Author of the Month

Name: Laura Wilson

First Novel: A Little Death

Most Recent Book: An Empty Death

'...a sumptuous historical crime novel. '

Stratton’s War has marched on to the summer of 1944. After a long period of warfare the people of Britain are feeling downtrodden and weary with the constant battle for food rations and being under the threat of a bomb landing on top of them at any time.

Stratton is called to investigate the suspicious death of a doctor near Fitzrovia’s Middlesex Hospital. A doctor has been found dead on a bombsite, his death treated as suspicious. Stratton, under orders to find the killer very quickly finds another body – this time actually in the hospital itself. Very soon there is a new doctor in the Middlesex. Who is this new Dr. Dacre that people are being charmed by? Isn’t it a little too convenient that he has emerged so soon after Dr. Reynolds’ murder?

As the case continues there is unrest in the Stratton household. Mrs. Ingram, who Stratton pulled from the rubble of a bombed house, is now living at Jenny’s sisters’ home to convalesce. But when Mr. Ingram arrives to take his wife home she believes that he is not who he says he is. As her moods become more and more erratic Stratton cannot foresee that these two unconnected incidents will merge and crash and have an explosive impact on Stratton’s own life.

Having enjoyed Stratton’s War immensely, I was greatly looking forward to this follow up in the series. I am pleased to say that An Empty Death is even better than the first - which is no mean feat itself. Wilson is extremely good at bringing her characters vividly to life. They are not simply plot devices, but real people with backgrounds, likes and dislikes and small foibles that make all of us who we are. It is the daily life of the Stratton clan that makes this series so interesting, besides the crime element of this tale.

An Empty Death is about identity. We have the man masquerading as Dr. Dacre. A man who is constantly changing his identity to find that one fulfilling role he knows he was destined to play. And play it well he does... but soon he is undone by his own arrogant notion that he is untouchable. Then we have Mrs. Ingram and her elevating paranoia that people are out to ‘take her away’. This is extremely well done and, dare I say it, in true Vine/Rendell tradition, the tension is slowly cranked up so that we can see the madness consume this woman before our very eyes.

