Fresh Blood

Name: Tom Vowler

Title of Book: What Lies Within

'...Vowler constructs a beautiful sentence: setting poetry on the page with the lightest of touches...'

Living in a remote Devon farmhouse, Anna and her family have always been close to nature, surrounded by the haunting beauty of the moor. But when a convict escapes from nearby Dartmoor prison, their isolation suddenly begins to feel more claustrophobic than free. Fearing for her children's safety, Anna's behaviour becomes increasingly irrational. But why is she so distant from her kind husband, Robert, and why does she suspect something sinister of her son Paul? All teenagers have their difficult phases...

Meanwhile, a young idealistic teacher has just started her first job, set on making a ‘difference'. But when she is brutally attacked by one of her students, her version of events is doubted by even those closest to her. Struggling to deal with the terrible consequences, she does what she can to move on and start afresh.

As the two narratives join, the tension builds to a quietly devastating denouement, shattering everything you thought you believed about nature, nurture and the true meaning of family.

If you come to this book wanting to read a conventional thriller, then it is likely you will be disappointed, for this is a novel that will stretch your understanding of what constitutes a book included in the broad church of the modern crime novel.

‘What Lies Within’, if you really need a reference point, is a psychological study, but one that holds a fascination and an inescapable tension. A tension that is elicited quite skilfully by the author by the simple expedient of making you care deeply about this family and the secrets that you know are going to be the ruin of them. Vowler employs a split narrative – and I can’t say too much without spoiling the way the narratives come together - but, as we get to know what Anna is concealing, the reader is drawn in to share not just her dread of further physical injury but also her fear of what the exposure of her secret will do to the people she loves.

The author writes well from a female perspective. The family dynamics are carefully lineated and explored; each character given space to perform on the stage of the book and given time to worm their way into your heart. Vowler constructs a beautiful sentence: setting poetry on the page with the lightest of touches that will delight those readers who enjoy the journey of a book, as much as they want to know what is going to happen next.

The drama and seclusion of their home, set against the Dartmoor landscape lends itself to the menacing nature of the piece and a strong sense of place helps create an atmosphere that will stay with you long after you have finished the book.

On this basis Tom Vowler is an author to watch out for; a writer, if there is any justice in the world, who is going places.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) Could you describe the jumping off point, or where that first germ of an idea became strong enough to carry a novel?
I love this question, the metaphors resonating perfectly. For me it’s a question of allowing a concept to rise from the unconscious, making itself known, usually at an inconvenient time. The germ then needs to spread, to have room, but also to be fed in order for me to arrive at that jumping off point. Write a bad short story and you’ve wasted a couple of weeks, a bad novel and its two years, so it’s important not to rush in. As a former journalist, my ideas tend to emerge from real-life stories, the fulcrum of ‘What Lies Within’ being an event and set of circumstances that both fascinated and appalled me.
2) I recently heard a prominent crime writer say that nowadays you can’t have a crime novel without a murder, yet you carry it off with ease. What’s wrong with murder then?
‘What Lies Within’ is perhaps more of a psychological thriller, so the book’s momentum can be maintained without a traditional murder. Think of S J Watson’s ‘Before I Go To Sleep’. Of course there is a violent death in mine. Just for good measure.
3) You have an interesting structure with this novel, in terms of the point of view. How did that come about?
While steering clear of spoilers, it was important for the novel’s central event to be narrated not just at different times, but also by different characters. This opened up wonderful potential not only for dramatic tension but for a deeply emotional journey, both for the character and, I hope, the reader.
4) And back to the point of view, you write convincingly from the female perspective, and that is even more potent given what your character is going through. Did you pause before doing so or just dive in?
I dived in then paused when I realised what I’d taken on. It’s tempting to say as writers we inhabit any number of characters, disparate voice from various cultures and ages, so why should a different gender matter? But, yes, employing such close narration of the opposite sex, having her carry the heft of almost the entire book, felt riskier the deeper I got. It’s been great to hear some reviewers comment that they can’t believe it was written by a man.
5) You were previously published as a short story writer. Why did you decide to write a crime novel?
I think the disparity between literary forms is exaggerated. I set out to write compelling, perhaps troubling stories, some of which work well as a novel, others as stories. Indeed, ‘What Lies Within’ began life as the latter.
6) It’s often cited in reviews where the author turned the setting into another character, and you did this spectacularly well. Was this a conscious effort or happy accident?
Thank you. I suppose I had the book’s concept early on, after which characters began to form. But it became clear setting was going to be crucial, not just for atmosphere – the novel’s texture, if you like – but in running away from her terrible past, my character sought a sanctuary, somewhere hidden and unpopulated, where she hopes not to be found.
7) Which writers inspired you? What do you like to read in your free time?
Ones whose deep affection for language isn’t compromised by plot or narrative and vice versa. I want tension, a narrative arc, wonderfully wrought characters, some insight into being human, but if the prose is clumsy or wooden I won’t read on. I always have a collection of stories on the go, perhaps some nature writing such as Macfarlane. Evie Wyld and Andrew Miller are current favourites.
8) What are the best and worst things about the process of writing for you?
I’d be lying if I didn’t own up to some sense of the messianic during composition: all that power, the potential to create something wondrous from scratch, to be the supreme architect. But with this comes an inherent terror that each time you sit down, the mechanism or ability which allowed you to write something of merit previously has gone.
9) You have a degree in psychology (if the interweb is to be believed) how important was that study in your development as a writer?
It’s not something I really consider, but you might have a point. Certainly it demonstrates an interest in people and their flaws, an attraction to the darker aspects of humanity perhaps.
10) What three crime fiction novels have greatly made an impression on you?
‘Forgetting Zoe’ by Ray Robinson
‘Julius Winsome’ by Gerard Donovan
‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver