Margaret Murphy was born in Liverpool, and now
lives on the Wirral. She read Environmental Biology at Liverpool
University and taught first as a biology teacher and later became
head of a dyslexia unit at an independent school. She used to work
freelance as a dyslexia tutor but has had to give this up. She is
the author of 6 stand alone novels and co-founder and member of "The
Her latest book Darkness Falls is a
chilling tale of abduction and claustrophobia and is due out in
paperback by Hodder and Stoughton in August. Weaving Shadows,
the sequel to Darkness Falls is due out in April 2003.
Ayo: What was the very first crime fiction
book that you read and whointroduced you to the genre?
Margaret: The VERY first would be something from
The Famous Five series, but in terms of adult fiction it would
probably be Agatha Christie - don't ask me which title, I was
eleven or twelve at the time, and read anything I could scrounge
from my parent's bedside table. Mum's favourites were Christie,
G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, whereas Dad read the big
thriller writers - Maclean, Bagley, Neville Shute etc.
Ayo: Who were your influences when you
decided to start writing? What books influence your writing?
Margaret: I'd never have started writing if it
weren't for Stephen King. Not that we're buddies or anything, but
I'd been intimidated out of putting pen to paper by my O' level
reading list Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Harper Lee -
you get the drift. Then I started reading Stephen King and I
realised that you could write engaging intelligent prose with
contemporary themes and a direct style.
My first memory of wanting to be a writer was
influenced by film noir, and I actually began writing a 'novel' at
the age of ten, based on a character from an old B&W film,
starring Humphrey Bogart. Perhaps my earlier reading influenced me
on a subliminal level, but I can't remember ever reading a
Christie and thinking 'I want to write a book like that', for
instance - in fact, I didn't read any crime fiction between the
ages of fifteen and thirty. I was convinced that my first novel,
Goodnight my Angel, was going to be a supernatural
thriller and when my agent suggested that was a crime novel, I
felt slightly depressed. Then I began reading modern crime fiction
and I cheered up considerably. You see, I had the notion that
crime fiction was still stuck in the fifties and sixties, and when
I realised how contemporary the themes were, and how much modern
crime fiction relied on good characterisation, I was really
excited by the genre.
Influences - earlier, probably Ruth Rendell and
Patricia Highsmith, but now I'm increasingly drawn to fast paced
work with sharp dialogue, Elmore Leonard is a prime example - and
I still watch film with an eye (or should that be an ear?) for
dialogue - how it's put together, how it moves the plot along,
and, of course, how it can misdirect the audience.
What other books are you also attracted to?
Margaret: My tastes are eclectic: I think
Margaret Atwood is one of our finest living writers; I also enjoy
Helen Dunmore, F Scott Fitzgerald, Charlotte Bronte and Jane
Austen (despite the fact they scared me off writing for years),
John Banville, Susan Hill, John Fowles, Shirley Jackson, Russell
Ayo: What do you enjoy reading about in
crime fiction? Have you got a specific sub-genre that you read the
Margaret: I do like psychological suspense - for
me people are more important than plot - and from this point of
view, I think Thomas Harris is the master - but as I said earlier,
I also enjoy snappy dialogue. Val McDermid's Brannigan series
positively fizzes with wit, and across the pond, John Connolly
combines the two well, as does Dennis Lehane, but I try not to
stay with one author or one theme, I like to be surprised.
Ayo: Your debut book Goodnight My Angel
was shortlisted for the First Blood Award in 1996. How did it feel
to be nominated? Do you think being nominated added extra pressure
when you came to write your second book The Desire of the Moth?
Margaret: Nomination was a strangely equivocal
feeling: the crime fiction reviewers set up The First Blood Award
as a kind of protest, I guess, against the CWA's decision not to
award the Creasey Dagger that year, so there was a measure of
frustration that new crime writers like myself and Manda Scott and
Chris Brookmyre had been overlooked. But this was mixed in with a
large degree of gratification that the nominees were recognised
after all, and by people whose job is to criticise crime writing.
