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Author of the Month

Name: Simon Beckett

First Novel: The Chemistry of Death (Crime 2006)

Most Recent Book: Stone Bruises

'...Simon Beckett is a writer of immense power.'

Synopsis:
Sean is on the run. We don't know why and we don't know from whom, but we do know he's abandoned his battered, blood-stained car in the middle of an isolated part of rural France at the height of a sweltering summer.

Desperate to avoid the police, he takes to the parched field only to be caught in the vicious jaws of a trap. Near unconscious from the pain and loss of blood, he is freed and taken in by two women - daughters of the owner of a rundown local farm with its ramshackle barn, blighted vineyard and the brooding lake.

And it's then that Sean's problems really start....

Review:
There hasn't been a new Simon Beckett novel for three years but ‘Stone Bruises’ is definitely worth the wait. This is not a novel featuring his main character, Dr David Hunter; this is a standalone thriller that will not disappoint any of Beckett’s legion of fans. This has all the trademarks of Beckett's masterly storytelling.

Told in the first person we are greeted with mystery and intrigue from the first page; we don't even learn the name of the main character until well into the story. Through Sean's eyes we meet those around him, yet as he can't trust them, neither can we.

In the early stages, this book is reminiscent of Stephen King's ‘Misery’ as Sean is confined to a bed and a sinister nurse-like character tends to his wounds but this is more than a horror story, this is a psychological thriller with secrets and lies at its core. As we follow Sean's recovery in the French countryside we're given glimpses of his life in London and what went so badly wrong to bring him here in the first place. Beckett teases us with these short interplays enough to keep us reading and guessing.

In my opinion Simon Beckett is a writer of immense power. His use of dialogue and language echoes the late, great Reginald Hill; it's as if every word has been carefully measured and each chapter lovingly crafted.

The final twist in the story is astounding and by the time you reach the last page you'll want to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Memo to Simon Beckett: please don't leave it another three years until the next one!

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating



Questionnaire

1) Why did you choose crime as the basis for your novels?
When I first started I didn’t set out to write any particular genre or type of fiction, I just wrote stories that interested me. I was surprised when my first novel was marketed as crime, because I’d never really thought of it in those terms. It was more a case of being drawn to writing about the darker side of human nature, which made writing crime fiction a natural fit.
2) This is not a typical crime fiction novel; no lead detective and only the briefest of description for the main character. Is this a deliberate attempt to challenge the reader into using their own imagination to picture Sean and his situation?
I wouldn’t say I try to challenge readers, because first and foremost I want to write books that people enjoy. ‘Stone Bruises’ was never going to have a lead detective character because it isn’t that sort of novel. Sean, the main character, is directly involved in what’s going on rather than a traditional investigator who approaches it from the outside. I wanted the reader to feel as scared and bewildered as he does, and to immerse them in the story as much as possible.

