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Author of the Month

Name: Michael Ridpath

First Novel: Free To Trade

Most Recent Book: Amnesia

'...a gripping novel which attached itself to my hands and didn’t let go until I was finished. '

Synopsis:
Alastair Cunningham has been found concussed at the bottom of the stairs in the house he rents near Ben Wyvis. His memory is completely gone. He has no family and his only friend is Madeleine who lives in New York. Madeleine reaches out to her niece, Clémence who is studying at St Andrews to see to Alastair while she herself travels to Scotland. Reluctant, but not having much to do during the holidays as she is estranged from her parents for various reasons, Clémence goes to Alastair’s aid. She takes him back to his house named ‘Culzie’ and the scene of the accident.

It is during her stay with Alastair that she discovers a book titled, ‘Death at Wyvis’ written by Angus Culzie. Clémence has very little knowledge of her family having been born in Morocco and only vague distant memories of her grandfather, her paternal grandmother having been drowned at a young age. But as Clémence begins ‘Death at Wyvis’, she realises that the family history she has been told cannot be true, that a catastrophic series of events led to the decline of her father’s family. So it becomes necessary for Clémence to read the book out aloud to Alastair in the hope of bringing him out of his amnesia and for Clémence to discover what really happened to her family and why so many lies? But as she reads, little do the young girl and the octogenarian realise that as they seek the truth, someone is making sure they never find it.

Review:
Ridpath takes us on another journey, this time to the mountains and lochs of Scotland. The mountain of Ben Wyvis stands like a sentinel over the proceedings, a vast landscape for a murder that took place forty years ago. This barren land full of flora and fauna is described so wonderfully by Ridpath that I could feel the cold wind across the moors as the stags majestically strolled across the mountainous land.

I have read many novels which have used the ‘book within a book’ device with not very sound results. However, Ridpath perfectly tells his story via ‘Death at Wyvis’ to show us the deeds that transpired over forty years ago. I have never been to Capri, but Ridpath’s descriptions of the island transported me there so I could smell the land, the plant-life and spirit of the island with great intensity. It was fascinating to see through Angus/Alastair’s eyes the wealth and wanton waste of the nouveau riche and their hangers on. With great subtlety, Ridpath luxuriously unravels his tale, revealing slowly, but without losing pace, what occurred during the forties and fifties and the repercussions that reverberate in 1999.

Cleverly, Ridpath puts Clémence with no knowledge of her family history, alongside Alastair and his amnesia, so that by reading ‘Death at Wyvis’ both are ignorant of their past and both become cognizant of the truth together. To say more would give the game away, but ‘Amnesia’ ends as a fable as to what happens when people heap lie upon lie upon lie to cover the truth. No matter what, the truth always has the habit of making its way to the surface.

‘Amnesia’ is a gripping novel which attached itself to my hands and didn’t let go until I was finished. A superb tale in the vein of Barbara Vine.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating



Questionnaire

1) Your new novel, ‘Amnesia’ takes place in 1999 as well as chronicling events in the forties and fifties. What was your starting point for this book?
There were lots of ingredients. I had an uncle, also called Michael Ridpath, who lived in Australia and who at 87 became a widower and ended up in a nursing home. I went over there to help him. He was a fascinating man whom I had never really got to know. I thought about his life and then wondered how he would have felt if he couldn’t remember all of it. Because I write those kinds of books, I wondered how he would feel if he had forgotten murdering someone. And was then reminded of it.

One of my favourite novels is ‘Any Human Heart’, by William Boyd. It’s an invented memoir of a man named Logan Mountstuart from the age of 18 to 85. It’s brilliant and I wish I had written it. I wanted to write a memoir like that.

So an old man forgets everything – an accident rather than Alzheimer’s – and the answer is in a memoir he has written.

Where would this take place? At first I thought he would be a university professor in the woods of Vermont. But that seemed a bit of a cliché, and so I made him a doctor in the woods of Scotland.

Someone would have to be there to help him make the discovery of the memoir and the murder contained within it. Who? I have two daughters in their early twenties, and I thought it would be fun to write something from their point of view.

At least the above is why I thought I wrote the book. But I was sitting in a pub six months after I had finished the first draft, when I remembered something. In 2005, my father died. I spent many days, weeks even, going through his papers which were piled several feet high in his study. At the bottom of one pile was a yellowing manuscript in fluent black ink. In shaky old-man pencil handwriting on the title page were the words: “I couldn’t bear to throw this away.” It was a message from my father to his writer son that he had left me his novel to read.

He wrote it when he was twenty-one in the 1940s. It was about a wounded sailor who was sent to a castle in the Highlands to convalesce. There, he falls in love with the laird’s 20 year old daughter.

Was that why I wrote ‘Amnesia’? Probably. Does my conscious mind decide what I write? Probably not. A scary thought, that.
2) I particularly loved the descriptions of Capri and the lifestyle Angus/Alastair experienced during that time. You brought Capri vividly to my mind although I have never been there. There is a definite sense of time and place in ‘Amnesia’. Is that important to you to convey your story?
I always try to convey a sense of place, not just for the benefit of the readers, but also for me. I much prefer writing if I can feel myself in the location. But of course, somewhere like Capri was different in the 1930s than it is now.

I needed somewhere fashionable for my characters to go when they were in their early twenties. I had been to Capri on day trips twice, so that seemed a good location. I thought I wouldn’t have to visit – Google Images is pretty good these days. So I sought out some contemporary sources on Capri. Two were particularly useful – a novel by Compton Mackenzie called ‘Into The Fire’, and a memoir of Graham Greene in Capri by Shirley Hazzard.

