They reckon in writing there are only seven basic plot themes—overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. This is why you so often read the jacket-copy description for a book and think, ‘I’ve seen this somewhere before…’
But, we all know that if you gave any of those seven themes to a bunch of different authors, you would end up with very different novels at the end of it. Not just in narrative style, but the way the story unfolds, the way the characters interact, and the way any crime writer will add in his or her own twists and turns. These are the things that keep us returning to fiction in general—and crime, mystery, and suspense in particular—again and again.
In some ways, the more restrictions I have on a story—and the more creative I have to be to work around them—the more fun it is to write. In the case of The Last Time She Died, I wanted to start with an idea that sounded vaguely familiar, and take it in a more unexpected direction.
The book starts with a funeral. Family patriarch Gideon Fitzroy has died and his second wife Virginia, his stepchildren, and brother-in-law, have gathered for the occasion. They think they know exactly what will happen next, as far as the division of Fitzroy’s estate is concerned.
Then somebody claiming to be a missing heir turns up. Blake—the daughter who vanished ten years previously and has been assumed dead.
For certain people, there is no ‘assumed’ about it. They know she’s dead. Because they killed her and hid the body on the night she disappeared…
So, who is this ‘imposter’, and what does she want? It can’t be as simple as the money, because Gideon Fitzroy made no provision in his will for the only child of his first marriage. Besides, his second wife has read the document in question, and there’s absolutely no doubt about it.
But if the young woman now claiming to be Blake is indeed a fake, then how does she know so much about the vulnerable fifteen-year-old who went missing? Or the layout of the family home? Not to mention the layout of the small Derbyshire village where events take place. The kind of village where everyone knows everyone else, including all their faults and foibles.
Having spent the last six years or so living in a small village in the Derbyshire Peak District, I really wanted to set a book here—or somewhere very like it. I compromised by not actually naming the place, and I’ve played fast and loose with the geography for the location of the Fitzroys’ country estate, although not entirely. The lane exists, but the manor house called Claremont does not, which is a shame. I have a very clear picture of it in my head.
On a walk through local woodland I found a rutted track leading off the lane into an old plantation, with a stone gatepost at the latch end of the five-bar gate. The track continued on into the trees, leading to the edge of a gravel pit, long since fallen into disuse. It was eerie even in daylight.
But at night, in the dark, it was perfect.
Bringing an outsider into this situation to ask awkward questions and stick his nose in where it isn’t wanted, is always a good way to stir things up a bit. Enter Detective Superintendent John Byron of the Met. Right from the start, it’s obvious that his role is not that of a straightforward mourner at the funeral. One of the youngest detectives to achieve such a rank, he’s now on a long leave of absence for reasons initially unspecified.
His interest in the life—and death—of Gideon Fitzroy seems anything but casual, so is he there on official business or not? And his interest in the young woman claiming to be Blake is something neither of them can quite define.
Anyone who has read my Charlie Fox series, my Lakes-set crime thrillers, or my standalone novels will know that I favour female characters who are… self-sufficient, shall we say. I’m beginning to hate the term ‘strong’ because it’s become almost meaningless. Strong as oppose to what—weak? And does anyone feel the need to define their male protagonists in such terms?
Male characters are ‘tough’ and ‘uncompromising’ if they’re likely to answer a difficult question with a punch or a bullet. (Charlie Fox can be a bit like that, but she’s usually referred to as ‘kick-ass’ or—my pet hate—‘feisty’. Either way, she will always try to talk her way out of a fight when she can manage it, and only stand her ground when there is no other option.)
So, if my female characters are strong then it’s because they refuse to rely on anyone else to dig them out of trouble, and occasionally this leads to stubbornness that’s to their own detriment. In the case of the young woman who has taken on the identity of Blake, her inability to trust others is both an asset and a flaw.
One that might just get her killed.
(c) Zoë Sharp
Author photography (c) Nick Lockett
Author blog https://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com
About The Last Time She Died:
She came back on the day of her father’s funeral, ten years after she vanished. But she can’t be who she says she is…
When Blake disappeared as a teenager, on a cold dark night, her father never reported her missing. She is presumed dead.
Now, ten years later, a young woman with white-blonde hair sits comfortably in the family living room and smiles at the shocked faces around her.
“Don’t you recognise me?” she says. “I’m Blake.”
Detective John Byron isn’t sure whether she’s telling the truth. But as he investigates, he soon realises no one is happy to see her.
And the people who should be welcoming her back with open arms know she can’t be Blake. Because they killed her the night she vanished…
From the bestselling author of the Charlie Fox books, The Last Time She Died will have you gripped until the last mind-blowing page. Fans of Cara Hunter, Kendra Elliot and Rachel Abbott will love this action-packed crime thriller.
Order your copy online here.