Fresh Blood

Name: Dominic Nolan

Title of Book: Past Life

'A superb debut you won’t forget!'

Waking up beside the dead girl, she couldn't remember anything. Who she was. Who had taken her. How to escape.

Detective Abigail Boone has been missing for four days when she is finally found, confused and broken. Suffering retrograde amnesia, she is a stranger to her despairing husband and bewildered son.

Hopelessly lost in her own life, with no leads on her abduction, Boone's only instinct is to revisit the case she was investigating when she vanished: the baffling disappearance of a young woman, Sarah Still.
Defying her family and the police, Boone obsessively follows a deadly trail to the darkest edges of human cruelty. But even if she finds Sarah, will Boone ever be the same again?

There are very few times in a reviewer’s life when you randomly pick up a book without any expectation and within the first few pages you are blown away. Caught up in the maelstrom that is Abigail Boone, a woman with a past but her memory has been totally wiped, a clean slate. What Boone appears to do is not be phased by this. Where others would be craving for that chink of light, Boone (as she prefers to be addressed post-trauma), takes it in her stride, allowing her to be a bit cavalier with others emotions. She feels a disconnect with those few around her, and although her amnesia is the driving force behind this book, it does not overpower the plot itself. This book is all about identity. Do we truly know other people? Do we truly know ourselves and what we are capable of?

To find some sense of how she got where she is, Boone again tries to find Sarah Still in the hope that she may even find herself in the process. Nolan is wonderfully adept at springing to life the characters in his story, all have their own individual voice and back story. A particular favourite of mine was Mickey Box, a man you wouldn’t want to cross, yet intelligent and one you can’t quite pin down as he changes shade like a chameleon. Nolan is quite brutal in places, with events as well as his characters. Not everyone gets out unscathed, Boone included as the permutations of her search for Sarah ripple far and wide.

Finding ‘Past Life’ as I did was a bonus, a book that gripped me from page one all the way to the end. Nolan paints with wonderful broad and dark strokes, that I am certain there will quickly be a legion of Boone fans. ‘Past Life’ is an assured and adept novel from another fresh writer entering the crime fiction arena. I am sure that writers and readers alike will take Nolan and Boone to their dark hearts and on their author list immediately after reading ‘Past Life’. A superb debut you won’t forget!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) Detective Abigail Boone wakes up in a flat with a dead body, two violent men and no idea who she is and how she got there. Was this scenario always going to be the opening for your debut?
When I sat down to write the novel, I had a clear picture of its structure and how the plot developed and that scene was the first thing I wrote, yes. I wanted to get things started in media res, both to draw the reader in immediately, and because it’s what the abrupt schism in Boone’s consciousness must feel like.

Boone had existed in rougher forms in my head for a while, however, before I had a full plot or had even thought of the amnesia concept. I sketched out a few scenes involving this outlaw woman who seeks a wild form a justice, the first of which actually became something that happens near the very end of 'Past Life'. I don’t want to say too much about it as in the end I cut the scene from the final text - the event is still referenced but occurs off-page - but it has evolved and become part of the next Boone novel.
2) Abigail Boone can’t remember a thing about her life before she woke up in the flat, not even remembering her husband and son. Did you have to do any research in to amnesia and its effects on sufferers? Why did you decide to leave your main protagonist with this gaping hole in her memory?
Amnesia was the concept that made the whole novel fall into place for me. Boone was darting about between the trees at the back of my mind, and I had a rough idea of a plot involving a person who had been missing for years, but it didn’t click until I married those parts with the memory loss.

It was attractive to me on a couple of levels. Superficially, I was interested in some of the more hackneyed aspects of mystery fiction—the rogue detective, the missing girl, the amnesiac—and working them into a plausible pastiche. I think pastiche has negative connotations for a lot of people, as if it’s a pejorative, but it’s really not. It’s an inescapable truth that books are made of other books, or more broadly fictions are made of other fictions. Some of the greatest crime fiction is pastiche, using the forms and tropes of its progenitors to explore new ideas.

So I wanted to take these familiar mechanics of crime fiction and put them to work for me. The amnesia was a way of looking at identity, of exploring what might happen to a person when they are completely unanchored from the experiences that have shaped their life and personality. Though some semantic knowledge was retained by Boone, almost everything that living her particular life has taught her about things like love, intimacy, sexuality, gender, etc, are lost to her. She’s a palimpsest and has to negotiate a world she has very little feel for, rewriting her beliefs from scratch over the effaced first draft of her life.

There are real life cases of people who have suffered total retrograde amnesia—some who recovered their memories, some who lost and recovered them several times over, and some who never remembered their past lives or who they had been at all. They are rare cases, and reading about them several things struck me. Firstly, there didn’t always seem to be an obvious cause for the amnesia (e.g. head trauma or extreme stress triggers), and secondly, how people coped with it (whether they tried to reintegrate themselves into their lives or if they rejected them) differed greatly from case to case. So I gave myself a lot of leeway.

