, and here we are in a locked world.
Was it a device for you to explore Ruth and Nelson living together while Michelle is away in Blackpool, locked down with George at her mother’s?
Yes, definitely. I would never have planned to have that in this book if I’d thought about it, but yes, it was. I wanted to look at the way that lockdown changed lots of things. Lots of people were locked down with partners that they’d just met for example, or people had adult children locked down with their partner. Suddenly there was that sort of strange dynamic, dynamics changed didn’t they? And I did think it would be an opportunity to get Ruth and Nelson together in a real but in an unreal way, in that strange liminal zone, that strange in-between time. I suppose those people living in unusual setups did rethink their relationships, and it did make me rethink Nelson and Ruth a little bit, which was quite interesting. I’m writing the next book now, and even in my own mind I’m not quite sure how it’s going to play out, but I think it gave them a chance to live together and see what that was like.
Up until this book their coming together has always been at times of crisis and intense experience, hasn’t it? But here you show them in a domestic setup doing very ordinary things.
It’s domesticity squared, isn’t it? Because there’s nothing else going on during lockdown, so they couldn’t even go to the cinema or a restaurant, they had to be at home, prey to Ruth’s cooking, which isn’t up to Michelle’s, trying to entertain Kate, who is obviously locked down with them, saying “I’m bored”.
It’s touching that Kate accepts that Nelson’s there, as if it’s completely normal.
It did feel quite right to me that she might think that. There were things that she was questioning, but maybe not that, that he would suddenly just be there. And I even ask will Ruth’s cat Flint get on with Nelson’s dog, Bruno? Yet once they’ve shredded her suffragette cushions they’re the best of friends!
Flint’s reaction to Nelson tells us everything about Nelson’s supremacy over other potential partners for Ruth.
Flint is jealous of Nelson, you know how some cats seem to be able to shed hair on demand? Flint will only go to Nelson to shed hair on him, whereas he quite likes Frank, because I imagine Frank was quite respectful, quite a cat-like man in the way that Nelson’s a dog-like man, and he probably gave Flint his personal space. He likes Cathbad, but I think he’s a bit wary of him because Cathbad feels they have a psychic connection. He really just likes Ruth and Kate. But yes, he’s not mad keen on Nelson, and Nelson gets to give a few asides as to Ruth’s mad cat, and Ruth’s new neighbour Zoe, who has a beautiful Maine Coone cat, which Nelson is not convinced is a cat at all.
I thought their private reflections on their time together were interesting. Nelson adapted easily to a very different home life and was content, whereas Ruth, despite moments of “pure happiness,” struggled more to compromise.
I think that’s really true. Ruth hasn’t really lived with anyone for a long time, she briefly lived with her boyfriend Peter when she first bought the house, and Peter does come into this book a little way, as do memories of when they first bought the house. I think Peter says to her something like you never really wanted me there and she really didn’t, she was quite happy when it was just her and her cats, and then with Kate, so I think that’s definitely true. Nelson is quite adaptable in a way, and he does like the fact that Ruth leaves the Guardian on the table for a week and doesn’t move it, he finds it restful. And he likes watching Kate and Ruth together and seeing their interactions.
He likes seeing them laugh together, even when they’re laughing at him.
Yes, he doesn’t mind that at all, and he likes spending more time with Kate. I did try to bring in the funny bits, like neither wanting the other one to see them wearing their grungy dressing gowns and fluffy slippers. But they both have those, and I think that tells you in a way that they are quite dissimilar, but also quite similar, and I hope this book gave a chance to explore that.
When I realised they were going to spend a Saturday together it gave me a task – what would they do? What would it be like with such a chance? As I say, it’s the 14th book about them and they have never been able to do those things, so it’s fun for me to write about them. The thing about lockdown was it made us really appreciate those moments.
But I absolutely wanted to show in the book how lockdown was for key workers and for people who were locked down with people they shouldn’t be with. And for students as well, that was really uppermost in my mind because my kids were students, they were postgraduates so that was a little bit different for them, but it would be awful to be a first or second year I think. Universities did just suddenly shut down and not everyone had their lovely cosy Mum and Dad to go home to. I did do some research into it, I’ve got a very good friend who’s a Dean at a university and she was very helpful. She actually gave me the little thing that I put in the book, that when she first had to sit in on her colleagues’ Zoom sessions she had to tell them to put away the empty bottles in the background, and stop their cats climbing on their shoulders!
