Licence to thrill

In addition to being a full-time writer, Sophie Hannah has also been elected a fellow of Lucy Cavendish College at the University of Cambridge, which organises the Women’s Word literary festival every year.

By (Reuters)

Published: Fri 16 Jul 2010, 9:54 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:25 PM

Hannah has also published five books of poetry, children’s books and a collection of short stories called the Fantastic Collection of Everybody’s Secrets, for one of which she won the 2004 Daphne du Maurier Prize for suspense short story.

She spoke to Reuters about her work and crime writing in general, on the sidelines of the Semana Negra (Noir Week) crime writing festival, one of the biggest literary fairs in Europe.

Q. The Semana Negra has spent 23 years seeking to knock down the walls between high- and low-brow writing. Where do you stand?

A. Two things. I know a lot of crime writers think there shouldn’t be any distinction. Now, I disagree with that because I think the genre label of crime or mystery is useful for readers.

So somebody like me who loves mysteries, if I go to the crime and mystery section of the book shop, I know that I will find lots of books in which the mystery aspect is important for the writer.

Q. You don’t mind being pigeon-holed?

A. I always say that I am a crime writer. I am definitely not a general novelist. The way I strongly disagree with it is when it has value judgments attached, so I don’t agree with what a lot of people think which is that somehow crime and mystery fiction is a lesser species, because I just don’t think it is.

You only have to read really brilliant crime or suspense novelists like Barbara Vine or Patricia Highsmith, there’s loads, Daphne du Maurier, people like that to see that the crime novel can be a brilliant novel.

The snobbery aspect of it I think is ridiculous, but I think it has a lot to do with people wanting to seem clever. People who are insecure about their own cleverness say, “I read crime fiction but only Scandinavian,” because that sounds more high-brow, and they want to be seen reading literary novels because it makes them look clever.

Personally, I know I’m clever and I like reading mysteries and don’t think that it makes me any less clever.

Q. You’ve mentioned Barbara Vine. Has she been an inspiration to you?

A. Yes, absolutely. I discovered her work when I was at university as a student. I was about 19, decided she was my favourite writer, read everything she’d written and under her Ruth Rendell name as well, and she’s still my favourite writer.

She shows what’s possible within the confines of a genre label, shows that it’s possible to do anything and write any kind of book, and that’s what I’m interested in doing.

I stick to the formula of you know it’s a crime novel, there are certain basic rules, you set up a mystery at the beginning, you solve it at the end, you try to mislead the reader or at least make sure they don’t guess what’s going on.

But within that, I try to be as original and literary as possible, because I don’t think a murder mystery has to be just routine and churned out. It can be a proper brilliant book as well.

Q. Tell us about your latest crime novel.

A. I’ve just written the sixth in the series. They’re stand-alone thrillers in the sense that each one has a different heroine in a different situation. They’re also a series in the sense that there’s a community of detectives in all the books, and they are the same detectives.

The one I’ve just finished in the UK, it’s coming out in February and called Lasting Damage.

It starts with a woman in the middle of the night looking at a property website. Not just aimlessly browsing, but looking for a particular house, but the reader doesn’t know why.

She clicks on the virtual tour button and one by one the rooms pop up, and when the picture of the lounge comes up, there’s a dead woman in it lying face-down in a huge pool of blood that completely ruins the beige carpet, so she’s completely shocked and thinks this is a strange property marketing technique.

She rushes to the bedroom to wake her husband up, but by the time he comes and sits down at the computer, the lounge is absolutely normal-looking and there’s no body and no blood.

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