The pressure in writing The Desire of the
Moth was entirely down to it being a second book, and having
just one year to write it. Instead of waiting for inspiration, I
had to become more disciplined, and I was committed to writing
another crime novel - before, I had experimented with
techno-thrillers and supernatural suspense.
Ayo: Your books are known as psychological
suspense thrillers and in all of them you have dealt with the dual
themes of alienation and social isolation. Why these two topics in
Margaret: I didn't even know those themes
recurred until a journalist a couple of years back pointed it out
to me! I think we write about the things that preoccupy us. I
taught children in the State sector who were alienated who
felt that society had nothing to offer them, and even when I
switched to a public school, some of the dyslexic kids I taught
were equally disenfranchised by the system. I was something of a
loner myself at school, and I went through some fairly isolating
experiences in my late teens and early twenties; I guess it seeped
into my writing unawares.
Ayo: What made you decide not to write a
series? Given the right opportunity would you write one?
Margaret: I don't think I ever made a conscious
decision - the books simply didn't come to me in that way. I have
written a sequel to Darkness Falls, however. It was
stimulating to explore some of the characters further and to allow
them to develop, but I found it hard to strike the balance between
filling in the gaps and over-explaining, and although I'm really
glad I gave it a try, and I'm pleased with the final outcome, it's
not something I would rush to do again.
Ayo: How would you describe your books to
someone who is about to make their first foray into the genre?
Bearing in mind the fact that you do not have a series
protagonist, which book would you suggest that they start with?
Margaret: Hmm, this is a tough one. My earlier
books are very claustrophobic and dark - they're all
psychological, but I think from Past Reason onward, there
is a change in pace and perhaps a greater complexity of plot. My
first two novels are now out of print, so that narrows the field.
As a writer, you're always most in love with your most recent
book, which for me is Darkness Falls, but for readers
interested in seeing a progression, they might start with Past
Reason, then go on to Dying Embers, before tackling
Ayo: Part and parcel of being a crime writer
is the camaraderie that goes with it. What do you enjoy about
attending conferences and book signings? Which events do you try
and ensure that you attend and why?
Margaret: It's always great to meet other
authors, and reassuring to know that the kind of anxieties and
disappointments you experience are shared by others. But for me,
the biggest buzz comes from meeting the readers. I'm a bit of a
ham, and I do like reading my work aloud. It's surprising how many
people come to readings out of curiosity, not knowing your work.
If my reading persuades them to buy (or borrow) one of my books, I
go home feeling great!
Ayo: You belong to a group of seven authors
called the Murder Squad. What brought about the creation of this
group and what exactly do you do?
Margaret: Long story . . . It stemmed from a
discussion I had with my previous editor. She said that I got
'terrific' reviews, but it didn't really translate into sales. I
wondered aloud if the publicity side wasn't her job, and she
confessed that there was very little marketing and publicity money
available for writers such as myself. I had two choices: sink into
depression, or do something about it. I'm a practical sort of gal,
so I did something. The other six authors I approached were very
keen - and had similar experiences to mine. We now fund and
produce our own colour brochure; we tour the country doing
readings, workshops, murder nights and after-dinner speeches.
We have a website at
which links to our individual sites and we release
a periodical e-newsletter.
Ayo: What effect has the membership of the
Murder Squad had on you and your writing?
Margaret: I've made some good friends on the
Squad. We share our triumphs and disasters - and treat those two
impostors just the same. It's given me confidence, having to deal
with all kinds of events organisers; it's taught me a lot about
publicity and marketing, as you can imagine, and it's also been a
real pleasure talking to readers. An aspect I didn't expect, but
is nevertheless significant, is that I don't think it did me any
harm when I began looking for a new publisher - I have just moved
to Hodder and Stoughton and I'm really happy with the move.
Publishers like to know that you are 'media friendly' as a writer,
that you can hold it together in an interview, or a debate, that
you're willing to travel to promote your work, and that you can
generate some of your own publicity.
