Who killed theatre director Max Quincey during a run of the play Jack-in-the-Box in London’s West End? Who killed the male prostitutes back in 1985, when the show was last performed and when Max was the star? What is the significance of the Jack-in-the-Box doll found with the body, the markings on its eyes matching mutilations to Max’s face, and identical to the toys found with each of the original victims? Has the killer returned? Is it a copycat? Or a revenge slaying for the rent boy murders when Max was prime suspect? The questions are stacking up for DCI Yvonne ‘Von’ Valenti, and her partner, DI Steve English, as she races against the clock to unravel a tangled web of clues, lies and halftruths, to catch a deranged killer before they strike again. Von investigates both cases simultaneously as she battles with a wall of silence and increasingly fractured relationships with the Chief Super, her journalist boyfriend, Kenny, and errant teenage daughter, Georgie.
1. How did you get started writing?
I’m not one of those people who dreamed of being a writer when I was a little girl. I’d thought about it off and on but I decided to give it a serious go only when I went on holiday to the Icehotel. This hotel, in Swedish Lapland, is built entirely of ice. During the day it’s a museum, as there are ice statues in the rooms, but at night it becomes a hotel. There are no doors, just red velvet curtains that cover the entrances to the rooms. As I lay in my survival sleeping bag on a heap of reindeer skins, it struck me that anyone could come in while I was asleep and murder me. The fact that there’s snow on the floor and the walls are made of ice means it would be well-nigh impossible to get any forensic evidence. And the prints from snowboots are all the same and people are hidden under hood and masks. I kept thinking that this would make a great venue for a murder and, when I got back home, I thought, well, why not give it a go?
2. What drew you to write a crime novel?
I think the crime genre is fantastic, both for a writer and a reader. In a crime mystery of the kind that I like to write, the writer needs to lay down a string of clues and red herrings. It then becomes a race between the reader and the writer: can the reader solve the mystery before he or she gets to the end? But it’s a race the reader wants to lose. At the end, the main questions have to be answered to everyone’s satisfaction, but there has to be that final twist that will leave readers going ‘Ah!’ It’s enormous fun to try to create this.
3. Which writers past or present have influenced your style of writing?
It’s hard to say. I’ve never consciously tried to emulate any particular writer’s style, although I’m sure that all the books I’ve read have influenced me to some extent. At school, we were encouraged to read, although there wasn’t the marvellous selection of books there is now. The writer that has stayed with me through my life is probably Graham Greene. He has a quiet prose that is hard to find in books these days.
4. When you first started writing did you find it hard to get publisher interest?
Yes, and I think this is par for the course. Certainly all the advice I was given is that this would be the biggest hurdle to get over. However, I was strongly urged not to approach publishers directly but to find an agent, as some publishers don’t accept approaches except through an agent. Finding an agent can be just as, if not more, difficult, as there are many more people writing these days and agents can take on only so many writers before they start to spread themselves too thinly. A good agent knows the publishing world, what is and isn’t selling, and is able to guide a writer in his or her career. Writing can be a lonely occupation, and having someone on your side can make all the difference. I’ve been extremely lucky in my agent, Jenny Brown. I met her after I went on an Arvon crime-writing course. We had to read passages from novels we were working on, and our tutor, who happens to work in Jenny’s agency, came to me afterwards and suggested I contact Jenny when my book was finished. I sent her the completed manuscript of Jack in the Box, she asked to meet me, and then took me on. It’s thanks to her that Jack in the Box was taken on by the publisher, Freight Books, a young and energetic Glasgow-based publishing house.
5. There are many interesting characters in your Novels, do you have a particular favourite one?
I have to say that the protagonist, Von Valenti, in my crime series, is my favourite. She’s a woman in a man’s world and has had to fight to get where she is. Her background, working-class East End of London, sometimes helps and sometimes hinders her. But what she has that should endear her to readers is her single-minded conviction that the bad guys should never get away with it. And when it comes to people who have been disadvantaged, she has a heart as big as Buckingham Palace. So, for example, in Jack in the Box, although she is given the case of the murder of an actor, she finds herself drawn more and more to the murders of the rent boys. This puts her in conflict with her colleagues.
