Friday, 14 June 2013

The Detective's Daughter

How are you all? Today I'm delighted to welcome author Lesley Thomson to WKDN, hope you enjoy the interview below, and I highly recommend Lesley's new novel which kept me reading late into the night.  Now, over to Lesley ... and have a great weekend.

Lesley Thomson grew up in Hammersmith in London, and the borough features in her novels. A Kind of Vanishing won The People’s Book Prize for Fiction in 2010. Lesley combines writing with teaching creative writing and now lives in Lewes with her partner. She is working on a new Stella Darnell mystery. Her new novel, 'The Detective's Daughter' has just been published by Head of Zeus: 
Kate Rokesmith's decision to go to the river changed the lives of many.
Her murder shocked the nation. Her husband, never charged, moved abroad under a cloud of suspicion. Her son, just four years old, grew up in a loveless boarding school. And Detective Inspector Darnell, vowing to leave no stone unturned in the search for her killer, began to lose his only daughter. The young Stella Darnell grew to resent the dead Kate Rokesmith. Her dad had never vowed to leave no stone unturned for her.
Now, thirty years later, Stella is dutifully sorting through her father's attic after his sudden death. The Rokesmith case papers are in a corner, gathering dust: the case was never solved. Stella knows she should destroy them. Instead, she opens the box, and starts to read.

Welcome, Lesley - and congratulations on the publication of 'The Detective's Daughter'. It's a terrific book - I loved 'A Kind of Vanishing', and this feels even more accomplished. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for the story?

I wanted to write about a woman whose father dies and for whom the weight of this loss is not clear.  Due to pressures of work and her parents’ divorce when she was a girl, Stella’s relationship with her father has been remote; they apparently share little in common.  While not autobiographical – I was close to my father and he wasn’t a police officer – I live with the loss of my parents and the changing form of this loss. I was interested to explore this in fiction. 

Alongside this, I had read a book about children losing a parent through murder and this led me to wonder how this experience would affect them as they got older.

Where would you place your work? It has been compared to Kate Atkinson's - do you think there are similarities?

I read Behind the Scenes of the Museum when it first came out, but nothing since. After I was compared to Atkinson, I read Life after Life and absolutely loved it.  She is an accomplished writer, it’s  so clever and absorbing. While mindful of Atkinson’s skill, I can relate to the comparison: she writes with compassion about people, adroitly portraying difficult characters with psychological truth and humour. I too try to do this.  My characters are not necessarily ones readers (including me)would want to have to dinner more than once,  but I hope we see why they are the way they are and can greet them with curiosity and understanding.

In terms of crime fiction, whose work do you admire?

The list is long and ever growing. I came to crime fiction through Ruth Rendell. I was particularly excited when I discovered her psychological thrillers written as Barbara Vine.  I have read Sue Grafton from A to the latest letter; she only gets better and better. Embarking on a series condemned to numbering 27 by virtue of  the alphabet was brave but Grafton does not  tire. The novels are rich and have gained depth over the years. Respect!  I like Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Henning Mankell, I discovered with joy Fred Vargus and Elly Griffiths.  I often reread Patricia Highsmith – I wish I had written Strangers on  Train! On and on...

The first thing that always comes to my mind with your writing is the way you conjure a sense of place. Psychogeography is fascinating - can you tell us about your process in developing your locations. Do you use an A-Z, or Google Street View, like Jack?

Yes.  Or rather these days less the A-Z as the maps  and print in my several old dog-eared copies are now too small! I gave my own absorbed trawling of Street View to Jack,  I am fascinated by how taking journeys on Street View affects my perception of place. If I go to places I have visited on Street View I feel I have been there before. This is not the same as seeing a photo of a street and then going there – the action of ‘walking’ along the road on screen translates to a ‘felt experience’ and becomes a memory.  

I recently read the Lights Out for the Territory by Iain Sinclair using Street View and the internet. I followed Sinclair’s routes, some twenty years after him, looking up his references as I went along, many unfamiliar, this deepened my experience of the text. The highlight was ‘arriving’ at the park where Rachel Whiteread’s House had stood in 1993. I compared pictures then with Streetview now – the house has gone. Another absence. All the while I was on the sofa.

I choose places I know well. I grew up in Hammersmith so my experience of the streets, roads and pavements, the river and parks was formed in childhood. Children have a more tactile relationship with place. They are closer to the ground and use it in play. In Hammersmith there were ramps I roller-skated down, paving where I played hopscotch, rode a bike, crouched down to play with marbles, jacks etc.  I use these visceral memories to recreate a landscape for fiction. The places take on magical proportions so when I have revisited them in real life (and on Street View) – I think not only of my childhood, but of the fictional events that have happened there.