Ayo: Murder Squad had an anthology published
in October 2001. Do you enjoy writing short stories and what
prompted you to write a story about two female country and western
Margaret: Ha! Me - "enjoy" writing
short stories? The first I ever tried was, coincidentally, my
first serious foray into writing, way back in 1990. It weighed in
at a hefty 40 000 words. Not my forte, short stories. The country
& western singers were the product of a fevered brain -
literally. I had a horrible nightmare about these two girls who
are set upon by a beefy truck driver. . .
Ayo: What were the last five books that you
Margaret: Sunset Limited, James Lee
Burke, The Chill, Ross MacDonald, Zlatas Diary,
Zlata Filipovic, At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien and Dubliners
by James Joyce.
Ayo: What do you think of the state of crime
fiction today? Do you believe that authors are given enough
Margaret: Crime fiction is extremely healthy,
judging by the writing, but it's distressing to see so many
friends and colleagues dropped from crime fiction lists. It seems
that publishers are less interested in building writers over a
period of time, requiring them to make a commercial impact with
the first two or three books. Robert McCrumb, The Observer's
literary editor, summed it up recently when he wrote 'Big
publishers need big books. There's bound to be a tension
between the commercial enterprises of publishers and the artistic
concerns of writers - books are a product, like it or not
but they are unlike like any other. Writers have to accept this
reality, but the other side of the argument is that writers, and
writing talent, need nurture. Artists can go to art school, their
work is showcased, and they seem to have more access to bursaries
and grants than the average crime writer does. Maybe this is
something the Arts Council could address.
Ayo: Do you believe that crime fiction by
women is given enough recognition?
Margaret: It's generally accepted that men fiction
writers get more reviews than women, but I think women crime
writers have an even tougher time getting their work reviewed. I'm
dismayed by the imbalance in the Sunday broadsheets, which seem to
favour male, American noirish writers. That said, some of the
biggest names in crime writing in the UK are women: Val McDermid,
Mo Hayder, Minette Walters, Frances Fyfield, and Laura Wilson etc.
Ayo: Your latest book is called Darkness
Falls. How did you go about doing your research for this book?
Margaret: The story centres on the abduction of
a female barrister. Although there are no courtroom scenes, I
really needed to know what their life is like, to be able to
understand the character, but I had tremendous difficulty making
contact. I phoned court liaison officers, spoke to clerks to
chambers, wrote letters, made more calls but couldn't get anyone
to speak to me. Finally, I got the name of a barrister in a
particular chambers - she didn't return my calls either, so after
a month of chasing her, I wrote her a letter, giving my editor's
name and direct line, stuffed it into a jiffy bag with a couple of
paperbacks and took it in to her chambers. She replied within two
days, inviting me to shadow her and she even gave me her home
The police research was just as hard - I'd tried
for several years to find someone who would talk to me about
police procedure, with no success at all. I was doing some
background research at Chester Crown Court and after the morning
session I was feeling brave, so I marched straight across to the
police headquarters, which is just over the road, and asked to
speak to somebody. They were so surprised, they gave me a name.
His initial reaction wasn't encouraging: he laughed and demanded
to know who had put me on to him. But he did pass me on to their
liaison officer, a police inspector. Once I'd made that initial
contact, I was on a roll. Dave has been brilliant. He got me
interviews with a HOLMES specialist (they run the computer system
in major inquiries), the officer in charge of the robbery squad -
he even set me up with two senior mortuary technicians after my
own approaches to mortuaries were met with deep suspicion. Can't
think why . . .
Ayo: How do you build your story? Do you
begin at the beginning or start with the solution to the murder
and then work backwards?
Margaret: It starts with the murder. That's how
they all come - with the death. The rest comes any old way it
feels like: I develop a kind of skeleton as I do the research. I
loosely term it a synopsis; it has ideas, snatches of dialogue,
characters, motivations, and so on. When this reaches critical
mass, I begin to write. As to the solution of the murder, I often
get that wrong, first time - I'm convinced it's X and it ends up
Ayo: Is there any topic you would not write
about in your books? If there is, why not?
