My debut crime novel Without Trace is the first in a series of psychological thrillers featuring Morgan Vine, an investigative journalist who specialises in miscarriages of justice. The book begins with single mother Morgan chairing a reading group in HMP Dungeness, a pretext to visit her old flame, Danny Kilcannon, for whom she still holds a torch. He’s been convicted of murdering his teenage daughter. Unlike Morgan, the world believes him to be guilty. As far as she’s concerned, her childhood sweetheart couldn’t harm a fly, which is why she visits as often as possible, and why she has moved to live nearby, in a converted railway carriage on the beach
Situated amid Dungeness’s beautiful, eerie landscape, HMP Dungeness is a figment of my imagination. However, I’ve run reading groups in HMP Brixton and volunteer as a facilitator in restorative justice, working with offenders in the same prison, so I’m able to draw freely on first-hand experience when recreating the sights, sounds and smells that make up life behind bars.
The staleness of the air is something very particular to life in prison, even more than hospitals, which can also feel as if they are sealed off from the outside world. For obvious reasons, prison windows, gates and doors are never open for long, so the atmosphere is comprised of a fetid fug - highly claustrophobic, especially in summer, and reminiscent of the interior of a plane at the end of a long-haul flight.
Without exception, the men I’ve encountered in prison have been affable, congenial and good company. It’s easy to forget that many of them have committed serious offences. The usual rule applies: don’t ask, don’t tell. We stick to talking about books - from Martina Cole (a prison favourite) to Graham Greene - or, in restorative justice sessions, about the offence that has put a prisoner behind bars, and how he might try to make amends to his victims and take steps to address his offending behaviour.
Like Morgan Vine in Without Trace, I believe in second chances and redemption. In her case, however, an unshakable faith in the innocence of her old flame provides the starting point for a rollercoaster investigation that will test her loyalty to the limit and push her to the brink.
When Danny’s appeal is successful, he’s released from HMP Dungeness and turns for support to Morgan and her teenage daughter, Lissa. But when shocking events come to light and Lissa goes missing under mysterious circumstances, the finger of suspicion soon points in Danny’s direction. Reeling, Morgan is forced to question everything she thinks she knows about the love of her life. Is Danny the wronged innocent she believes him to be? Or a ruthless killer who has manipulated not only Morgan herself but the entire criminal justice system?
As the ‘shout line’ says, She fought to free him. Now is he free to kill?
Without Trace by Simon Booker is out in ebook on 28th January (£4.99, Twenty7) and release in paperback on 16th June. You can buy the ebook here