I think we're both fans of Gaston Bachelard - the way you created tension in the story through basements, attics, the quirks of the houses was wonderful. As I said in my review, you have the enviable knack of crafting a chilling sentence - I really did double-check our doors were bolted the night I sat up reading. How do you plan out your domestic spaces?

Yes, I was very excited by Bachelard. One thing that has stayed with me is his description of how birds form the space within their nests by pushing their chests against the walls so that in effect the inside of the nest reflects inversely the shape of the bird. The bird and its living space are in direct relation. Saying this now makes me think of Rachel Whiteread’s House again – the space turned inside out. Rebecca Silnot talks about how by walking we mould our landscapes – a footprint is a trace of a human presence and paths are formed by many of presences. Empty spaces fascinate me, filled as they are by absences of presences.  Evidence of lives lived. I always want to know about those lives.

The house in The Perfume Garden is has stayed in my mind – the lost room. What a terrific idea. I  am also interested in spaces that are occupied less than others like attics and in the next novel after The Detective’s Daughter there is a basement. When planning these domestic spaces,  I choose real buildings that I have only seen from the outside, and invent the inside . I revisit it so often in my mind it takes on a reality.

While we're talking about planning - do you plot your stories carefully before writing? The way you handled the storylines crossing time and place is fluid, but anchored by touchstones that appear in the past and the present - the steps by the river, the sculpture. Was this a deliberate choice? 

Photo: Lesley Thomson. Where Kate Rokesmith's body was found ...

Yes it was deliberate. I write what I like to read. I love books where place has as great a part to play as the protagonists. I want to give readers a topographical familiarity which allows them to make the places their own. The Detective’s Daughter is the first of a series – many of the places (the sculpture and the river ...) will feature again.  I have a rough plan before I start writing, fuelled by a theme or an image. I know the ending. I continue to map the story as I write as well as map where I’ve been so that by the end I can see the whole novel. On a redraft I’ll seed clues or connections into the chapters, even move chapters if necessary. The plan is only complete when the novel is finished; rather a counter intuitive process!

There's a great psychological depth to the characters. I've been reading up on sociopaths for a new story, and found your handling of the killer's character fascinating and accurate. Do you do a lot of research?

I did an enormous amount of research. For The Detective’s Daughter I read articles, books and talked to psychotherapists. In addition to this the subject is an abiding interest – how someone crosses a line, why and then what happens -  so I had already read much. I studied John Bowlby’s works on Attachment Theory – this looks at how children are connected to their parents and what happens if that connection is threatened or broken.

However, I only ever include about 5% of what I gain through research. I am careful to wear this knowledge lightly. My intention is to write a compelling story that engages, intrigues and perhaps stays with the reader for a while. That’s the kind of story I love. The research is to bolster plausibility not sink the story with a weight of information.

Does the starting point for the characters come from people you have met in 'real life'? What's the spark?

No. The characters build themselves in the course of the story. I might take notice of a particular behaviour and be interested to know its cause or the motivation, but actual people are fully formed, they leave no room  for me as a writer to invent them!

I found the relationship that develops between Stella (the 'detective's daughter', and owner of a cleaning company), and Jack (a driver on the underground), really kept me guessing right to the end. Both have chosen solitary lives, both are obsessive in their particular ways. Are you interested by people on the margins of society?

Yes, outsiders have always interested me and attracted me, anyone who forges a life against odds or against the grain. These two are outsiders for different reasons that I hope tell us something about ourselves: what we are and what we are not.

What was it like revisiting characters from 'A Kind of Vanishing' in this new story?

It was stimulating. In the case of Mrs Ramsay I felt her story was not done. She lingered on in my imagination. This question brings me back to your question about place. This story is set close to where Mrs Ramsay lives, I wanted those readers who recognised this to make the spacial connection and become more familiar with the area – they have been there before in fiction as they might on Street View. We experience place through memory and associations as well as in the present, I want to write fiction that reflects this.

What's next for you - will we be hearing more from Stella Darnell?

Yes, I have just completed another novel in which Stella features and I am doing the research and reading for the third.

Thank you, Lesley. If you'd like to read 'The Detective's Daughter' it is available here. You can find out more about Lesley's work at


  1. Fascinating interview, I love reading about the processes writers adopt when drafting their books..

    I've bought my copy and look forward to reading it.

  2. Really fantastic interview - interesting and thoughtful questions and intelligent and fascinating answers - thank you both!

  3. Thanks, Debs and Juliet. It's a great book. I really did get up in the middle of the night to check I'd locked the doors properly ...

  4. I can imagine! Haven't done that since reading Val McDermid's A Place of Execution...


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