Where do my ideas come from?
My characters. Books.
Most novels begin with a ‘what if’ question – something that snags an author’s consciousness and won’t let go until it has been thought through, explained and solved.
My first novel, The Suspect, came from a story I was told by a social worker in Nottingham, who had that day taken a newborn baby from a teenage mother whom a judge had deemed incapable of looking after an infant.
As Margaret carried the newborn down the hospital corridor, listening to the screams of its mother, she pondered the ramifications. She looked down at the baby boy and asked, ‘What if one day you come looking for me? Are you going thank me for having saved your life or blame me for having ruined it?’
What a question! What a hook!
My newest novel Shatter begins with a naked woman on a bridge. Not just any bridge, but Brunel’s masterpiece, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. She is perched on the edge, wearing high-heel red shoes and talking on a mobile phone.
My narrator, clinical psychologist, Joseph O’Loughlin, is trying to talk her down, but she isn’t listening…not to him. The voice she hears belongs to someone else.
Finally, she turns to and says, ‘You wouldn’t understand,’ before dropping the phone and tumbling to her death.
A suicide. Shocking. Tragic. Pointless.
Now imagine that three days later her teenage daughter turns up at Joseph O’Loughlin’s doorstep and says her mother would never have killed herself. She was terrified of heights.
This is the ‘what if’ moment. The hook. The central mystery at the heart of Shatter.
As far as I know such an event has never happened in real life, but the inspiration for the idea is very real.
A decade ago when I was working as a journalist in Britain I had the privilege to spend time with forensic psychologist Paul Britton, one of the pioneers of psychological profiling in Britain. Britton worked on string of high profile murder cases in the nineties, including investigations involving Fred and Rosemary West, Jamie Bulger and the gay slayer Colin Ireland.
Among the anecdotes he told me was one concerning a malicious phone caller operating in the north of England – a man who raped women’s mind rather than their bodies.
Ostensibly, he targeted his victims using local newspapers. He would pore over them every day, looking for stories about teenage girls, who had, for example, been selected to play hockey, or netball, or tennis for the county or the district. Sometimes they were promising dancers or actors, who had made the news.
Often the stories included photographs of the girls, in school uniform and mentioned where they lived and went to school.
Using telephone directories, the caller would look for a family with the same name, living in that area. He phoned when the girl was at school, hoping to catch the mother at home.
‘Is that Sarah’s mother?’
‘Yes, who’s this?’
‘I’m the good Samaritan who’s looking after your Sarah.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She had a bit of a fall in the playground. Twisted her knee quite badly. But it’s OK now, I’m looking after her.’
‘Who are you? Where’s Sarah? Can I talk to her?’
‘She’s right here, lying on the bed. She was quite muddy after her fall, so I popped her school uniform in the washing machine and I’ve given her a bath. She has such pretty blonde hair, but I don’t think her uniform flatters her figure. The pleated skirt looks is all wrong.’
‘Please let me talk to her.’
‘I would, but she’s wearing a gag. But I’ll put the phone down next to her ear. Tell her to relax. Tell her to let me do everything I want…’
It’s horrible. It’s shocking. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.
I know what you’re thinking. You think surely a mother would phone the school and make sure.
You’re wrong. A mother would never hang up. Yes, she’d want to call the school. She’d want to phone the police. She’d want to scream for help. But what she would never ever do is hang up the phone. She can’t take that risk. What if he’s telling the truth?
This case haunted me for many years because I could imagine the psychological scarring it caused to the victims. The caller would make these women take off their clothes, walk out of their houses and drive to remote locations. This is where the police would find them, half-frozen, terrified and convinced they were saving their daughters lives.
I live in Australia now – on Sydney’s northern beaches – and it was here that I came across an almost identical case to the one in Britain.
The MO was the same – using local newspapers to gather details about teenage girls and then calling their mothers. In the Sydney case, police believe as many as a thousand women over a six-year period were left mentally scarred by the caller.
The police finally captured him in 1998 after an elaborate operation involving phone taps, hidden cameras, listening devices and voice analysis. One victim had managed to record the caller’s voice on her answering machine.
I have read some of the victim impact statements. Many described their nightmares and how they relived that terrible moment whenever they heard the phone ringing.
I would love, as a postscript, to tell you that the men who committed these crimes were severely punished. In Australia the caller was charged under the Telecommunications Act with using a telephone to menace and harass and also accused of intimidation. He received an eighteen-month jail sentence. In the UK, the offender was sent to a secure psychiatric unit for treatment.
Although neither of these cases is referred to in Shatter, they did help inspire the story. And of all my novels this one is perhaps the purest psychological thriller. It isn’t about body counts or bloody mayhem. It’s about what we perceive is happening. The imagination is capable of conjuring up far more terrifying fates than any horror writer or Hollywood filmmaker can produce.
I’ll leave the final word to my wife (something she’s used to).
She would only read Shatter in daylight hours and said afterwards: ‘You know we’re never going to be invited to dinner again because nobody will have a sick bastard like you in their house.’
Shatter is published by Sphere February 2008 hardback £9.99 BUY IT NOW
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