Today is Day 9 of the Blog Tour for BONES IN THE RIVER. Last stop on the tour is ShotsMag Confidential, where I’m the guest of the remarkable Ayo Onatade, talking about taking the first book in the Lakes Crime Thriller trilogy, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, from being a standalone into the start of a new series.
Although I’ve said I’ll do three books with CSI Grace McColl and Detective Nick Weston for the moment, I’m not ruling out more. And if the response is as positive as it’s been so far, that has become a distinct possibility!
When is a Series not a SeriesThere was Never Going to Be a Second BookWhen my Lakes-set crime thriller, DANCING ON THE GRAVE came out in late 2018, it was fully intended as a standalone novel. In fact, I stated as much in the sub-title of the book.
I’m not quite sure who I was trying to convince.That story is my take on the Washington Sniper incident from back in 2002, but transported to the English Lake District. I focused the story around four of the main characters—rookie CSI Grace McColl; recently transferred Detective Constable Nick Weston; the sniper himself; and the disturbed teenage girl who becomes his spotter.Unlike my first-person POVCharlie Fox series, DANCING ON THE GRAVE was written in close third-person viewpoint, so I could get right inside the heads of the characters—including the perpetrators. That made it feel, to me as I wrote it, unlike the usual police procedural. The story allowed me to explore a number of themes that were important to me, about the abandonment of former military personnel after their service was up, and what seems to be the current obsession with ‘being famous’ without regard to reason.But I didn’t think it would be an easy book to follow up, even if I’d been intending to. Reviewers and readers had other ideas.Such was the response to Grace and Nick that I was eventually persuaded to give them a second outing. (Although, strictly speaking, Grace’s first appearance was in a short story,Tell Me, which you can currently read on the Crime Readers’ Association website.)The basic idea for BONES IN THE RIVER has been with me in some form or another for more than fifteen years. Back in the early 2000s, I was living in the small market town of Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria, while building a house in the Eden valley. Every year in the first week in June, Appleby Horse Fair takes place in the town. It’s been held in one form or another since medieval times, but since the beginning of the last century it’s grown into the largest gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Europe.Held from Thursday to the following Wednesday (but mainly Friday to Sunday) the Fair attracts around 10,000 members of the Travelling community—quadrupling the population of the town. Another 30,000 visitors flock in to watch the spectacle of horses being washed in the River Eden and shown off along the Flashing Lane.Locally, it’s greeted with mixed feelings. There are those who love it for the extra business and revenue it generates. And equally those who hate it for the disruption it causes. Not just during Fair week, but also in the run-up to the event, as the different Romany clans begin to assemble in outlying villages.It is, I was told, a very good time to settle old scores. If one of your neighbours has pissed you off, you wait until the Fair to get your own back, and blame it on the Gypsies. The police are always out in number and trouble is, shall we say, not unknown.So I set my story against this backdrop. It was somehow a metaphor for what was going on in the country at large over Brexit, where outsiders were viewed with suspicion and distrust. My aim was to portray without romanticising or demonising either. People are people, and there are good and bad of all types.I also wanted to look closely at the effects of a split-second bad decision on someone who has spent their life on the ‘right’ side of the law. To see the slow, corrosive consequences as they are forced to compound their sins.And, having discovered the title BONES IN THE RIVER as part of a song by Gillian Welch, I knew I was going to have to make the River Eden as much a character in the book as the people.Once again, you see one crime as it’s committed and I make no effort to hide the identity of the perpetrator for long. But then a second body emerges, and there’s more mystery to the who and why.If people react as well to BONES as they did to DANCING, then it’s a style I hope to repeat. I’ve already promised a third instalment with Grace and Nick. After that, it’s up to my readers. If they like what they see (including the Force Medical Examiner, one Dr Ayo Onatade) then there will be more crimes to come in the wild hills of Cumbria!
I’ve always said that when you write a continuing protagonist in a long-running series, you have to make a choice right from the beginning how much you’re going to allow them to change.
Keeping them static does have its distinct advantages, I must admit. For one thing, it doesn’t matter which book a new reader picks up first, as they’re not going to encounter any big spoilers for earlier stories. It’s also a lot easier for the character not to age significantly, although I think most readers accept that book-time works at a far slower rate than real time.