When it comes to descriptions I think one or two carefully chosen details can be more effective than huge swathes of information. As readers we all create our own pictures in our mind’s eye, so I try to give enough to steer things in the direction I want, but not enough to get in the way. It’s like listening to something on the radio – a few well-judged sound effects can conjure up a scene far more vividly than any amount of elaborate CGI or special effects. I try to take the same sort of approach when I’m writing.
3) In my opinion this is a first rate psychological thriller, where did you get the inspiration for your story?
Thanks. I’ve had the idea for ‘Stone Bruises’ for some time. I used to do quite a bit of hitchhiking when I was a student, and spent most of a summer hitching in France. So the early scene of Sean finding himself on empty country roads is something I can associate with. On another occasion when I was hitching in the UK I wound up in the middle of nowhere and went to a farmhouse to ask directions. No one was around, but the door was open and the lights were on, so I knocked and called out. There was no answer, and I was about to step inside to shout again before I realised that might not be the brightest thing to do. It was only then it occurred to me that it might not be a good idea for me to be wandering around an isolated farm anyway, so I went back to the road and started walking. Eventually I got a lift, but I kept thinking about how stupid I’d almost been and what could have happened. I can’t claim it was a direct inspiration for ‘Stone Bruises’, but for a crime writer things like that are a good starting point.
4) Would you write a sequel to ‘Stone Bruises’? Sean's future is an open road, he could tell many more stories.
I’ve never envisaged a sequel. I suppose there could be, but Sean’s story is pretty much told in ‘Stone Bruises’.
5) Why has it been three years since your last novel?
I’d like nothing more than to write a book a year, but it never works out like that. That’s partly due to the amount of research involved in the David Hunter novels –they’re forensic thrillers so there’s always a lot of background work to make sure the plots are feasible and I’ve got my facts right. But it’s also because I don’t want the books to all follow the same formula. I try to make each one a little different, with new twists, and that seems to take longer each time. After I finished ‘The Calling of the Grave’ I’d every intention of getting on with the fifth in the series, but I hit a stumbling block with the forensics. Basically, the research didn’t exist for what I wanted to do, and while I was trying to work around that I found that ideas for ‘Stone Bruises’ kept coming to mind. As I’ve said, it’s something I’d been wanting to write, although I hadn’t planned to write it just yet. Once I came around to the idea, though, it didn’t actually take that long to write.
6) For writers like me who are just starting out on their ‘novel journey’, could you tell us about your routine to writing and completing a novel?
I try to keep more or less office hours, so when I’m working on a book I go into my office at around 9.00am and finish around 6.00pm. Of course, not all of that time is spent writing, because there’s also research and a fair bit of staring into space, if I’m honest. When a book is under way I have a nominal target of 1000 words a day, but I’d rather write 500 words I’m pleased with and that stay in the draft than 1000 that I throw away later. When I’m coming to the final push to finish a book then the whole office-hours thing goes out of the window, and I’ll work eleven or twelve hours a day until it’s done. But that’s not sustainable for the whole period of writing a novel. The main thing is to establish your own routine, and then be disciplined about sticking to it.
7) Do you have any special rituals you have to abide by during the course of writing a novel?
I don’t have any rituals as such, but most mornings when I’m writing I’ll brew coffee in one of those old fashioned continental percolators. That’s pretty much the only time I drink black coffee. I’ll have a big cup of it at around half-past ten, and if I’m really wanting to focus maybe another before lunch. A three-cup morning means things are either going really well, or really badly.
8) I believe the conclusion to ‘The Chemistry of Death’ is one of the most mind-blowing I have ever read. I was totally wrong-footed, which is not easy to do to a long-standing crime reader like me. Is it difficult as a crime writer to consistently keep to that level of surprise? Do you plan your novels or do you allow them to grow ‘organically’?
I know some authors will happily start a book without knowing how it’s going to end, but I like to know more or less where it’s going. It will always change as it is being written, but I generally have a rough idea of the ending and also for a few key scenes. That’s important because then I can lay the necessary groundwork, dropping in apparently innocuous details that will – hopefully – pay off later. With ‘The Chemistry of Death’ I had the idea for the ending before I started writing. I hoped if I could pull it off then it would be something that readers wouldn’t see coming, but would then look back and realise had been set up all along. But you can’t pull the same sort of trick twice. And once readers know you’re likely to spring a twist or shock they’ll be looking out for them, so it does become progressively harder.
9) What are you planning for your next novel? Will it be another Dr David Hunter novel?
Yes, I’m working on the next David Hunter novel now.
10) What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
If we’re talking about pure crime novels, then only two come to mind. Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Long Goodbye’ made a big impression. The Philip Marlowe series were the first crime novels that really hooked me, and for my money that’s the standout amongst them. The tone is different to the other books, and so is the character of Marlowe himself. He’s older, more disillusioned and lonely; a far cry from the brash private investigator of the earlier novels.

The other would be Thomas Harris’ ‘Red Dragon’. Harris really defined the whole serial killer genre, and although ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ was the one that really took off in many ways I prefer the earlier book. Truly scary, and with a final sting that took me completely by surprise.