Margaret: There's nothing I won't tackle, but
there are details I won't go into, because I don't think it's
necessary, and because I prefer the emphasis to be on the victim
as a person, and not as an object. In a radio interview, the
presenter said when he had read a scene in Dying Embers in which a
teenage boy is subjected to abuse, at first he'd thought, 'That's
disgusting - she's gone too far! Then he went back and
realised that there were no details - he had filled in the gaps in
his imagination. Sometimes details can be a distraction - you can
and should allow the reader to do some of the work.
Ayo: Can you describe your writing style?
Has it changed since you first started to write?
Margaret: You're talking to the woman who didn't
know that the themes of alienation and isolation recurred in her
novels! I really think I'm too close to it to make that kind of
assessment. Has my style changed? I hope so. Your aim as a writer
is to improve your technique and refine your style (whatever it
may be) with experience. I hope I have done that.
Ayo: Do you have any foibles when you are
Margaret: Atmosphere is important, so I tend to
write best after dark, in subdued lighting, with candles lit. I
write the first draft of a scene longhand, using a blue Bic medium
point biro, on A4 wide rule paper. I then type them into the
computer, scene-by-scene, or chapter-by-chapter. Oh, and I read
each 'polished' chapter aloud to my husband.
Ayo: What do you enjoy the most when you are
Margaret: I should say reading, shouldn't I? And
sometimes it is, but I do tend to read critically these days, so
it's harder to lose myself in a book than it used to be. So, I'd
have to say watching a good film.
Ayo: At the end of a novel, do you ever have
trouble letting go of a character to which you've grown attached?
Do you ever find they've taken on a life of their own, away from
where you'd started with them? If so, which character in which of
Margaret: Difficulty letting go? No - although
you might challenge me in that and ask in that case, why did I
write a sequel to Darkness Falls? As for developing a life
of their own, often minor characters want to take on a greater
role: Lobo and Leanne in Past Reason, and Mitch in Darkness
Falls. Clemence, who appears in Weaving Shadows, the
sequel I've just completed, is a difficult and certainly a
dangerous man, but he's also charismatic, and I feel wilfully
drawn to him.
Ayo: I have enjoyed all your books but
consider Darkness Falls to be one of the best. Have you
been pleased about the amount of praise that Darkness Falls
Margaret: Delighted! It's had the approval of
two writers I admire greatly: Val McDermid and Mo Hayder, and
every review, from the broadsheets to the regional newspapers, has
Have any of your books been influenced on true crime events? Would
you consider writing a book with a true crime event as the
Margaret: Dying Embers was prompted by a
terrible series of murders in Sunderland. The killer went
undetected for some years. I wrote the book because I wanted to
tell the story from the point of view of the families and the
people close to them. The families were pilloried by the press,
and the boys were unfairly labelled as wild or bad, simply because
they were from a working class estate. The fact was, they were
ordinary lads - neither angels nor demons - but they were
categorised and dismissed, and - unforgivably - a killer was left
at large, free to kill again.
Ayo: Killing Me Softly by Nicci
French has just been made into a film starring Joseph Fiennes and
Heather Graham. Also later on this year Val McDermid's The
Mermaid's Singing will be shown on television. What are your
thoughts on crime books being made into films or television
Margaret: If it's done well, I have absolutely
no qualms about novels making the transition to film. You have to
accept the difference - film is, of course, essentially a visual
medium. Much of the internal dialogue we writers work on and craft
is redundant in film - an emotion we have expressed and expanded
upon in a paragraph, an actor can convey in one look. Inevitably,
there have been disasters, but many of the classics of crime
fiction, from Highsmith and Chandler; through to Elmore Leonard
and Ruth Rendell, have been well served by their screen
Ayo: Is there any possibility that any of
your books will be filmed for television or the cinema?
Margaret: There's always the possibility, but
I'm under no illusion that these things take time. Past Reason
was optioned in the past, though that has now lapsed, and my agent
is in discussions concerning Darkness Falls, but you only
have to look at Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, two top-ranking
British crime novelists, to see that they have had to wait some
time before their work made the transition to screen, and Im
prepared to be patient, which, since I have no choice, it seems a
Ayo: Not many people know but you are an
accomplished actress and you quite often take part along with your
husband in the Murder Mystery events arranged by Mystery Women. Is
this one way of letting off steam?
