Author of the Month

Name: Laura Wilson

First Novel: A Little Death

Most Recent Book: The Wrong Girl

'So far, this is my best book of 2015 by a mile. I absolutely loved it.'

With two divorces behind her, Janice Keaton outwardly appears to be a woman of who has much in the way of material things in her life. But she has always had a piece missing inside her, something she could not even tell either of her ex-husbands. That she had given her daughter up for adoption in 1970 when she was no more than a young girl herself.

One day she gets a phone call to advise Janice her brother has been found dead. The messenger of this sad news is her adopted daughter, Suzie who had been living with Janice’s brother, Dan along with her own two children in the old family home for six months. Why didn’t Suzie contact her before when she had first made contact with Dan? Although they hadn’t been close, why had Dan kept Janice’s daughter away from her?

Travelling back to the Norfolk home which had once been her parents, Janice soon finds herself facing her own past as half-familiar faces from decades ago hover in to sight. It is the past Janice must face as she not only has to find peace with the lost years with Suzie, but must travel down labyrinthine, drug-induced paths to find out what Dan had found out so many decades later. And then Janice’s grand-daughter, Molly goes missing.

This new psychological drama from Wilson is an amazing tour-de-force. It was akin to watching a play in a fringe theatre with a small cast on an even smaller stage. From the very beginning of ‘The Wrong Girl’, Wilson lays in, pulling no punches.

This is very much a tale about parenthood, and the loss of parenthood either through adoption or the disappearance of a child. It is also about knowing ones identity and being comfortable in our own skin. While Janice comes to terms with her instant family, and despite being tied by blood, these people are strangers to one another. Janice feels an outsider and her loss of motherhood, thanks to Wilson’s powerful prose, resonated so much it felt palpable to me.

Running alongside this is the theme of young girls who have disappeared. Phoebe Piper vanished several years ago and Molly, who bears a striking resemblance, feels displaced within her family and is convinced she is Phoebe. Despite being two generations apart, Janice and Molly mirror one another across the years as they try to find their rightful place within the family dynamic. This is a recurring theme throughout Wilson’s novel, but in a way, by the end, there is some form of reconciliation amongst this fractured family.

As with many of Wilson’s previous psychological novels, the past very much impacts on the present and the author weaves both seamlessly to reveal a psychedelic tapestry of dysfunctional families, hedonism and grubby secrets.

Most of Wilson’s ‘play’ is acted out in the kitchen of the creaking Norfolk home where Janice grew up, but the interaction of the cast and the complicated dynamics between newly reunited mother, daughter and grand-daughter are sublime and every word oozes heartfelt regret and anger. Despite initial grievances, over time, a fragile alliance is built between Janice and Suzie.

For me the mark of a great book is when I reach the conclusion of a book, I want to stay in the company of the people I have got to know over 300 pages. This is how I felt about ‘The Wrong Girl’. I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to continue with Janice, Suzie and Molly and what the future holds for all of them. Even now, over a week since finishing it, all three are still wandering around my imagination, such was the impression they made upon me.

I cannot recommend ‘The Wrong Girl’ highly enough. It had everything that makes for gripping drama. Solid characterisation, emotional depth, a claustrophobic feeling of impending maleficence played out upon the flat Norfolk landscape and a cracking good mystery at its dark heart. With ‘The Wrong Girl’ Wilson is a seriously strong contender for the Barbara Vine crown. So far, this is my best book of 2015 by a mile. I absolutely loved it.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) ‘The Wrong Girl’ deals with the subject of young girls who have gone missing. With the recent news coverage involving Madeleine McCann and Shannon Matthews, what made you tackle such a sensitive issue?
I got the idea for ‘The Wrong Girl’ from a short newspaper article about the age-progressed images of Madeleine McCann and other missing children. Obviously, this is done for a good reason (it may lead to the recovery of the child), but the cumulative effect is quite eerie – a sort of ghost photo album. Then I started to wonder what might happen if there was a young girl who happened to look exactly like the age-progressed photographs of a missing child and who, due to a combination of circumstances and emotions came to believe that she really was that individual...

‘The Wrong Girl’ is really less about missing children per se than about our obsession with famous people. As has been pointed out, Madeleine McCann’s face is as recognisable as that of any film star or footballer, and many people, despite never having met the McCann family, felt a degree of personal involvement in the case that was over and above what, for want of better words, I’ll describe as the usual sympathy and hope for a happy outcome that one feels on reading about a missing child. Reading an article about the ‘Bling Ring’ in Vanity Fair also gave me ideas: it’s the true story of seven Californian teenagers whose pathological desire to absorb the mojo of various celebrities and share in their lifestyles led them to rob the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom and others (an expanded account is available in book form, and it’s also been filmed). It struck me as an extreme example of the more unsettling characteristics (obsession, arrogance, delusion) of fandom, as well as, in this particular case, the desire of the participants to be celebrities in their own right.

In ‘The Wrong Girl’, it is ten-year-old Molly, who, being rather lonely and neglected, wants validation and attention. To balance her, I decided that I needed someone who had had both of these things in spades, but chose to walk away from them – at which point I remembered an article I’d read about Syd Barrett (former member of Pink Floyd), and he was the person I used as a springboard for the character of the reclusive rock star Joe Vincent. After withdrawing from the music scene, Barrett lived in seclusion in Cambridge, but, despite his attempts to live a quiet life, he was constantly harassed by reporters and fans who still considered him to be public property – as if their desire to speak to him and photograph him somehow overrode his right to privacy.

