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 make no secret of the fact that it was the Washington Sniper incident from 2002 that gave me the original idea behind my new standalone crime thriller, DANCING ON THE GRAVE. But, although I was aware of the story, I didn’t research it in detail because I knew from the start that my take on it was going to be very different.
It’s only recently, therefore, that I’ve gone back over the events. They make horrifying reading. The basic facts are that between February and October 2002, the partnership of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed a total of seventeen people across the States, injuring a further ten. Events culminated in the incidents that became known as the Washington Sniper or the Beltway or D.C. Sniper in October of that year.
Malvo was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1985. His mother, Una Sceon James, met Muhammad in Antigua and Barbuda around 1999, and he and the young Malvo formed a strong bond. James left her son with Muhammad when she came to the States, and the two followed in 2001.
Both mother and son detained by Border Patrol in December of that year, and in fact Malvo had just been released on a bond in January of the following year, just before the killings began. It’s hard to define the exact relationship between Muhammad and Malvo. The certainly stayed together for over a year. At one point Muhammad enrolled the boy in school claiming to be his father. Malvo later claimed that he’d been brainwashed and sexually abused.
Muhammad was born John Allen Williams in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His mother died when he was three and his father left him in the care of his grandfather and an aunt. He served in the National Guard and the US Army, serving in the Gulf War, and was a noted expert shot. He mustered out in 1991 with the rank of sergeant, after seventeen years’ service, during which, in 1987, he converted to Islam. He changed his last name in 2001.
It was initially claimed that Muhammad’s motive for the killings was that he wanted to kill his ex-wife and regain custody of his three children, but there was insufficient evidence to prove this. He had indeed kidnapped his children in 1999 and taken them to Antigua, which was when he met Malvo.
Read more of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.