Margaret: Like I say, I'm a bit of a ham. I even
did amateur dramatics for a while. When I'm working on dialogue, I
often speak it, to try to get the nuances and rhythms of speech.
It's as if I'm 'trying on' the characters, to see if they feel
right. Acting is an extension of that. There's also a delight in
'being' somebody you really are not in life - taking liberties,
dressing in a way that you wouldn't normally do, and saying
outrageous things, because you're not constrained by the usual
social conventions. Life, I believe, is all about guise and
Ayo: Do you miss teaching full time and have
you managed to bring any of your experience as a dyslexia teacher
to your writing?
Margaret: Teaching was hard graft. I suppose
writing is, too, but when I was teaching, I would come home
exhausted, knowing that I had two or three more hours of work to
do in the evening. It was rewarding, seeing children gain
confidence and skills, but no, I don't miss it. It's an important
part of my past, and I think my involvement with children has made
the children in my novels more credible.
I was a biologist before I taught dyslexic
students, and my understanding of biology has been useful in
descriptions of murder and death: I did a lot of dissections over
the years, so I have a reasonable knowledge of anatomy. As for
dyslexia - I use a system called 'mind-mapping' to help me plan
scenes. It's a study skill I taught my students; it works as a
colour-coded spidergram, giving key words, emotions, actions etc.
The beauty of it is, you can quickly jot down ideas as they occur,
and it allows the brain to work in a kind of starburst of energy,
rather than being constrained into a linear structure.
Ayo: If you were an author just starting out
now, in hindsight is there anything you would do differently?
Margaret: Everything! But it's like life - you
know the old cliché - 'If I knew then what I know now . .
.' but the fact is, you don't, and you can't. It's a truism, but
experience is something you can't pre-empt. The new author can
help him- or herself by asking questions - don't be afraid to say
you don't understand when people go on about USPs and POS and
worse yet, EPOS. Tell them you are keen to get involved in the
marketing side of things.
You'd be amazed the number of times at the start
of my career that publicists phoned me and said, 'Is Nottingham
too far for you to travel?' or 'We would have invited you, but
you're so far away in the north.'
Ayo: Finally, if you were hosting a dinner
party and you could invite five crime writers (living or dead) who
would they be and why?
Margaret: Ross MacDonald, because I've
discovered (belatedly) that he was writing psychological novels in
the 1960s, and also because he created Lew Harper. When his books
were adapted for film, Paul Newman played Harper, and I fell in
love with him.
Raymond Chandler: Because I enjoyed the low-key
wit in his novels, and there are one or two of his plots I'd ask
him to unravel for me .
Can I sneak in Stephen King? Misery is a
beautifully crafted and realised psychological novel, the
characterisation is excellent, and Annie's descent into madness on
one hand and Paul's despair on the other is totally convincing.
I'd like to thank him for the enjoyment and inspiration he's given
me over the years - when I'm stuck on a piece of writing, I know
that reading a King novel will get the creative juices flowing
Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine - there are times
in her novels when I wonder just how deeply she becomes immersed
in the disturbed psyche of her characters. I would like to hear
her talk about her research, and the technical skills needed to
keep the reader guessing even when there are only two or three
characters to choose from.
Thomas Harris: Silence of the Lambs is a
superb piece of writing - cleverly constructed and beautifully
crafted. Clarice Starling is the most sympathetic female character
I've read since Jane Eyre, and since Harris doesn't give
interviews, it'd be great to get a privileged insight into the
Margaret Murphys books: -
- Goodnight, My Angel
- The Desire of the Moth
- Caging the Tiger
- Past Reason
- Dying Embers
- Darkness Falls
- Weaving Shadows (Forthcoming April 2003)
More information about Margaret and her books can
be found on her web site: -
click to buy any of Margaret's books:
but we also have 5 copies to giveaway.
Simply send your name & address by email with Margaret Murphy
Offer to email@example.com
Deadline Sept 10th 2002