I’ve been meaning to run a series of posts leading up to the publication of my new psychological thriller, The Invitation, on 26th March. But events in London this week, with the shocking disappearance of Sarah Everard, have thrown a pall over all that and have even made me question the genre I’m writing in.
People have always asked me why I like writing whodunits – isn’t the emphasis on murder and human suffering rather revolting? Isn’t it a little… unladylike? My answer has always been that I enjoy the puzzle element of the stories and for me that overrides the inevitable brushes with death my characters face. Death is always with us – I had a boss who used to go around intoning, ‘We all owe God a death.’ I found that a bit absurd in my twenties but of course it grows ever more true. And definitely in the midst of a pandemic, it’s inescapable. But why would I choose to steep myself in more of this than I need to?
I think the answer is both simple and complicated. They say ‘write about what you know’ – and all women know fear. Even if they haven’t been attacked or abused themselves, they know someone who has been. In the paper yesterday, the same paper reporting horrifying facts about the Sarah Everard case, there was a welter of dreadful statistics. A survey by UN Women UK said 97 per cent of women had been sexually harassed. 80 per cent of women of all ages said they had experienced harassment in public places. This is in a climate where fewer and fewer rape cases are even being brought before courts, let alone ending in convictions. And only a couple of weeks ago, a pensioner was given a 5 year sentence for murdering his wife. He had no history of depression or anxiety that might make this more understandable. He just snapped and killed her. And, as we all know, calls to women’s refuges and the police have risen throughout the last year as lockdown has provided the perfect conditions for domestic abusers to thrive.
I always hope that my books might provide a jolt for any women living through difficult times, yet making the accommodations we are all encouraged to do, to let men off the hook of unacceptable behaviour. ‘Yes, he’s controlling, but that means he loves me.’ ‘I shouldn’t challenge him because that will make him angry.’ God knows, we’ve all lived with these situations and made these mental adjustments, turning ourselves inside out to pretend that wrong is right.
Walking home in the dark, not even late at night, is a fraught situation if you’re a woman. We all run the risk assessments – am I looking inconspicuous enough? Can I get away in these shoes? Are there any dark alleyways I’ll need to avoid? And then, the worst of all, ‘I can hear him behind me. If I cross the road, will he cross too? Should I speed up or slow down?’ I remember a conversation with two male friends at uni, back in the 1980s. They were laughing about an area of London, that they said was so rough they’d be afraid to walk there at night. I told them there was no area of London that I’d be completely comfortable in. There was silence, then the conversation moved on. I wish this situation had moved on as well. It hasn’t. I really thought the world would be safe for my daughters, when they grew up. It isn’t and I am disappointed – and also very angry.
As this week has shown, sometimes there’s no right answer, no set of behaviours that will keep you safe. But maybe books like mine can provide blueprints, point up signs to look for, get women second-guessing their own situations even more than they already do. Of course the best thing would be if men changed their behaviour. Not all men do these things. But maybe the ones who don’t could try and get the rest to change? So that it’s not women endlessly contorting themselves to try and survive this mad situation. Is that too much to hope for?
After all that, you’ll be pleased (I hope) to hear that The Invitation is a traditional locked room mystery, a bit of escapism, not a dark-alley kind of story… it’s a puzzle and hopefully it will take your mind off the real world for while. Pre-order it here