Caro Ramsay was born in Glasgow and is the author of novels Absolution, Singing to the Dead and her latest novel Dark Water. Dark, gritty and producing many challenges for the central characters, Detectives Anderson and Costello, Caro takes readers on a thrilling journey through Glasgow and the surrounding areas of Scotland, where nothing is as it seems.
Dark Water starts on a bitterly cold February in Glasgow when a body is found hanging from a rope in the attic of a deserted tenement. It is the body of a man whose face has been hideously disfigured.
Investigating officers DI Anderson and DS Costello believe the body to be a criminal who has been hiding out on the Costa del Sol. He is a suspect in a decade-old case: the rape and attempted murder of a young student by two men. And there are other, similar cases on file. But what has happened to the dead man's accomplice, 'Mr Click'? And with the discovery of another young woman who has been brutally attacked, detectives Anderson and Costello realise this terrifying psychopath has started working once more. They must use every trick in the book to stop him. For Mr Click has developed a taste for his bloodthirsty trade. And to satisfy his lust he will strike again and again …
Hi, Caro, it’s good to talk again and I must start by saying how much I enjoyed Dark Water. To start, tell us all about yourself, and the new book.
I live in a small village on the west coast of Scotland with a poltergeist and a very stupid pit bull. I live in a huge old house which Kirsty Allsop would call a renovation project. My writing room is a turret type of room at the top of the house with views over the Bluebell Woods.
By the way, I have been told not to call the ghost a poltergeist; I should say that I live in a focus of paranormal activity. Political correctness gets everywhere.
Dark Water is book three in the Anderson and Costello series. I know they have been called Scotland’s dynamic crime fighting duo, and while that is flattering, they do sneak off for coffee and a gossip on a regular basis and fail to check that their MOT is up to date! The book is about the recurrence of attacks by a serial rapist that they thought was case solved and closed. The nature of the attacks throw up many challenges for the team, professional and personal, but I don’t really want to give too much away.
Dark Water follows on from Absolution and Singing to the Dead in the way that it is about Partickhill Station and there are some of the same characters (Anderson and Costello leading the way), but it didn’t seem to me to be the traditional type of series where every book has the same characters. Was that deliberate?
I wanted the series to reflect life and the way people are in any work environment – the same characters but with a slightly different emphasis on each character in each book – that is the grand plan that I start off with and then I start writing and the grand plan goes out the window! The characters then start to take over what I write … and in a scary way I trust them to do the right thing.
I spoke to a playwright once and he immediately recognised what I was saying: the characters themselves dictate the dialogue, the action … They know who will hang back and who will go in first, who will worry and who will go with the flow. I think it leads to good characterisation … or maybe schizophrenia in the mind of the writer!! All the books will have Anderson and Costello as the two leads, but the supporting roles are up for grabs!
I also liked the fact that you had a cast of main characters and that none of them got lost in the crowd, but stood out on their own. How do you keep all the various personalities in your head?
To be perfectly honest with you they are real people to me … in my head they do exist. I can tell you what they would eat in a restaurant, what car they drive and what car they would like to drive, so I don’t find it difficult to keep track of them as people. I think Ian Rankin and Mark Billingham have been quoted as saying that their characters are shadowy to them and are totally obedient to what the author wants them to do. Wish mine were! But I think when I want a character to do something and I feel a hesitation, it’s a sign that the situation is not quite right. So keeping track of them is not difficult; keeping track of their ages is a different matter!
Without giving any of the book away, I did smile quite often at the character of Marita, bearing in mind much of the pop/celebrity culture press. Was she based on anyone in particular or a caricature of what is often seen around us?
The latter, I think. I confess I did have fun with her, she was very easy to write as she is everywhere on every magazine cover. Famous yes, but for what?
How did you come up with the story for Dark Water?
I have no idea how I come up with stories - but put a blank sheet of paper in front of me and five minutes later there will be the genesis of a new book. Dark Water explores the nature or nurture argument, and as you picked up … the nature of celebrity today. There was a survey recently where 15 per cent of schoolchildren said they wanted to be a celebrity … as a career!
But writing is just a huge game of ‘what if’. I like putting my characters in a position where they are tested, as Costello is very tested in Book 3 and the reader goes with her on that personal journey. With a few murders, a lot of fog and a one-eared pit bull in the mix.
It’s not just one plot, there are a series of sub plots running through it before the final culmination – did it just write that way or had you planned it?
I’m not a huge planner … my editor wishes I was. I like a few plots that run together like plaited hair, hopefully all coming together at the end. Note the word hopefully.
No character should go through a book only interacting with the main plot line – people marry, divorce, fall out, pass their driving test … add a little criminal element to that and something magical, almost demonic, starts to happen.
Being set in winter, many of the places you describe are very bleak. Was that deliberate to work in with the overall tone of the book?
I think there are things that people are scared of at a really deep, instinctive level, and fog is one of them; it is deeply unsettling and things do not appear as they actually are, sound becomes a sense that confuses you rather than orientates you. I knew the book was going to be set in the middle of a period of icy fog and I think that lends itself to the story. So weather came first and the story second.