I teach creative writing and and I was teaching via Zoom and it was hard. The only really fun bit was you could put people into breakout rooms. I eventually learned how to do this, you can just press a button and they will divide up into groups. Even when you teach very clever adults as I do, and you say to people “divide into groups” they’re all saying “Can I be with Sam?/I want to go the loo/Have I got time to get a coffee?” but with Zoom you can just press a button and they go! And then when you want them back in place again whoosh! they come back, that was wonderful!
There’s quite a bit in the books about people not having anything in common but yet the relationships work despite being quite unexpected. Ruth and Nelson, Cathbad and Judy, Clough and Cassandra – they’re all rather unlikely couples.
I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but it’s true actually, they are all unlikely couples. And sometimes that does work, doesn’t it? And actually maybe the worst thing would be to be with someone exactly like yourself. My partner and I aren’t that similar, I mean, he’s an archaeologist (maybe we’re Ruth and Nelson!), he’s an atheist, neither of which I am, and it works.
I can’t help but feel sorry for Frank. He’s a lovely person, there’s nothing wrong with him, he’s really kind, they shared interests and academic work, but Ruth couldn’t commit to him.
No, there’s nothing wrong with Peter or Max or Frank. My daughter is a big fan of Max, she says “what was wrong with Max?” Nothing was.
But Ruth knows in her heart, however nice other people are, that she’s in love with Nelson.
I think that’s true. You almost feel a bit frustrated with your characters, but I thought that at one point, the way to get her over Nelson would be to give her another man, so I created Frank and I made him as nice as I could, I said he was very good looking (he looks like George Clooney), everyone says he’s very clever. He’s a charming American, as I’ve found a lot of Americans to be very, very charming and erudite. And when she does live with him for a bit, he’s very respectful, he’s a good stepfather for Kate.
Yes, Kate likes him and even Flint likes him. But he’s just not Nelson.
There’s a little bit in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love where she talks about Uncle Matthew and she says something like furiously as we sometimes hated Uncle Matthew there was something wrong with any man who wasn’t like him. And I think that’s the thing with Ruth and Nelson, there’s something wrong with every man who’s not like him. He’s not the man she would ever imagine spending any time with, but there he is. He’s not academic, he’s a very clever man, but he certainly would never call himself academic at all.
He probably doesn’t read and he never can remember about the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.
Yes exactly, those things really annoy her! She does keep telling him that all humans have a certain amount of Neanderthal DNA and that he has more than most.
She’s quite easily annoyed! She gets annoyed with him because he calls their daughter Katie.
Yes she is. I think for her there’s something about it as a diminutive that probably says something about his feelings towards women.
But that isn’t fair, the way Nelson treats women is absolutely fine.
It’s not fair, and in fact his women police officers will say that, annoying as he is, as most bosses are, they have to admit that he’s not a sexist dinosaur, he has promoted them and he does listen to them. He has occasional moments when he wants to say “thanks love” to Judy but he restrains himself. I think for somebody who’s as territorial as Nelson is, and family minded, in many ways he thinks of his team as a family, and so because of that he’s proud of them, he’s not a jealous person at all. When Clough does well and Judy does well, he’s really proud of them, so I think that those are the good sides of Nelson.
We get a glimpse in this book of Nelson’s feelings in a way we haven’t before. He admits to Judy that he loves Ruth and that sometimes he feels it’s killing him.
Yes, I think it has been, I think it has really taken its toll on Nelson. He’s the sort of person who does internalise things and does feel them quite strongly.
He really cares about everyone involved, doesn’t he?
Yes, he does. I think he thinks it’s impossible. I think at the end of The Night Hawks when he has the chat with his mum, that might have given him some idea that there is a way to do this well.
That conversation with his mother was such a surprise, and would have astonished Ruth.
Yes, Ruth has met Maureen and I think she sees her as this great defender of the family, which she is in some ways, but she does understand. And you know Maureen has never admitted it but Nelson is her favourite, she adores him and she wants him to be happy.
She does tell him that what he did was wrong, but she understands it’s complicated.
Yes, it’s complicated when you write things, but we do see in life don’t we, that sometimes if there’s enough love things do sort themselves out.
The two mothers, Jean and Maureen, have been quite prominent in recent books with their own past experiences and secrets.
Yes, and of course five years after Ruth’s mother dies her dad has married Gloria, which was a shock at first, but Ruth’s very glad now he has got company during lockdown, and Gloria’s family are rallying round. But even when Ruth’s mum is dead she still has surprises, Ruth is still able to learn about her and get closer to her.
Such as the letter that she wrote to Zoe, which reveals her pride in Ruth, when Ruth had always felt that her mother disapproved of her.
Yes, exactly. And her mum used two exclamation marks when talking about Ruth’s achievements, which moved Ruth so much.
Your portrayal of the three main men in the cast, Cathbad, Clough and Nelson, is warm and affectionate, each of them in his own way very protective of his family, wanting everyone together and safe.
You know it could have gone either way really with Clough when I first invented him, because he was kind of a cliché view of a Neanderthal stomping about, but he has changed and one of the things I wanted to write about was his friendship with Judy, they are really good friends and when she needs him, he’s there.
When he’s trying to encourage her about Cathbad he says “you know I’m always right” – something which at one time would have made Judy feel an actual physical rage, but now she just wants to hug him.
Yes, and she’s not allowed to because of social distancing! It’s very hard to write about lockdown in lots of ways, and it was hard to live, wasn’t it? You weren’t allowed to touch people or hug them. You always had to remember about people being distanced.
I’m not sure how realistic it would be that Clough had actually heard that there would be a vaccine, but he tells Judy that he’d heard somebody at Cambridge (he works in Cambridge now) who said there was an Oxford vaccine, and how that was quite a lot for a Cambridge man to admit! I wanted to give them that little bit of hope, because of course in March 2020, we didn’t know there’d be a vaccine.
Before you started writing the book, had you decided that one of the characters would get Covid?
Well, I did think somebody had to get it. I think it would be almost insulting to people for there not to be somebody who got it. I’d forgotten how early it was in lockdown that Boris Johnson got it, it was really early, in that April. I’m not a fan of Boris Johnson but it was shocking, wasn’t it? You felt sorry for him, you hoped he was going to be all right. We realised anyone could get it, and that was frightening, so I wanted that feeling in the book, so somebody did have to get it. And perhaps Cathbad was unlikely because everyone keeps saying how fit he is, but he’s a little bit older than the other characters, so maybe slightly more vulnerable. Those were hard things to write but I did feel they needed to be there.
We get a lot more of Judy in this book.
Yes. I wanted to explore the way that neighbours were quite an important theme. Ruth gets a new neighbour Zoe, who’s an enigmatic character in the book. Judy knows that she has not made the effort to get to know her neighbours. There was a tiny little joke, I don’t even know that anyone got it, that she continually gets their next door neighbour’s name wrong, I think she calls him Fred all the way through, but actually he’s Barney, and I had in my head that she might just have had the Flintstones in her mind and got the wrong one! She hasn’t bothered to learn their names but Cathbad has, and when Cathbad is taken ill, her neighbours really do rally round her from a distance, they bake cakes and give support.
That makes sense as Cathbad is the homemaker, so he’s more involved in the community whereas she’s out to work early and back late.
Yes, that’s right. And Ruth says several times that Cathbad’s spirituality as a Druid is one thing, but the other thing is he just loves a party. He loves people, he loves a party, especially if there’s a bonfire involved, so actually he’s very sociable. He runs these yoga classes and he’s very involved in the community, loves taking the kids to and from school. Ruth is one of those people who dreads the school gates.
Judy is too.
Judy is too, exactly. I think there’s a scene in one of the other books where Judy and Ruth meet at the school gates and they’re at a distance, whereas you can imagine Cathbad is right in there chatting with everyone.
It struck me that Ruth’s friendships have been shifting, that she’s now leaning more towards Judy and Cathbad, and at times in the book refers to them as her best friends in Norfolk. She’s almost moving more towards the police world in her friendships, rather than the academic world, she’s even quite fond of Clough.
I think that’s really fair to say, possibly because there is just a simple thing in that her child Kate gets on better with their children than she does with Shona’s slightly, let’s say, difficult Louis. I think we all find that we drift towards people whose values and family setup just sort of merges with us.
I think she sees them as more trustworthy than Shona, who let her down badly earlier in the series. Ruth has tried to overcome a distrust of Shona, because she felt that she didn’t have any other friends in Norfolk.
Yes, I think possibly she might think back and see that she did have more friends than she thought. She was always going to be a person who has a few close friends rather than a whole mass of acquaintances. I think it’s in only the third book The House at Sea’s End where Ruth goes to Judy’s hen night, which she absolutely hates, and I think Judy hates it too, really. From that moment she is drawn closer to Judy.