When I began writing the Charlie Fox series, I knew right from the outset that Charlie herself was going to develop and grow from book to book. Part of the fascination with the character for me is being able to set her personal as well as professional challenges in each story. I like to take her on a personal journey—one that she will learn from and grow in some way—quite apart from the dramatic events of the book.
At the beginning of the series, in KILLER INSTINCT, Charlie was not yet working as the close-protection specialist she later becomes. She was still very much an amateur when it came to her involvement with crime. By that I mean that she didn’t work for any kind of agency, private or government, who were paid to investigate. She gets caught up in events and has to deal with them as best she can to find a way out, protect the people she cares for, and to survive. It turns out to be very good training for what comes later.
Charlie is a little more raw at that point in her life, she’s still looking for direction and purpose after being kicked off the Special Forces training course she’d fought her way onto, and then being thrown out of the army altogether. At the start of that story she’s on the way back up from her lowest ebb, and I included a nod to her then-job working nightclub security in the latest outing, BAD TURN.
Read the rest of this article over on By The Letter Book Reviews.
I know, it’s a bit of a shocker, isn’t it? And this is not something I’ve come to lightly, but nevertheless, the decision remains—I’m going to tell people not to read my books.
OK, let me be clearer about this. I’m going to tell people not to read some of the books in my Charlie Fox series, depending on what they’re looking for from the series and the character. That sound better?
You see, I started writing the first novel in the Charlie Fox series back in the mid-1990s. That first book, KILLER INSTINCT, took a long time to come to publication, and when it did I never realised what the character was going to grow into.
I’ve always said that when you write a series, you choose either to let the character change and develop as time goes on, or you keep them in stasis, unchanging from the first book to the tenth, to the twentieth. Robert B Parker managed this brilliantly with his Spenser PI series, and Lee Child does it equally well today with his Reacher series. It doesn’t really matter what order you read the books, because you won’t really be missing any pieces of the overall story.
On the other hand, I really wanted to watch my character’s journey, to see her go from self-defence teacher to close-protection specialist with all the hazard-bumps in between. Charlie is a product of her nature and her experiences, and that fascinated me as much as the situations in which she found herself.
And change she has, over the course of the twelve books in the series so far. She is not the same person at the end of FOX HUNTER: #12 that she was at the start of KILLER INSTINCT: #1. Or even at the end of RIOT ACT: #2.
So, if someone who hasn’t read any of the series before decides to see what Lee Child was talking about when he said, “If Jack Reacher were a woman, he’d be Charlie Fox,” then the kind of character they’re likely to be interested in is the one who first makes her move into the world of close protection.
And although Charlie is training for that work during the events of HARD KNOCKS: #3, it’s not until the start of FIRST DROP: #4 that she’s actually on her first real job in Florida, minding the teenage son of a successful computer programmer.
TRIPLE SHOT comprises the first three books in the series, plus a bonus short story, Last Right—a tale of betrayal and revenge set on the Mexican border.
ANOTHER ROUND comprises the next three—FIRST DROP: #4, ROAD KILL: #5, and SECOND SHOT: #6, plus another bonus short story, Tell Me, featuring CSI Grace McColl who takes centre stage in the new standalone, DANCING ON THE GRAVE.
If you want to read about Charlie in bodyguard mode, then my advice in the future will be to start with ANOTHER ROUND. These three books really show Charlie getting into her stride as far as close-protection work is concerned.
But if you want to meet the character in the raw, when she’s still on her way back from events that brought about the end of her military career, when she’s still rough around the edges, has yet to discover her real killer instinct and is even, yes, more vulnerable, then TRIPLE SHOT will reveal that side of her and more. It also introduces her relationship with Sean Meyer, her former army training instructor who became her lover and her boss.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still very proud of the early book in the series. When KILLER INSTINCT first came out, the Yorkshire Post declared it, “the best crime debut for years”. The New York Times said, “The bloody bar fights are bloody brilliant.” But I am aware that the storylines and settings are simply very different from Charlie’s later exploits. So if that’s the character you want to read about and enjoy, try joining her at book three or four instead.
Because let’s face it, there is a pretty good precedent for starting at episode four and working your way backwards…
This week’s Word of the Week is bleeding edge, meaning at the very forefront of technological development. The phrase has its origins in the 1980s, and is used to describe something right on the cutting edge of innovation.