I can still remember the first time I read Red Dragon, featuring the first appearance of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter. I was in my early teens and babysitting my younger brother and sister in an isolated holiday house, halfway up a mountain in rural Ireland. When my parents came back from dinner I was a gibbering wreck, obsessively running my hands round the glass in the window-panes. I was so terrified I didn’t sleep right for the rest of the holiday. That small battered paperback with the white and red cover had disturbed me more than anything in the real world.
I learned early on that books could be far more frightening than any horror film. My mother was strict about TV, and maybe the only person in the world who actually stuck to the age limits on films. (You might remember how uncool it was being thirteen and only allowed to watch PG and 12-certs.) I couldn’t even watch Neighbours until I was at secondary school, but I was always allowed to read almost anything I wanted. As an adult, reading is generally seen as wholesome and improving, so it’s funny to remember when it used to be an illicit act, when books were something you had to hide, like smoking a sneaky cigarette behind the bike sheds. (Not something I ever actually did; I was far too much of a teacher’s pet). In fact the only time I got in trouble was for reading ‘unsuitable’ books in class - I’ll never forget sneaking reads of Flowers in the Attic (themes including murder, incest, and child imprisonment) under my Introduction to Physics textbook.
I always enjoyed the dark and scary books more – Point Horror instead of Point Romance, Stephen King’s It instead of Sweet Valley High. The books were a big contrast to my everyday life. I grew up in Northern Ireland, where we were constantly aware of dark things occurring nearby, but I also lived in a quiet rural area and went to a very sheltered convent school. Almost everything I learned about fear, sex, or violence came from the pages of a book. So it’s probably no surprised that when I started writing myself, what came out was full of danger, terror, and foreboding. Everything I write seems to be in this vein. Even when I do short stories, my characters are put through a wringer of horrors – suicide, abuse, lost children, all manner of trauma and danger.
You can tell a lot about someone from what scares them most. And whatever that is, you’re sure to find it reflected in a crime novel. Losing a loved one? Being abducted? Finding out your partner isn’t who they seem? Discovering a stranger in your house? Being trapped in a dark tunnel? One of the most frightening things about Red Dragon isn’t the horrible torture and violence, but the idea of someone watching your family from the outside, and coming into your home at night. My dad told me that when he read it he had to sit up all night with his eyes fixed on the patio doors, just in case someone should be planning to break in with a glass-cutter and murder us all in our beds.
When I came to write myself, I knew it was going to be on the dark side, but I also knew I didn’t want to write about the mechanics of death or pain. Although I’ve been riveted to my share of books with elaborate tortures, cunning forensic deductions, and cold-blooded killers, I really wanted to write about what happens after the crime. I wanted to look at what violent crime is actually like for most people who experience it. Many crime novels tap into the fear of a sadistic, unknown killer. The victims are usually chosen at random, and are often innocent – perhaps children, or young vulnerable women. (Crime writers have put young women through a lot of horrific violence over the years.) But while this kind of killer does exist, and it shocks us deeply when the stories hit the news, most murderers aren’t like this – most of them are ordinary people, like you and me, and to me that’s even more frightening.
For most of us, I think, if we experience violence, it’s as an intrusion into our daily lives, a terrible rupture from normality that leaves us reeling. How do you cope with that? And what if you’re the one who does the crime? I’m fascinated by what makes an ordinary person crack and commit a murder. Or what if you killed someone by accident, and your whole life was ruined as well as theirs? To me that’s almost more frightening than being stalked by a serial killer. In my book The Fall, the murder is really a catalyst to the events that follow, when a disparate group of people are brought together, and it’s that aftermath that represents the fears I wanted to examine. What if your life collided with someone else’s, and rapidly fell to pieces round you? What if you lost your job and your house? What if the person you loved was revealed to be someone else, a killer, hiding dark secrets? I wanted to write about what happens after the murder.
I was also interested in the roles of victim and killer in crime novels. The book does open with a young women being attacked, and the two main characters are female, but they’re not the murder victims. Rather they’re the ones who have to drive the search for justice and rebuild their own lives. In the process they face the fear of physical threat, but also of losing their homes, and families, and everything that makes them who they are. I think those fears are relevant to everyone, and the kind of plausible nightmare we can all imagine. We all worry about our lives and jobs and families, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes wakes up at 3 a.m, brooding about all kinds of fears – should I get that mole looked at? Did I lock the back door? What if we need to replace the car this winter? I think we’re far more likely to be afraid of things that could really happen, and we probably don’t worry all that much about being the victim of a brutal killer. Unless you’ve just been reading Thomas Harris, of course, in which case, check your doors and windows…