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Author of the Month

Name: Christobel Kent

First Novel: A Party in San Niccolo

Most Recent Book: The Crooked House

'...a truly sinister piece of work that sucked me in like the boggy marshland surrounding Saltleigh.'

Synopsis:
Alison is a young woman who carries a dark secret with her. Despite being successful in her chosen profession, she refuses to get personally close to anyone who she will have to trust. She feels a guilt inside that she survived that horrific night when her family was literally blown away by a shotgun. Although her father, now a vegetable in a secure unit, has been convicted of the murder of his wife and children and his own attempted suicide, Alison cannot quite shake off the feeling that there is more to be learnt about that night than she has been told.

Esme Grace is the young girl who cowered in her bedroom not sure what was happening downstairs. She is the young girl Alison once was before changing her identity to make a fresh start. But the past has not been able to release Esme/Alison yet. And now there is an opportunity to attend a wedding at Saltleigh where she once lived and her family were massacred. Little does Alison know that stirring up the past will bring new danger as some are determined the truth should stay buried.

Review:
This is a new departure for Kent after her set of novels based in Florence. Here she swaps the beauty of that famous part of the world for the desolation of Saltleigh, which appears to be a bit of marshland on the edge of the world (or the East coast of England). Kent marvellously conjures up a tremendous sense of isolation and claustrophobia within this village that time seems to have forgotten. Saltleigh feels like fresh territory for the next Wicker Man and for me, Saltleigh is just as much a character of the novel as the people involved in Kent’s drama. For anyone who lives in a populated area this would be a nightmare place to live. Saltleigh felt so remote that if told they didn’t have Internet then I would have believed it!

I greatly enjoyed this novel, although I will warn you that Alison/Esme’s lack of backbone may be jarring for some readers. I felt she was guided too much by outside influences rather than making choices about her own destiny and due to this lack of assertiveness, I didn’t really feel I could ‘rout’ for Alison/Esme and could only, like Alison, be taken wherever by the tide of the book.

None of the characters here are appealing. Alison’s boyfriend is just creepy, the bride-to-be, Morgan and her family are vile snobs and the rest of the village are not much better. Gina, Esme’s best friend before the killings acts the hard nut, but comes in to her own towards the end.

The only one who I would like to be reacquainted with is Sarah Rutherford, the policewoman who took Esme under her wing when her family was destroyed. You could feel Rutherford wading knee deep through treacle as a village, feeding off old suspicions of the police, withdrew and withheld vital information about that horrific day all those years ago. Rutherford has the perfect backstory of a working mum in the police force and I hope that Kent makes her a series character as I’d be there like a shot to read her next escapade.

‘The Crooked House’ is an extremely well-written and claustrophobic read. The miles and miles of desolate marshland would make anyone feel cut off from the rest of the world and Kent does that perfectly here. You may wonder why Alison just doesn’t get in a car and drive off, but there is something about these secluded places that capture you within their grasp and won’t let go. This is a truly sinister piece of work that sucked me in like the boggy marshland surrounding Saltleigh. It will keep you captivated until the last page! Gripping stuff.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating



Questionnaire

1) ‘The Crooked House’ starts with the savage murder of a family. Did you feel comfortable writing about such a tragic and violent tragedy?
The world is a dangerous and violent place and I think writing about these things carries a heavy responsibility. I have a big family of my own, I come from a chaotic background and I’m superstitious: years back, my fourth novel opened with the abduction and murder of a child and I kept rewriting and re-jigging, trying to write the book another way so I wouldn’t have to deal with this terrible thing, the thing most parents fear above all others. ‘The Crooked House’ holds the same kind of charge, not least because it opens with a scenario we are horribly familiar with. A man under extreme pressure and with vulnerabilities, a man unstable to begin with, appears to have turned on his family in order to exact revenge. We can see this almost every day somewhere in our country. Writing about the violence itself, about blood and broken bodies, to me is the same as writing about anything that carries a dangerous power, it is like writing about sex. One has to proceed with extreme caution and use restraint: one has to be respectful, not lurid, not gawking. You have to look very hard at the fall-out: when someone you need and love dies violently, you don’t just step around it.
2) Alison/Esme deals with a lot of issues about the death of her family internally. Did you have to read up a lot of psychology before feeling you ‘knew’ Alison and how she would behave?
I didn’t read psychology. I take a long time testing the ground with my characters, working my way into their heads. We all have some resources, some experience, some situations we can relate to the more extreme ‘case studies’ like Alison’s, a awful lot of us have had times in our lives when we feel on the edge, unlike everyone else, we hide something we’re ashamed of. I take the germ of a feeling, if you like, a fragment, and imagine what it would be like if you blew that feeling up into some huge: Alison’s secret isn’t just the kind of messy family set-up most of us have experienced: it’s all-encompassing. She is certain that what has happened to her is so unspeakable that she can’t tell anyone, no-one could understand: and yet, I think we could. I want to show that: one of the most awe-inspiring aspects of being properly human is that we can empathise, under the right circumstances we are capable of understanding and wanting to help people who are nothing like us. Reading psychology is a useful tool but that empathetic instinct is a miracle.

I did have help talking through Alison/Esme’s situation with a friend who is a lawyer working at a high level in Child Protection: this was invaluable not just for the practical information she gave me but because it was a sobering reminder that this kind of violence is real, it exists in real life, it happens every single day and good people are out there cleaning up after it, day in, day out. People whose job it is to intervene to prevent violence without destroying families, to counsel, to motivate and give comfort, for scant reward. Tracking down and punishing the guilty is a tiny part of that: mostly it is about the fall-out, about protecting the innocent.
3) Saltleigh is a very insular place where many do not manage to escape. Did you intend to make it feel quite so claustrophobic?
Saltleigh is a sort of amalgam of two places I know very well – one a village, one a larger town. Because these places are on the edge of the country, on the estuarial Essex marshland, I don’t think of them as claustrophobic exactly: I see wide empty skies and a kind of bleakness and isolation. But Saltleigh is in my mind certainly a forgotten place, a cut-off place, the land which time forgot, on the edge of things. And that can carry a feeling of being trapped, certainly, that was absolutely my intention and I’m very glad if that’s the effect it has. I grew up in London, leaving it at the age of 11, and I have always had something of a panic response to the idea of being stuck in the middle of nowhere. Saltleigh is absolutely the middle of nowhere, so perhaps that’s how I managed to make it claustrophobic.
4) I really enjoyed the character of Sarah Rutherford. Do you think we will see her again?
I’d love to write about Sarah Rutherford again, and it’s really fantastic to hear that people warm to her. She is one of the very few characters I’ve written who’s tied to a real human being: not a policewoman but a scientist and a fellow mother. She’s absolutely not the same as Sarah in every way but both of them I see as strong, loving, stubborn, rigorous, outspoken but kind, and fearless and energetic. The real Sarah has been through some tough times and come out on top: it’s great to have someone in your life who’s managed that, to look at as a model. I think you can trust both the real Sarah and the fictional Sarah to throw everything she’s got at a problem and not let it drop till it’s sorted: she’d make a great series detective.
5) How did the idea for Alison’s journey back to the past germinate?
It is the engine of the story: of course she has to go back. In real life the most common response to that level of violent incident – and probably the sensible thing to do - would be to stay away. To construct a safe place, to leave the violence in a separate box, to visit it only under controlled circumstances, under the protection of psychotherapists, psychiatrists, those who love you. Sometimes, though, the world, accident, chance intervene and you are thrown into the lion enclosure, you have to climb out on your own. Alison has no-one on her side, but she’s tough, she’s clever, she’s a survivor. Novelists have licence to be cruel, we throw our characters into the lion enclosure, we experiment with extreme circumstances to test a human being’s mettle. It might not be something you should do at home but we all want to know, what if? What if the worst happened? What if this terrible violence is wrought, you think it’s done but when you look back over the parapet, it hasn’t gone away. Alison is living her life in hiding, it’s half a life, less than half: going back is like opting for radical surgery, kill or cure.
6) ‘The Crooked House’ has been compared to the TV drama, ‘Broadchurch’. Do you think that crime fiction has become more character driven rather than plot driven?
I think Broadchurch has a triple crown: fantastic characters, extraordinary atmosphere, and a relentless, brilliant plot. I don’t see that you can write any kind of novel without creating convincing characters, it’s just not an option. And character drives plot, they aren’t separable. Plotting, in terms of the puzzle your characters are working away at, is the part of writing a novel that is sheer hard work, though, certainly for me and it is absolutely unsafe to lose your hold on it for a single minute, you have to keep at it, you have to keep the tension. And then it pays off, it’s a great buzz, to leave your readers desperate to know, what next.
7) What do you have planned for your next book? Will you be going back to Florence or staying closer to home?
I will go back to Florence at some point: I have one more Sandro Cellini in my head at least, and I love that character. But just now I’m working on something even closer to home than ‘The Crooked House’, set on the edge of the Fens and what I call serious claustrophobia territory. The area north of Cambridge, where I live, turns quite abruptly into a weird, weird flat landscape, like a prairie or a desert, crisscrossed by motorways, punctuated by the ugly semi-industrial landmarks of modern barns, windfarms, silos. It’s hugely atmospheric and the people are strange. It feels almost exotic, like an abandoned part of America, considering it’s at the centre of a small and densely populated country.
8) What does your family think about you writing such dark books?
They don’t say. Perhaps they don’t dare! Actually, mostly they don’t even dare read them. My husband has read one (out of ten): my 21 year-old daughter has read more, and she read ‘The Crooked House’ a week or so ago, in one go on the train back to where she’s studying. She sent me an amazing text when she’d finished it, saying she was blown away, and couldn’t stop crying. She is not the kind of girl who goes overboard so I was pretty blown away myself to hear that. The only other member of my family who’s read it is my brother, who himself lives on the edge of the Essex marshes. He didn’t say much, but he did feel the need to tell me he’d read it.
9) For writers who are just starting out on their ‘novel journey’, what one piece of advice would you give?
For me the journey of actually writing a novel started when I was forty, but in reality it starts long before, the human impulse to tell stories is always there, but you need life experience. I needed that time to have things I wanted to write about. To live. I was lucky enough to have a job in the mean time that required me to write stuff – small stuff, ten word descriptions of books, blurbs, press releases, letters – and that lesson in economy cannot be over-estimated. Writing a lot is easy, being concise is a discipline. It’s hard.

The practical advice, once you’ve got something to say, is straightforward. Sit down, start writing, keep going. It’s as simple as that. Write something every day and don’t stop till you get to the end.
10) Are you a fan of crime fiction in general? What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
I love crime fiction, across a good range. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels are extraordinary, a combination of crime and a hybrid of existentialism and nihilism, a mould-breaking central character and a mesmerising, terrifying moral universe. They’re all indispensable but I think perhaps ‘Ripley Under Ground’ is my favourite. My father had it at his bedside when he died, along with Marcus Aurelius.

I loved Donna Tartt’s ‘Secret History’, not strictly a crime novel but genre busting enough for me to feel I can include it, a terrific plot and stupendous Gothic atmosphere.

Raymond Chandler is the master, I couldn’t choose between ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘Farewell My Lovely’, and quite inimitable so one can just relax and revel in his voice. That wit, that wordplay, the marvellous seediness of his Bay City/Los Angeles landscapes of the pre-war years, his very human, venal villains and his masterly flawed hero, too smart for his own good, worldly wise, sexy, lugubrious, tall, irresistible, romantic, hardboiled, sad. All those things and a thousand per cent real.

But if I could throw in an extra on the other end of the scale I also adore Dorothy Sayers, for her blue-stocking intelligence, her hopeless love for her a monocled toff detective, her humanity. She’s brilliant at atmosphere, too, ‘The Nine Tailors’ is unforgettable, church bells tolling across an icy fenland landscape, sounding a man’s death.

Crime fiction at its best can tell us as much about what it is to be human - to live, to love, to breathe, to be afraid of dying - as any other kind, while remaining absolutely focussed on entertaining us. I wouldn’t want to write anything else.