I found these things fascinating and appalling in equal measure, and also – for all concerned – very sad, and decided that contrast between the two would make for an interesting story.
2) Your story starts when Janice gets a surprise phone call from the daughter she gave up for adoption. Besides having to deal with this momentous event, she is informed by her daughter that Janice’s brother, Dan, has died suddenly and unexpectedly. Janice then has to comprehend that her daughter, Suzie, has been living with Dan in the old family home along with her two children, Tom and Molly, for six months. This is quite an explosive emotional mix. Why did you decide on such a complex family dynamic for your novel?
The complexity came about partly because it enabled me to get several hares running at once, plot-wise. Janice, who forms the link between the ‘Molly story’ and the ‘Dan/Joe story’ needed to be pitch-forked into a situation which was full of unknown factors, and where the two strands could develop side-by-side. Very often, when mothers (and indeed fathers) are re-united with long-lost children, there can be no fairy tale ending – the emotions involved are too complex for that – and I was also interested in exploring not only how the different generations impact on each other, but also how difficult it is to explain what the past was like to someone who wasn’t there (hence the refrain of ‘but things were different then’ from various characters as they try to justify the decisions they made many years earlier). There’s an inbuilt tension here, even when the circumstances are less fraught than in ‘The Wrong Girl’ – and of course memory is a pretty slippery thing.
3) The twisted beginnings of ‘The Wrong Girl’ date back to the late 1960s where much drug taking and sex was involved. Did you have to do much research for this time period? Do you enjoy researching the past for your novels?
I was around in the late 1960s, but at primary school, so there wasn’t a whole lot of drug-taking and sex going on and my hazy memories of clothes, music and general ambience weren’t a lot of use. Perhaps because the ‘past’ element of the book is to do with counterculture, rather than mainstream society, it felt a lot more remote to me than the forties and fifties (both of which I’ve written about in the Stratton series) even though I have no direct experience of either of those decades.

I did an awful lot of reading – books like ‘Groupie’ by Jenny Fabian, ‘White Bicycles’ by Joe Boyd, ‘Days in the Life’ by Jonathon Green and ‘Give the Anarchist a Cigarette’ by Mick Farren – and slogged my way through a lot of the popular music journalism of the time. I also listened to a great deal of music (as well as discovering how toe-curlingly bad most popular music journalism is, I also discovered quite how much I dislike Prog Rock), and I did a lot of googling and watched stuff on YouTube. Usually, when I do research for a novel that’s set in the past, such as the books in the Stratton series, I talk to a lot of people about their memories – it’s the part of research that I enjoy most – but this time, I decided against it. This omission was made partly on the basis that, as the saying goes, ‘if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there’ but also because, where sex was concerned, I strongly suspected that the atmosphere of general revulsion surrounding the crimes of Jimmy Savile and his ilk might have caused quite a number of people to change (or at least edit) their personal narratives.
4) ‘The Wrong Girl’ is similar to your previous psychological novels which normally have a very small cast. Why do you unfold your drama with such a small cast?
It’s partly a practical thing – my Stratton novels always have a fairly large cast, because London is a large and populous place and Stratton comes into contact with a lot of different people in the course of his work, which automatically gives the books a more panoramic feel. That said, I think it can be quite hard for a reader to have real emotional investment in more than one or two characters in any book. If a book has a purely domestic setting, or is set in a fairly small village, there will be fewer people about – and with straight psychological novels, I think a smaller cast is better, because there is more intensity in a ‘closed world’ drama. For a writer, a smaller cast is easier in terms of not having to juggle so many characters, and for a reader, it makes it easier to keep track of the personnel.
5) The drama in ‘The Wrong Girl’ unfolds in a sleep, remote Norfolk village which at times felt quite claustrophobic. Do you believe that a strong sense of place is as important as plot and characterisation?
Yes, I do, but that’s not to say that it has to be a real place. The villages in ‘The Wrong Girl’ are invented – composites of various real villages in Norfolk. Something that I wanted to get across in the book – and this is part of the way that each generation impacts on the one that follows it – is that gentrification has altered some parts of Norfolk considerably, pricing local families out of the property market. Janice, coming back after many years, notices the ‘Farrow and Ball effect’.

The Norfolk countryside is beautiful, but the flatness and emptiness of it can be quite unsettling, and I think it can serve to heighten the claustrophobia. Ten-year-old Molly, uprooted from London, finds it lonely – I began the book with an image in my head of a young girl alone in a flat, empty landscape, hugging a secret to herself.
6) I know you are currently writing a new psychological novel. Have we seen the last of DI Stratton or is he on an extended holiday for the time-being?
I don’t think we’ve seen the last of D.I. Stratton – at least, I hope not. My last Stratton novel, ‘The Riot’, was set in 1958, and, as the series moves forward in time, a new book would have to be set in the early 1960s. In terms of fiction, this is well-tilled ground, and I haven’t yet found anything that really captures my imagination. The plot for the novel I’m working on at the moment isn’t appropriate for a Stratton book, because it revolves around just how difficult it is for someone who lives in a busy modern household in a privileged environment which involves a lot of surveillance of one sort or another (live-in staff, mobile phones, laptops, cars with built-in Sat Navs, CCTV and the like) to murder somebody and get away with it.
7) What do you think it is about crime fiction that keeps people mesmerised and craving for more?
The late PD James said that a good crime novel is a combination of ‘the old traditions of an exciting story and the satisfying exercise of rational deduction with the psychological subtleties and moral ambiguities of a good novel’. It’s also been suggested that crime fiction satisfies our need for conclusions, both moral and narrative – basically, people always want to know whodunit.
8) For writers who are just starting out on their ‘novel journey’, what one piece of advice would you give?
Keep at it! Treat writing as a job, and be disciplined.