Why have you introduced a sister for Ruth? And with Simon in this book more, will you develop the dynamic between the three siblings?
Yes I will. I’m really interested in writing about that. When Ruth initially finds that her mother had a secret, I did kind of know it would be an illegitimate child and wanted to write about the fact that Ruth has this neighbour who she feels drawn to, and actually there’s something about her which she says slightly reminds her of her mother. I tried to put those little clues in, like they meet at a slimming club, and they both struggle with their weight, as did their Mum. And they both hopefully learn to love themselves a bit more by the end of the book.
But yes, I really want to write about that – I’ve got two sisters, I’m interested in family relationships and in the book that I’m writing now Nelson is thinking about sisters. He has two older sisters, Maeve and Grainne, and of course he has two daughters who are sisters, and they have a much younger sister in Kate. There’s one book, I think it’s The Lantern Men, that ends with Kate running on the beach with her two older sisters, who are about 17 and 18 years older than her. My good friend Lesley Thomson said “that’s you and your sisters” because my sisters are 15 or 16 years older than me, and I said “no it’s not!” but then I thought it absolutely is! You know how somebody sees something you don’t, and obviously we’re full sisters, so it’s very different. I certainly feel I’d be able to write about Kate’s feelings about having much older sisters, they just seemed like wonderful people. Of course they can be annoying like all sisters, but also I absolutely hero-worshipped them.
Well Kate just adores Laura, doesn’t she?
Yeah, she does adore Laura I think. I’m going to have to bring Rebecca in a bit more, she’s been a bit out on a limb, but she lives in Brighton and was locked down with her fairly new boyfriend and that relationship.
She played really well with Kate when she did meet her.
Yes she did. I think Laura is very nurturing and very serious, she’s a teacher and she finds it quite hard in this book, I really felt for teachers during lockdown. I think Rebecca is a bit more impetuous.
With all these relationships Ruth keeps saying it’s very complicated, especially because not only does Kate adore Laura, but Ruth is very fond of her as well.
Yes it is. Ruth cares about her as well and it is complicated. There’s Cathbad’s blended family with the two children he has with Judy and his older daughter Maddie from a previous relationship. I think Maddie slightly comes into her own in this because she does really support Judy, being a great big sister.
There’s a lot about nice people getting hurt in the books, people like Frank and Michelle. I suspect most readers would like Ruth and Nelson to be together at last, but also worry about Michelle.
Well I’m certainly fond of Michelle, and I want to give her agency, she’s not just the victim in this. I think she’s behaved really well, she’s probably behaved the best of all of them really, give or take a little bit of indiscretion along the way, but generally she’s behaved really well. So I’m sorting that all out in the new book now.
Is it going to be the last one?
It’s going to be the last for a bit. I’m going to have a little break from writing them, but I’m not going to go forever. However, I think we’re saying that’s the end for now. But there will be a book 15 which is The Last Remains – I guess there’s a clue in the title! There will be a sort of resolution to all the issues we’ve been talking about.
There will be some tough bits. I think there will be a lot of Cathbad and a lot of Judy in the book, and some new opportunities are going to appear for Ruth and for Nelson, and it’s whether they take them. Just one small thing I can probably give away is that it’s been so shocking to see archaeology departments closing, and that’s going to threaten Ruth. But with that threat comes another opportunity.
So you’re going to take a break from the Norfolk books, and you’ve got a new book coming out featuring Harbinder Kaur again. Is that the direction you want to go in at the moment?
I might go in a totally new direction. So this is part three, it’s called Bleeding Heart Yard and is set in London. Harbinder’s just been promoted and she joins the Met. The case is a very high profile one, but I think this is also going to be the last Harbinder book, although I might write a book about the other characters in The Postscript Murders, I did have so much fun with them, I would like to write about them, so they might come into a book, but in a way I feel like I’m nearing the end of that series. Maybe not quite at the end of the Brighton Mysteries, there’ll be another one I think next year, maybe a few more of those, but I think I might try and come out with a new series. And I’ve just published the fourth Justice book and that might be the last Justice book. But there may be new things coming. And along the way one of the things I’m also going to do is to write the book of Ruth’s Norfolk, with some lovely illustrations of Norfolk, telling the story behind some of the places in the series.
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