6. What kind of research have you had to undertake for your Novels?
Its mainly police and forensic procedures, and you have to get those right. I’m fortunate in that I attended a series of talks by two former detectives, who outlined the procedures that police follow, right from attending a crime scene through to prosecution, and even after. There’s loads of information on the Internet about forensics, but I have to confess that I also watch Silent Witness! But as regards the plot, there are three things you can do: you can read up about it, you can draw on your own experiences, and you can ask someone who’s an expert. I know of writers who do all their research at their desks, but I’m a great believer in getting out there. My second Von Valenti novel, Double Tap, has scenes set in a paintballing club. I decided to have a go myself, and I think the bruises haven’t yet faded. For Jack in the Box, I drew on my experiences of theatre-going in London (as the story is set in the world of the theatre). While I was down there, poking about the West End, the friend I was staying with (a social worker) suggested she take me round London at night. I can’t now remember all the places, but I saw a London that few tourists ever visit. I was struck by how young the male prostitutes were and decided there and then to make that world a strong theme in the book.
7. Are the characters in your books based on any real life?
I’m fortunate in that I’ve met many interesting and charismatic people, so I couldn’t resist having some of them in my books. I have enormous fun in starting with a person I know, and then adding or subtracting character traits to create a fictional character. My three godchildren have all appeared in my novels, and so has my niece. I worked in a university for several years, and there’s a wealth of material there. Whether any of them have ever recognised themselves is another matter!
8. Since you have started writing have any well known authors given you any advice?
Both the tutors (Louise Welsh and Allan Guthrie, each an award-winning author) on one of my writing courses have given me the best advice. Louise’s session on characters and how to make them come alive is something that I refer to again and again. Allan’s sessions on removing unnecessary words and sentences, and making your writing clear, as well as his ideas on suspense and surprise in a novel, are like gold dust.
9. Do you see any of your characters’ personality in yourself and vice versa?
I think it’s almost impossible not to let bits of yourself creep into your characters. If you feel strongly about something, you have to guard against letting a character go off on one, especially if that character may not feel quite as strongly about the same issue! Usually, though, the characters are nothing like me, and that’s part of the fun of creation.
10. If you can, would you give us a sneaky peak into any future novels you have planned?
So, Jack in the Box is already out. The second in the Von Valenti series is called Double Tap and it will be out in April of next year. Von has now moved up to Edinburgh to be with her daughter and is working as a professional investigator. She is given a missing person’s, which gets entangled with the case of a murdered paintballer, a case that her old buddy DI Steve English is trying to solve. The two of them find their paths crossing, and soon become involved with a big US pharmaceutical company in Livingston. The Pork Butcher, the third Von Valenti novel, will hopefully come out the year after Double Tap. It’s set in the meat-processing industry, and begins with someone finding bits of metal in their sausages. DI Steve English is called to investigate what he thinks is a dirty-tricks campaign by a rival sausage manufacturer. Meanwhile, Von investigates the case of a little boy whose father, the owner of a pork-butchery company, has disappeared. The fourth Von Valenti, still in production (and without a title!) is also set in Edinburgh. An American comes to town to auction off his spectacular collection of Fabergé objects, including one of the missing Imperial Eggs. Meanwhile, Von meets a Russian billionaire, come to Edinburgh to attend the auction. He gives her an assignment, which is to pick up a parcel for him. When she arrives at the meeting place, she finds the contact has been murdered. The police suspect her, and she goes into hiding.
11. Out of all the Novels you have written do you gave a favourite one that stands out to you?
It’s hard to say. I guess my favourite would have to be my first, Icehotel. It’s the one I wrote and rewrote the most, and it’s fair to say I honed my writing skills doing it.
12. As a well known crime writer do you have words of advice you can share?
The best advice is: never give up. If you believe you can do it, then you WILL do it. But be prepared for a long haul as it won’t happen overnight. By all means, show what you’ve written to others to critique, but be wary of friends who tell you what they like and don’t like, rather than telling you what works and what doesn’t work. The two are not the same. Avoid like the plague those friends who try to tell you what you should write. The work has to be yours. Otherwise you’ll find yourself not satisfied with what you’ve produced, and you’ll give up. If you feel you need help, there are plenty of self-help books out there. Find one that works for you. And read as much as you can!
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