I also think that the setting is as important in a book as it is in a film; the scenery, the weather, the atmosphere of the place. My one tip to novice writers is to view the scene as a silent film running in slow motion. Doing that exercise often throws up possibilities for different viewpoints.
The fourth book is set in a heat wave (in Glasgow?? Oh yes, it’s fiction!) So relentless sunshine, the heat in a big city, airless, oppressive - you can see how that sets the tone of the story before I’ve written a word.
Your research and detailed explanations of police procedure, forensics and pathology are significant to the storyline and I have read before that you envy the time some people can spend on research. Do you have anyone specific you speak to in various areas once you know what you want to know?
I’m lucky in having a medical background and speaking fluent ‘medicine’ which adds a huge amount of authenticity. That’s what I get asked most to help other writers with, i.e. what is the correct medical word for …? I’m also lucky that my patients are many and varied so I just ask them anything I need to know!
I was discussing the use of handcuffs on a six-year-old child to a cop with a six-year-old child. He went away and tried what I was suggesting … And then I asked a retired cop about the handcuffs of 1974 and he told me something that really fired up the story. I often find that casual chats like that often throw up interesting titbits. But I am going to be a spoilsport and not tell you what.
I am also very lucky that I tend not to talk to people in their official capacity - talking to them in a more chatty sense gets me the sense of the job as it is, not the job as it is supposed to be. i.e. ask a defence lawyer about how detectives work. Ask detectives about defence counsel!
Will your next book follow on in the same theme and can you tell me anything about it? Will we be seeing the remaining Partickhill team again? If not, what is next for you?
Yes. Book 4 is 4000 words away from being finished. Partickhill station is closed for refurbishment so our heroes are relocated at Partick. Anderson seems to be taking the lead in one story line, Costello the other. Circumstances have forced them apart but the caseload is slowly pulling them together. Wyngate seems to want a bigger role in this book, Mulholland has been demoted for being naughty, Lambie is preparing for his wedding, and Quinn has retired.
A young girl is found tied to a metal ladder at the waterline of the Clyde. She was chained there while alive and left for the tide to come in. But that’s a first draft and who knows what might evolve from it.
I have read that you struggle to find time to write. Has that improved over the last year?
It’s increasingly difficult to find time to write, and do my day job, and do the publicity and the PR, etc. It’s getting worse, not better, and something will have to give soon – probably my sanity!
However it concentrates the mind. No luxury of writer’s block for me!
Are you someone who thinks of something and grabs whatever is to hand (paper napkin, receipt, restaurant bill) to write on as the idea arises or can you hold the idea in your head until you can sit down to write it properly?
Ideas sit very easily in my head … and stay there for a long time. Sometimes they don’t go away and let me sleep until I get them out of my head and committed to paper so they are safe.
I also write down things patients say - today one was describing something and said, ‘Imagine doing that so close to home. It’s like shitting on your own baby’s head.’ I am so going to use that!
Being a fan of Taggart myself and having a friend from a similar area who we all used to make say ‘Murder’ regularly, do you think that crime fiction (books and television) has changed significantly over the years and how do you see yourself in that change and progression?
When Taggart was first broadcast I was a tiny student. I remember putting an X–ray on a plate when the clinic buzzer went. A voice asked, ‘Will somebody ask Caro what a deebody is? It was on the TV last night?’ I had to think for a minute before I realised they meant dead body. But yes, there’s nothing like a Glaswegian saying the word Murrrderr to set the scene.
Crime writing goes in fashion and circles - are we getting bored with fibres and trace transfer evidence now? Are we fed up with pathologists on TV running around with too much make-up and impossibly small bottoms? It’s getting ridiculous. It’s programmes like Frost and Taggart that will still be running in x years’ time; much more character-driven and low key. As for me, I just write what I want to write, so don’t think I’m influenced by fashion or progressive change. But my books are very character-driven and people seem to like the characters and I don’t think that ever goes out of fashion.
As all good things have to end, my final question is that there have recently been several novels filmed as either a series or a one-off film. How would you feel about seeing your work on screen? And who would you pick to play a character (any character you like)?
Can you imagine somebody filming your life and choosing actors to play Mum, Dad, the family dog? And then saying Dad is not tall enough, the dog is too ugly … etc, etc … I think it would be a bit like that.
I know what my characters look like and I can’t visualise them in any other way. I think I’d be chuffed with the cheque and then not watch it. Not that I would mind if it was well done but it would be too close to me. Am I making sense?
Yes totally. It’s in your head and TV adaptations are probably never going to be what you envisage.
But - my editor always fancied Jose Mourinho to play Alan McAlpine (I think she just wanted him on the casting couch) and while her McAlpine was different to the one in my head, they both fitted the description! But I’m sure readers have their own ideas what these characters look like, and I’m happy that they have that freedom.
Thank you for your time, Caro – I shall now leave you alone with the ‘focus of paranormal activity’!
Caro can be found at http://www.caroramsay.co.uk/index2.html with her blog at http://caroramsay.blogspot.com/
Caro Ramsay and Dark Water at Penguin books http://www.penguin.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780141044347,00.html
Penguin £7.99 pbk August 2010
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