The Queen of Crime: Lynda La Plante
The first blow to his head made his body lurch sideways, striking his face against the bedside cabinet…
This is the gripping opening line to Lynda La Plante’s latest novel Blood Line made even more intriguing by the tagline on the cover… ‘There is a menacing pool of blood but no body…’
Writing.ie had the privilege of meeting the uncontested Queen of Crime, best selling author and award winning script writer Lynda La Plante, when she visited Dublin on a flying visit….as sunshine bathed the city, in a luxury suite on the fifth floor of the famous five star Shelbourne Hotel, I was drawn deep into La Plante’s colourful world as soon as she started speaking…
Elegant in black trousers, a crisp white shirt and soft black jacket, everything about La Plante is business-like, no nonsense and extremely stylish. Wearing a striking pewter cat shaped brooch, just like a cat, she curled gracefully in an easy chair. Relaxed, in control and at the very top of her game, Lynda La Plante told me exactly why writing was her passion.
It was while working as an actress on The Gentle Touch, that La Plante got her first break as a writer – working with Jill Gascoine she had a scene that both of them found impossible to deliver without breaking into laughter – La Plante’s character was called Juanita, and every time she tried to say “Hello, I’m Juanita” they both, in stage speak, corpsed.
Despite their pleas, the script writer wouldn’t change the name of the character and off set, La Plante said to Gascoine, “I’d love to have a go at writing…” Gascoine’s response: “So why don’t you? Give it a go…” It was all the encouragement La Plante needed to approach The Gentle Touch script editor with four ideas fresh new ideas. A few months later three of the ideas were returned, rejected. But across the fourth, someone had written (and she still doesn’t know who) ‘this is brilliant’. That fourth treatment became the hit show Widows, and La Plante was on the scene.
So why crime?
La Plante told me that she really doesn’t enjoy soaps, she doesn’t want to share the pain of the people portrayed, of hopeless lives, but she iscompletely hooked by true crime shows. La Plante, as it later became clear when we spoke about the stresses and strains of running a production company, is a woman who looks for, and finds, solutions. And what better place to follow the challenge of a mystery and discover a solution, than the world of crime?
An accomplished RADA trained actress who has appeared with the Royal Shakespeare Company and on the boards of the National Theatre, La Plante slips easily into character as she speaks and it’s easy to imagine how her characters come to her. La Plante is a brilliant raconteur – every sentence is animated with facial expressions and delivered in a variety of dramatic voices, so much so that she is almost her own one woman hit show and it’s hard not to be sidetracked by her laugh out loud anecdotes. She explained that she is lucky, “I can write anywhere, anytime of day or night. I have an office at home that is never touched, I can go in anytime and pick up the story,” but she says, “if there was a camera on the wall and someone was watching, they’d lock me up! Sometimes I get very upset, sometimes I’m roaring with laughter.”
For La Plante, plot and character come together, are intrinsically intertwined. And many of her characters are based on the people she meets as she conducts her research. She remembers visiting a crime scene with the Metropolitan Police – a young officer, recently graduated, stumbled out of the white forensic tent covering the body that had been discovered, and vomited behind a tree. The officer accompanying La Plante scowled: ‘she won’t last’, (delivered by La Plante is a pitch perfect ‘seasoned police officer’ voice). But it was this girl with all her strengths and vulnerabilities that became Anna Travis, who in La Plante’s latest book Blood Line is now a DCI.
Blood Line is a pacy thriller with all the twists and turns of La Plante’s earlier books – from the very beginning the reader is guessing. I asked La Plante what the original inspiration was for Blood Line, and she took me back to the true crime shows that fascinate her. One day she caught a few minutes of a programme where a large pool of blood had been discovered under a bed. She told me with a shrug, “It was a well-to-do apartment, clean, smart, but the density of the blood suggested that it had to be murder.” In the show the woman who owned the apartment was charged with murder, but as La Plante says, “there was no body, no suspects,” and vitally for us, La Plante told me, “I never saw the end of it…”
While La Plante is a fast, organic writer who knows the beginning, middle and end of her story, she doesn’t plot meticulously – she shakes her head as she says, “I don’t write by numbers”. For her Blood Line almost wrote itself – until she got to Chapter Four. At that point she had her characters in place, a large pool of blood on the floor, but she didn’t want to reveal the identity of the victim and suddenly realised that DNA analysis on the blood would blow her plot wide open.