I find that once I’ve done research on a topic, I like to put it in my back pocket and then prioritise the story I’m telling over any rigorous adherence to verisimilitude. It’s a balancing act, and though the basic building blocks of the novel border on the outrageous, I sought to write it as plausibly as I could from a character perspective. The radical truths of the story you’re telling should always be the most important thing when you’re writing it.
3) For a debut, you are very good at drawing and defining characters, in particular the women in ‘Past Life’. I loved Roo and found Mickey Box intriguing. What do you think is more important: plot or character? Which comes first for you when writing?
When it comes down to it, they’re not really different things. I used to think there was some kind of sliding scale, with one kind of writing at one end which forged drama from within the internality of character, and another sort at the other end which imposed melodrama onto its characters from the externality of plot. This kind of thinking is how we end up with the obscene bifurcation of our fiction between “literary” and “category.”

Now I think that’s bullshit. For me, it comes down to structure, to attaining a psychological coherence and crystalline clarity in your writing. Think of structure as the body, and plot and character as two moving parts that are of that body. Like Paul the Apostle says in one of his deranged-but-completely-right letters to the Corinthians, “Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.” Many parts. One body.

Having said all that, I know what you’re saying. The soup in my head contains at any given moment an array of characters like a travelling cast of players, and a selection of half-baked plots and ideas. In the nascent stages of a project I usually find things coalesce together in one of two ways; either in the form of a character which is later weave together with a plot, or a concept which marries itself to one or more of the cast of players. So, in this case, Boone was the earliest strand of the novel that existed, and then the plot and the memory concept were worked in there, and they all change each other and evolve together so in the whole none of them appear how they once did alone and floating in the soup. When you whittle away at character, it often means finessing plot, and vice-versa.
4) As a new debut author, what piece of advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Think about what you want, and then persist. And what you want should be to write every single fucking day, because if you don’t want to do that, then maybe this isn’t what you really want. To be frank, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but not necessarily an author. I had never given a second thought to notions of publicity or events or having any kind of public presence following publication. The writing itself was always the thing.

There’s no way of talking about “my art” without sounding insufferably wanky, so I’ll call it my process instead, which is a better, more accurate term anyway. I love the process of writing, and I’ve been doing it for a while. 'Past Life' might be the first novel I’m having published, but it isn’t the first one I’ve written. My agent and I had been specialising in eliciting rave rejections for allegedly unsellable novels for almost ten years before Headline bit on this one.

I never really took rejections seriously, though, because I’m not sure how seriously I took the idea of being published. It was some abstract destination at the end of long journey, and the journey was the process of writing. The process is what I do every day, and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. In a quite literal way, the process is what I am. The ultimate cliché—the journey is more important than the destination. It is itself the lodestone to which I have always been attracted. The publication stuff is all gravy other people pour on afterwards.

Which is all a longwinded way of saying, just write. Write what you love, because you love it, and if you’re good at it and keep on doing it and getting better, chances are someone will notice eventually.

Also, don’t be afraid of taking commissions that pay cash money. There’s no such thing as selling out. You’ll always find time to write what you want to write, but if someone wants to pay you to write other stuff, it’s better than working for a living.
5) Are we going to hear more from Abigail Boone in future books?
Sure. Boone will be back in March 2020. The second book is in the bag, and it’s a step forward. Broader scope, bigger ideas, greater threats, and masses more mayhem.

We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, and you know someone’s going to die. And, as ever with Boone, there are worse things than death, and she’ll find all of them.
6) Are you a fan of crime fiction? If so, which three crime novels would you like with you if stranded on a desert island?
I love crime fiction, although my favourite writer is Elizabeth Taylor (not that one, the other one), who wouldn’t be classified as crime. I’ve found as I get older that my favourite writers shift probably every ten years or so. (I don’t get that whole having a favourite book that you first read as a teenager thing. Really, you haven’t changed in all that time? What are you, the Sphinx?).

Picking three is a terrible thing to do to someone, though. Hell’s wrong with you? That’s worse than being stranded on a desert island in the first place. There are some writers where I find my appreciation for them increases greatly when I consider the whole corpus of their work, rather than having a stand out volume. Patricia Highsmith is one. Obviously she wrote brilliant books, both individually and as part of the Ripliad, but all of them rubbing up together seem more than the sum of their parts somehow. Elmore Leonard is another one. Margaret Millar a third.

But if I had to pick three books right now, which I would instantly regret when my toes were in the sand, they would be: Newton Thornburg’s ‘Cutter and Bone’, because it still surprises me even though I know exactly what is going to happen; Dorothy B Hughes’s ‘In a Lonely Place’, because it’s a slender slice of noir perfection, but you’re due punishment for me never being able to read The Expendable Man or The Blackbirder again; Leonard Gardner’s ‘Fat City’, the only novel he ever published and one of the great mic drops in American letters.