It turned out that Capri was quite a racy place in the first half of the twentieth century. There was a lively community of expatriates made up of painters, eccentrics and gay men and women. They were drawn there by the beauty of the island, the laissez-faire attitude of the locals and by the legends of Tiberius’s orgies at his dramatic villa overlooking sheer cliffs at one end of the island. A young Frenchman, Baron Fersen, built his own villa just beneath Tiberius’s on a cliff jutting out over the sea.

So I wrote four chapters set in Capri, without visiting it. But despite all my research and all the photographs on the internet, it didn’t quite work. The chapters were adequate, but they read as if the writer had never actually been there.

I dithered and then I took action. I explained to my wife that I absolutely had to travel to Capri the following week and booked a cheap flight to Naples. I love my wife: she understood. It was a magical few days. Because I already knew a lot about the island, and had written the relevant scenes it all seemed familiar. As I walked round the island, I thought to myself: so this is where Tony’s house was; this is the Roman ruin where they went for a picnic; and in particular, this is the Villa Fersen, a ruined folly high up on a ledge in the cliffs where the French playboy gallivanted and where two of my characters … well, I don’t want to spoil the story.

But there were things that were not quite right. For example I had underestimated how Monte Solaro, a vast slab of wrinkled grey rock, bisects the island so dramatically, and how it is made of the same limestone as Malham in the old man’s native Yorkshire dales. I had written about but not ‘felt’ the orange blossom, the enormous lemons lurking dangerously just above head height, the marguerites and amaryllis, the cats and the snakes and on all sides the glittering Bay of Naples.

When I returned, I spent two weeks rewriting those four chapters. I hadn’t made any major mistakes, but by the time I had finished, those Capri scenes became some of the best I have ever written.
3) Why did you choose to set the 1999 part of your story at Ben Wyvis and Loch Glass?
After ditching Vermont, I had decided that my old man would live in Scotland. First choice was the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, but I realised I needed somewhere a little less specific.

When I was ten, we went on a holiday to the Stalkers Lodge by Loch Glass. The cottage had no electricity, just candles, which was really exciting. The red deer used to traipse down from Ben Wyvis to drink at the loch every evening. And the wind was so strong I could play football just by kicking my plastic ball into it and then saving the returned shot propelled by the wind. So I drove up to Scotland, parked my car at the edge of the estate and walked the five miles in and five miles out again. In Scotland you have the “right to roam” and this is allowed. It was just what I wanted: isolated, and beautiful in a desolate kind of way.
4) You have written several series, one dealing with the financial markets, one in Iceland and a couple during WWII. Do you prefer to write what attracts you rather than be kept to a recurring set of characters?
I definitely like to write about what attracts me, and also to vary my subject matter. My ‘Fire and Ice’ Icelandic crime series is the only time I have stuck with one character for more than two books. My Icelandic detective Magnus has had four outings, plus a couple of novellas. I enjoyed developing a character over several books, making life difficult for him, keeping him off balance.

When I had the idea for ‘Amnesia’, I was nervous about what my publishers would think: I assumed that once an author had got a series going, publishers just wanted you to crank out more. But they encouraged my idea for a stand-alone. I found the break invigorating.

I am now writing a fifth Magnus novel, and loving it. The break away from him definitely did me good. I find the familiarity of his life and his colleagues, and Iceland, stimulating. So maybe I will alternate between a stand-alone and a Magnus book. But, as your question implies, it all depends on having an idea that attracts me.
5) Some of the characters here, in particular Stephen Trickett-Smith are not attractive people, however in some way I did feel some empathy with him. Is this difficult to balance out?
I am so pleased you asked that question! Characterisation is difficult in thrillers. You don’t really get the chance to stop and say “hold on, reader, for ten pages so I can tell you about this character’s life up till now”. You don’t have time, you have to keep the pages turning. Often those scenes that don’t really go anywhere but do help to flesh out a character are the ones that are cut from the first draft.

But a memoir is different, especially if it spans the lives of several characters. You get to show the major points in their lives and to see how it affects them from decade to decade. And if you do it right, you can keep the reader turning the page. So, without giving too much away, Stephen suffers, partly through his own fault. He changes as he grows older. And by the time he and Alastair confront each other – two eighty year olds who have known each other all their adult lives – the reader knows all about them, and cares about them. Without the memoir, they would just be two grumpy old men having an argument.
6) For writers who are just starting out on their ‘novel journey’, what one piece of advice would you give?
Write and rewrite and rewrite your first novel; don’t move on right away to a second one. Most of us have to learn our trade as we are writing. We learn a lot from writing the first draft of our first novel. But there is much more that can be learned in rewriting a story that is already familiar to you. How can you develop a character? What can be cut? How can you improve that sentence? With each draft the book will improve and so will you. The first draft of my first novel, ‘Free To Trade’ was a good story, but it never could be published. The third draft made it to number two in the bestseller lists and was translated into over thirty languages. I could just have written a second novel instead of rewriting and rewriting. I’m glad I didn’t!
7) 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 and would take with you to a desert island?
I do enjoy reading crime fiction, but it needs to be interspersed with other books. Three crime novels that made a lasting impression? Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow is beautifully written and has a twist in plain sight. Into the Dark by Mark Billingham has great characters and a great twist where you suddenly realize you are not reading the book you thought you were. I recently re-read The Secret History by Donna Tartt and I would happily read that again if you stuck me on a desert island. But of course, what I would really want to do is write a book!