This author’s books have always concentrated on the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’. An Empty Death takes you up and brings you down like the veritable rollercoaster. It is a wonderful snapshot of that time beautifully brought to life by this author’s writing – so much so that you can see she clearly has some form of affinity with it. The people are real in your mind and I was literally left bereft when Stratton’s life is left in tatters by this case. An Empty Death is a sumptuous historical crime novel. One to be read as if diving in to a box of the most expensive chocolates!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) What makes a truly great crime/thriller novel?
Plot, characterisation, atmosphere, pathos, and page-turnery, and, above all, the ability to make the reader think (I like a bit of humour along the way, too). My favourite authors are those who credit their readers with some intelligence and don’t shove issues down their necks. There’s never one way to think about anything.
2) Now that the crime/thriller genre represents the largest section of fiction sold in the UK, do you think we do enough to celebrate the quality and diversity of the writing?
One of the reasons I love crime fiction is that the novels are so diverse: a genre which can encompass everything from ‘kitchen-sink’ realism through ‘bang, bang, kiss, kiss’ to talking cats is a very healthy one indeed, and long may it remain so. Crime writers do, unfortunately, suffer from snobbery – the idea that if it’s genre fiction it can’t really be any good. We also suffer from the fact that genre fiction is judged by its worst, whereas literary fiction is judged by its best. I think that this is, finally, beginning to change, but it’s going to be a long, slow process…
3) Most of your novels have been contemporary except The Lover which was set in the Second World War. Then you began the Stratton series with Stratton’s War which is set in the same period. Why did you decide to stay during this time frame to write about Stratton?
A Little Death, is set between 1890 and 1955, and both Dying Voices and Hello Bunny Alice have large chunks set in the late 60s and 70s. Writing The Lover was such a good experience, and the people I met and interviewed along the way were such great company and so helpful that I thought I’d be mad if I didn’t write another book (or two) set during the Second World War. There’s the adrenaline of it, too – I’m bloody glad I wasn’t there, but writing about it is very exhilarating.
4) You manage to bring to life the past with great descriptions of the language and the way of life in those days during the war. How much research is needed before you set out to start on a new case with Stratton?
Quite a lot, although I’m very conscious that research can very easily become a displacement activity. As Alan Bennett said, ‘you’re not a writer unless you’re actually writing. Everything else is just vamping till ready.’ I love spending time in libraries – the British Library, the National Archives at Kew, and the Mass Observation Archives at Sussex University are particular favourites – but I also enjoy talking to people. My parents, who were teenagers during the war, are a wonderful source of information, especially about practical things like geezers (that’s the bathroom sort, not the men who sold dodgy booze and nylons out of suitcases) and how to feed hens on kitchen scraps. Talking to them and their contemporaries, all of whom have been incredibly generous with their time and their memories, also helps me with the cadences of speech of that time and the modes of expression – that said, I seem to spend a lot of time with my head buried in the slang dictionary on paranoid anachronism hunts.
5) You have written six standalone novels before Stratton. What made you decide to embark on a series?
I have to admit that there was a bit of arm-twisting involved, but I wasn’t that hard to persuade because I liked the idea of exploring some characters over the course of several books. I also wanted to show the changing nature of English life between 1940, when the first book is set, and c.1970, when DI Stratton will have to retire, through the eyes of a single individual (who was born in 1905). I think that 30-year period saw the fastest and most comprehensive changes in history: it was the time when Britain won the war and lost the peace, discarded the Empire and acquired the Welfare State, and – in the big cities, at least – absorbed thousands of new citizens from different cultures. The social, political and economic certainties of the past dissolved into doubt and confusion, and attitudes to everything from sex, class and capital punishment to music and skirt lengths underwent radical change. I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that I’m curious as to ‘how we got here’, if you see what I mean, and a series seemed – and still seems – the best way to explore this.
6) An Empty Death deals with several cases in which identity is the main issue. Is there a particular reason you decide to tackle this issue? As a crime writer are you slightly obsessed/interested in people not being who they say they are?
‘Slightly obsessed’ is a masterly understatement… so much of what we do in life, I think, is predicated on the conflict between our private and our public selves. I spent a long time trying to think how to take this idea to an extreme, and started to formulate a plot in my mind several years ago when I was given a book called ‘Imposters’ by Sarah Burton, which gives cases studies of people through history who lived their lives as lies (women who lived as men, Englishmen who posed as Native Americans etc). Then I saw the film ‘Catch Me If You Can’, based on the book by Frank Abegnale, who pretended, successfully, to be both a pilot and a paediatrician. A chance viewing of ‘Holtby City’ gave me the idea of another plot line, and the two came together very neatly (well, I think they did – whether anyone else will think so is another matter). The internet, of course, has given millions of people the opportunity to create fake personas, but the Second World War, which gave rise to vast numbers of people moving about as never before, and which was, unavoidably, a chaotic period, seemed to be the perfect setting for such a story.
7) Diana - who appears in Stratton’s War - is not in An Empty Death, but is mentioned. Will she be making another appearance in Stratton’s life?
Yes, she will, in the third Stratton novel, which will be published next year. There wasn’t really a place for Diana in ‘An Empty Death’, except in Stratton’s memory, and I didn’t want to crowbar her into the story as a minor character, because it would have been forced and unnecessary. When she re-emerges in the third book (set in 1949 and 1950), she is a sadder, wiser person, although – like far too many women – she has not entirely learnt her lesson about how to steer clear of the wrong men…
8) When you look back at your work so far which book are you most proud of?
That’s a hard one… Like many writers, I would like to believe that I am getting better at it, so, on that basis, I suppose it must be ‘An Empty Death.’ However, the character I am most proud of, and well as fondest of – because she was the first one I ever created – is Ada Pepper, the housekeeper in ‘A Little Death.’
9) In a dream scenario who would you like to direct and star in a film/TV adaptation of your book?
When I think of Stratton, I usually think of a young Alan Bates or Albert Finney (well, you did say it was a dream scenario). I’m not very good on directors, especially TV ones, but someone who does plenty of nifty close-ups as well as panoramic shots would be ideal.
10) Which is more important, great plot or great characters?
Meanie! I spent three whole years at university answering questions like that about Dickens and George Eliot and a host of other great hairy literary writers… The answer is, of course, that they are equally important and I just wish that they would arrive at the same time in my head. I find plotting a lot harder than characterisation, and spend hours scratching my head over how to make things happen in a sensible and plausible way, whilst making sure it isn’t too blindingly obvious. I always end up plotting both forwards and backwards, and having to check constantly that it all makes sense.
11) What is your favourite movie adaptation of all time of a crime/thriller novel?
Oh, dear, cinema again. I’m going to duck this one and just say that my favourite crime film is ‘Rififi’, directed by Jules Dassin. It’s brilliant.
12) What is your favourite crime/thriller novel of all time?
It’s a tie between The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith and Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. My favourite crime short story is The Flypaper by Elizabeth Taylor. She’s not exactly known for crime fiction, but it is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read, and the sheer gentility of the whole thing makes my hair stand on end.