La Plante is very clear when she discusses research – she says “a writer must always go to source. If you want to find out something you go to source. If you want to know what a man serving life for murder is like, call your nearest prison and register as a visitor.” She says, “That’s what’s so exciting as a writer, if you put yourself out there, you come home with the goodies”.
So, following her own advice, La Plante contacted a DNA specialist to find out how she could fudge the DNA result from her pool of blood, she remembers “I said, can I wash it away with bleach, with a chemical?” The specialist just shook her head, saying “With that quantity of blood, it would have soaked through the carpet, it would have seeped into the floorboards – I can get DNA from one pinhead full of blood.” But pursuing the conversation, a chance remark gave La Plante the answer she was looking for, and a whole new twist to the Blood Line plot.
Blood Line takes DCI Anna Travis from her home station of Hounslow to Newquay in Cornwall and into a web of intrigue and half truths. Like Travis, La Plante doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but she is fascinated by liars. Privy to a police video tape of a series of parents making impassioned appeals for missing children, she was in full character mode as she described one mother who cried incessantly, the tears flooding down her face. La Plante, as an experienced actress quickly realised that even when you are playing a scene of deep distress, it is instinctive to wipe your face, to clear away the tears. As La Plante said, it is the body language, the eye contact that gives a liar away, and in this instance, the mother was overplaying her part.
Although she enjoys the script writing and production side of her career, it is writing novels that La Plante really enjoys. Unconstrained by budget limitations, she physically lights up when she talks about the act of writing itself. In her novels, she says triumphantly, “I can have a man escaping by plane pursued by 26 patrol cars and a helicopter if I like, but on my TV productions there’s always someone shaking their head talking about the budget. Once I need a man to escape by plane, I just needed it, and they kept shaking their heads.” But La Plante is the Queen of Solutions and she raised her eyebrow knowlingly as she revealed… “Then I remembered the script editor was a pilot…”
It takes La Plante 6-7months to write the first draft of a book, after a lot of research. She says, “I just write straight through. So many writers go back over the first chapters and never get going.” Writing fast does have its downside – she says with a twinkle in her eye, “sometimes I’m going so fast I kill someone off and then bring them back at the end!”
When asked about the number of characters in a story, she explains “I’m the wrong person to comment on that. The Legacy is my favourite book of all of them but I didn’t know how to end it. Every time I got near to the end I brought in another character.” La Plante admits that she didn’t realise how long it was getting until she had an editorial meeting with her Random House editor. She arrived to find him surrounded by piles and piles of paper – her script. His comment: “Most people Lynda, have 30 characters, I’m up to page 590 and I’ve got 250. If someone looks out of a window another character comes in…”
Even with some heavy editing, La Plante says, “The Legacy came out in two paperbacks because they couldn’t fit it all into one!”
Do her characters ever surprise La Plante? She nods, “It’s very exciting when they do,” she pauses, “but it’s also exciting to turn your characters, and for you to surprise them…”
Asked what she thinks of literary writers turning to crime, La Plante shrugs, “I don’t mind, let them have a go. The readers will pick them up or put them down. When readers come back again and again to buy your books, it’s fabulous. The thing that makes me furious is soap stars who are offered huge book deals – new writers don’t get a look in.”
And her advice to writing.ie’s aspiring writers? “Read Raymond Chandler, he was an absolute genius,” and this, said very earnestly: “Rejection does not mean no. I still get rejected; you just have to keep going.”
La Plante says she has been rejected many times, indeed, she says that Granada weren’t interested in Prime Suspect when she first pitched it. The script was sent out with a batch of others to TV companies around the UK, and as each one came back saying they loved it, Granada got more interested.
Her last tip? If you are going to interview a multiple murder in jail, don’t take a notepad, pen or a tape recorder. They can never wait to tell you how brilliant they are, but interruptions break their concentration….
Blood Line is out now in trade paperback and available in all book shops including Eason who hosted an excellent evening at which Lynda was interviewed by Irish crime writer and True Crime editor of The Sunday World, Niamh O’Connor. Click to read our interview with Niamh, Risky Business. You can win your own copy over at our competitions page...
And the icing on a rather amazing cake?
As Lynda and I headed out of the Shelbourne Hotel (her to an enormous waiting Crysler limousine, me to the DART), we continued our conversation and I explained that writing.ie was aimed at all types of writers – from fiction writers to script and screen writers. The Queen of Crime’s eye’s lit up, “I can come and do a lecture for you,” she said. Bowled, over, what could I say but “fabulous!” Watch this space….