A liberation from psychological suspense

Lucie Whitehouse
Opinion - Books Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Lucie Whitehouse has switched genres, to a police procedural set in Birmingham

Four years ago, I was in the central library here in Brooklyn working on my previous novel when I received an email from a woman I'd known at college. Now a TV producer, she'd read Before We Met, then my most recent book, and wanted to know if I had any ideas for a female investigating character with series potential. I hit "reply". Yes, I wrote, I had one about a senior murder detective in her mid-30s who's fired from the Met and forced to limp back to Birmingham, the hometown she fled at 19, to share her old bedroom - and bunkbeds - with her own teenage daughter. Within hours of her return, her best friend of 20 years is found murdered in her burned-out house.

I sent the email and sat back in my chair. Where had that come from? I had no idea I'd been thinking about a detective or Birmingham, let alone bunkbeds. But I knew with certainty that this was my next book. This was the story I wanted to write.

However, it would mean a shift in genre. My first four novels were psychological suspense, and while I'm a big fan of crime series (Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Tana French and Susie Steiner are my favourites), I'd never tried writing one of my own. On the other hand, I was ready - hungry, actually - for a change, and the idea of writing straight, upmarket crime had huge appeal.

"Knowing a fair bit about the business is not an unmixed blessing when it comes to being a writer"

Back through the mists of time, when I started my first novel The House at Midnight, I had just begun to learn about the business of publishing. By day, I worked at Isis Publishing buying first large print, then unabridged audio rights. (What a joy of a job for a broke contemporary-fiction fiend not long out of a university where literature seemed to have stopped with Forster and the texts for my own degree, classics, around 350 AD. The Jiffies of proofs arriving daily were a banquet table I wanted to fall on face first.) At that stage, I had little idea about genre in a commercial sense and no clue that my gothicky thriller-meets-coming-of-age story would launch me down a path to becoming a writer of psychological suspense or "domestic noir". I was just writing a book I might enjoy reading.

Daily masterclass
By the time it sold, however (to Bloomsbury, it still amazes me to remember), I knew more about commercial fiction by a factor of thousands. By then, I had been working at Darley Anderson for nearly five years, first as rights manager, selling translation rights for Lee Child, John Connolly and Tana French, among many other stars, and then as a fledgling primary agent building a list of my own clients. (I'm proud to say that Milly Johnson was one of them.) It's hard to think of a better apprenticeship in commercial fiction: it was a daily masterclass, not just from Darley but from his writers. Lee, John, Tana, Milly - all of them are consummate professionals and were then, and continue to be, incredibly supportive of other writers, including me.

Knowing a fair bit about the business is not an unmixed blessing when it comes to being a writer, though. (Years of seeing Lee Child's sales figures can make looking at your own a pretty sobering experience.) I knew that changing genres was a risk. What if the readers who liked my psychological suspense weren't interested in a much grittier, more realistic type of novel from me? Would I even be able to do it? It would take a ton of research into police procedure and the law. It would also take research to get Birmingham right, which it had to be. I'm a Midlander by birth and upbringing, but Birmingham was my dad's city, not mine, and living in Brooklyn ruled out hopping in the car to check details.

But shape-shifting had become my stock-in-trade (agent to client, Londoner to Brooklynite), and Helen Garnons-Williams, my fantastic editor, whom I followed to 4th Estate, was very supportive. I got to work.

I immediately felt a great sense of expansion and mental freedom. It was liberating to write what I hope is still page-turning fiction without the heady, claustrophobic atmosphere of psychological suspense. I could write the dry humour I love to read, too much of which would have been a mood-kill in psychological suspense. I could engage with the social issues I spend my life thinking about. I loved the police research and I have fallen in love with Birmingham, where I have spent a lot of time during my visits home to England. The Brummies I've heard from say I've got it right.

Most of all, though, I love having the opportunity to develop my characters and their arcs over multiple books. Robin Lyons, my DCI once and future, is a complex beast, of course, moral and loyal but prone to reading people wrongly, especially those close to her. Coming back to Birmingham forces her to examine why she left and the reasons why she has a driving need to prove her worth, painful relationships with her mother and openly hostile brother and also with Samir Jafferi, the boyfriend who loved her then dumped her savagely at 19, himself now head of force homicide at West Midlands Police. It's a rich seam of material set in a city that's criminally underused as a location. I hope readers will enjoy the series as much as I am enjoying writing it.

Critical Incidents by Lucie Whitehouse is out in paperback from 4th Estate on 16 January (£7.99).

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