Fresh from the success of her debut crime novel The Wicked Girls – which dealt with what things might be like for two women convicted of a murder back when they were 11 years old – Alex Marwood has come up with another fascinating premise for her second book. In The Killer Next Door, she’s taken seven characters, and thrown them into a bedsit together in London. They come from very different walks of live, but what six of them don’t know is that one member of the household is a serial killer. The book comes out on 5 December, but in the meantime Alex Marwood has joined us for an interview as part of New Talent November.
Your debut The Wicked Girls was reminiscent of the James Bulger murder in Liverpool in 1993. What did you want to explore in the book?
Yes, it’s impossible to write anything on the subject of child murderers without parallels being drawn with Thompson and Venables [who were convicted of James Bulger’s murder] and, of course, Mary Bell. What people often don’t seem to realise is that a handful of child-on-child killings happen every year in this country, and usually they’re a product of inadvertency, of kids of inappropriate age being left in charge, of bullying getting out of hand, and children simply not understanding the likely consequences of their actions.
What fascinates me about Thompson and Venables was the sequence of events and agendas unrelated to their actions that led to them becoming somehow a cypher for all that is wicked in this country. And the faulty logic that seems to lead many people to believe that questioning the validity of wishing death and torture on 10-year-olds is equivalent to not understanding the dreadful suffering that James Bulger and his family went through. I’m fascinated by the black-and-white nature of judgement once it reaches public consensus; and the fact that the judgements are so very often wrong-headed. And I’m fascinated by the degree to which people are influenced by propaganda while believing that they, unlike everyone else, are entirely independent in their thought processes.
Actually, though, this book’s been going through my mind since I saw Heavenly Creatures, a film which has haunted me since I first saw it. I think most people who saw it have always wanted to know what happened to those girls afterwards, though in the case of one, most people in the crime world know all too well. But when I was getting started on it, I received one of those ‘Thompson and Venables must die’ emails you get from time to time, and it really set me thinking.
What did you think of the response to The Wicked Girls, and what was the most interesting piece of feedback you received?
Well, obviously I was blown away. I had no idea people would like it so much – I’m one of those writers who despises everything they’ve written for ages after it’s done, so I’m always surprised when people are nice about my work. In the end, the most interesting thing I’ve learned from feedback is that you can’t please everybody. Some people thought it wasn’t a crime novel because it didn’t feature a police investigation. Some people were disappointed that I didn’t dwell in prurient detail on the original crime. Some people’s belief in personal responsibility is so great that they blind themselves to the random luck that happens every day, and will do anything to blame its recipients, even fictional ones. Oh, and I discovered that some people are happy to read endless detail of sadism and evisceration, but will have conniptions if a member of the criminal classes uses the f-word.
What do you hope crime fiction lovers will love about your second thriller, The Killer Next Door?
Oh, gosh. I hope they’ll find it scary, and I hope they’ll get fond of the characters. It’s another story without a police investigation at its heart, but there’s plenty of death and, I hope, stuff to ponder about people to whom they don’t usually give much thought.
It has a collection of misfits as its main characters. Tell us briefly about them and why you placed each of them into this story?
I don’t want to give too much away, but the starting point for the book was the number of times that someone has conducted serial murder while living cheek-by-jowl with large numbers of people. I think it’s an interesting thing about cities – both a wonder and a horror – the way people basically survive overcrowding by pretending that they’re alone. But also, bedsitland. I was lucky during my starving 20s in that I somehow always managed to find someone to share with, but I had a lovely immigrant boyfriend who lived in a series of horrific bedsits, sharing bathrooms and cooking facilities with people who would barely meet your eye, before he staggered up the ladder. On the whole, it’s misfortune, not bad management, that brings people to be living in these circumstances. The seven main characters in The Killer Next Door have all arrived at No23 through fate – but shame about their circumstances, or fear of being uncovered, is what keeps them there.
It sounds like Golden Age crime fiction, with six very different characters coming into contact, one being a killer. How complex was it to manage this rag-tag bunch in a realistic modern context?
Yikes. Every time I’ve written a book I’ve sworn that this time I’ll keep it simple, and then immediately picked the most complicated structure I could come up with, to torture myself. In The Killer Next Door, I have seven – well, eight, sort-of – points of view, and I would never have managed it without my big whiteboard covered in maps and floorplans and character sketches, to which I stuck several hundred cocktail napkins, bits of beer mat and ripped-out notebook pages with fridge magnets. LOLcats fridges magnets, to be precise, given me by the novelist Lisa Jewell for Christmas many years ago.
What advice do you have for fellow new authors?
Keep on going, and try to be better every time. No author has got there without their share of disappointment, rejection, confusion and self-loathing. Be grateful for editing. I once had an editor who didn’t edit – or answer emails, for that matter – and the experience was a nightmare from start to finish. Be as professional as you can, be pleasant. Don’t convince yourself that you’re better than other people, because the chances are that you aren’t. And, if you’re writing because you want people to recognise you at cocktail parties, you’re writing for the wrong reasons.
What’s next for you?
I’m getting started on the next novel. I think it’s going to be another past-comes-back-to-haunt-you book, but in a very different way from The Wicked Girls. But honestly, I can’t talk too much about it at the moment, as I’ve only just wiped down the whiteboard and it will probably change into something unrecognisable in the next couple of months.
Watch for our review of The Killer Next Door, soon. We included The Wicked Girls in our list of the top 10 crime debuts of 2013.