Inspiration can come from the strangest mix of places and my new crime novel, When The Dead Come Calling, is in some ways a strange story. Strange in the sense of haunting and unsettling; strange as in blurring genre boundaries, mixing gritty realism with the supernatural and offsetting investigative logic with the unexplainable. Strange as in not what you might expect. Where did this book come from? The answer, like the novel itself, is a juxtaposition of elements that don’t usually go hand in hand.
I started my career as a scientist. Following a degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics, I spent several years working as a bioengineer – I was an interdisciplinary mixture before I even began writing. Once I realized that my heart belonged in books rather than in the lab, I became the scientist-writer, blending the logic of experimental physics with the imaginative freedom of creative writing. My debut novel, The Comet Seekers, was inspired by the astrophysics I’d studied as an undergrad, but was also a work of magical realism, where ghosts were as real as people and the night sky could reflect the emotions of those observing it. It was called literary, romantic, historical, scientific, and supernatural, though honestly I don’t think anyone knew quite what to call it, and to me that made perfect sense.
For my second novel, I wrote about an alternate reality that was almost exactly like our own, and a technology based on where real-life cutting-edge research will be in just a few years. I imagined a portable, external womb that was readily available to anyone who wanted it. The Growing Season was fiction about science but not quite science fiction, it was called feminist dystopia but, actually, was as optimistic about our future as it was cautious about the potential risks of a technology that will soon be with us. It had elements of a thriller, but it wasn’t a thriller. Literary fiction? Speculative fiction? It seems I’m always going to be mixing genres like this – I enjoy it too much to stop.
There were several big changes in my life around the time that I finished The Growing Season and started thinking about what to write next. The curse of the difficult second novel hadn’t struck me, thankfully, but the third was proving elusive. I couldn’t settle to writing anything. I started stories then abandoned them after a few pages. Having published two novels I felt uncomfortably visible, cripplingly so. I wanted to hide.
I told myself that whatever I wrote next would be for me alone, not for publication. No one would see it. That helped. I also moved from Glasgow to the Scottish Highlands, to a spectacular coastline and a brutal, beautiful winter. The wild beaches and ever-changing sky reminded me of a visit to St Ninian’s Cave, an atmospheric site of pilgrimage that feels both ancient and haunted, and manages to be unsettling and inspiring at the same time. My setting was taking shape, and with it a character started to emerge: someone alone and scared, hiding in a cave on a wild and wind-swept beach. Her point of view now opens the novel.
At the same time, two big events were taking place around me, as different as two experiences could be. Firstly, the UK’s exit from the EU was dividing the country and the extremism of some of the politics involved was legitimizing racism and bigotry. Secondly, I was pregnant with my first child. My pregnancy came with an urgency to write about nature that I grabbed with both hands, while the causes and consequences of Brexit infused that writing with a darkly political realism and a sense of human society crumbling.
When The Dead Come Calling is set in the fictional costal village of Burrowhead in the north of England. It is isolated and bleak, abandoned by the rest of the world and struggling with generations of unemployment. The deprivation is leading the villagers from hopelessness to anger, to a fear of otherness and a tendency to blame those seen as outsiders. Out of that grew my outsiders: DI Georgie Strachan, a mixed-race female detective who is an outsider both in the village and the police force; PC Simon Hunter, born and bred in Burrowhead but subject to the locals’ homophobia after his partner becomes the first murder victim; Pamali Patel, who runs the local shop and refuses to be afraid; Walt Mackie, an older resident of the village who believes his ancestors will return to save him; DC Trish Mackie, who loves Burrowhead despite it all and watches with frustration as shops close and the village sinks further into deprivation. Then there is Georgie’s husband, Fergus, who believes the ancient past of the village holds the answers.
Alongside the modern-day murder investigation I was writing, a historical component to the story appeared: the past crimes of the villagers, going back centuries, refusing to be buried. Ghosts brought the supernatural into a police procedural. The landscape took on a life of its own as I found myself mixing social commentary with nature writing. Elements of folk horror tied the villagers ever closer together. My lead detective started seeing visions as the birth of my daughter approached. Was this a crime novel, or something else entirely?
As with all my books, as with my life, my inspiration came from a strange mix of places. Today’s politics mixed with Celtic history, a murder investigation mixed with a love story, realism undercut by haunting, a crumbling society offset by the beauty of the landscape and the power of the natural world. I finished writing the first draft the week my daughter was born and when she arrived I decided, after all, that I would send When The Dead Come Calling into the world. It’s the darkest book I have ever written and was also, for me, an act of hope.
(c) Helen Sedgwick
About When the Dead Come Calling:
In the first of the Burrowhead Mysteries, an atmospheric murder investigation unearths the brutal history of a village where no one is innocent.
When psychotherapist Alexis Cosse is found murdered in the playground of the sleepy northern village of Burrowhead, DI Strachan and her team of local police investigate, exposing a maelstrom of racism, misogyny and homophobia simmering beneath the surface of the village.
Shaken by the revelations and beginning to doubt her relationship with her husband, DI Strachan discovers something lurking in the history of Burrowhead, while someone (or something) equally threatening is hiding in the strange and haunted cave beneath the cliffs…
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