In the late eighties, I was at university in Ireland. During the summer months, it was usual for students to travel to the UK or the US for work. I had a boyfriend in London so there was no question about which country I would go to.
I spent a gloriously wild summer in Hammersmith, working as little as possible, drinking too much and living in an overcrowded flat with people I loved.
A close friend lived nearby. He shared a flat with a woman we had very little to do with. She was older than us and as uninterested in our lives as we were in hers. I can’t even remember her name. But I do remember the day my friend (let’s call him Brian) announced that his flatmate had come home with a baby. The child was hers, she said. When Brian asked where the child had been all this time, his flatmate was elusive. At first, Brian accepted this strange truth. We all did. We had our own, far more interesting, lives to be getting on with.
Of course, back then there was no internet, no smart phones, no way of keeping up with current affairs if you weren’t that bothered. And we really weren’t. So it took a few days for Brian to hear a news report. One story dominated. A baby had been snatched from a church in Hammersmith. The child’s parents were distraught, desperate to get their baby back.
Well, you can guess the rest. Brian went to the police, the child was returned to its parents, Brian’s flatmate was taken away and we never saw her again. We heard later that she was receiving much-needed psychiatric help but, beyond that, the story became just another anecdote from a summer full of anecdotes.
Except I didn’t forget it. I couldn’t stop thinking about that poor woman. What sort of terrible desperation would drive someone to steal a child? Could I ever imagine being driven to such an act?
When I started writing Hunting Shadows, my son was six and my daughter was one. I was still coming to terms with the terrifying, all-consuming love you experience as a parent. It was inevitable, I suppose, that this was what I would write about.
The novel is about the hunt for a missing child. It’s also about the sad desperation that drove her abductor to take the child in the first place. Themes of parenthood, parental love and the importance of giving children a safe, secure childhood recur throughout.
And, of course, it’s a crime novel so it has to be strong on plot and location. I like complicated plots (complicated, not ludicrous). A strong early influence on my writing was Harlan Coben. I loved (and still love) his Myron Boliar series. When I started writing, I tried to out-write Harlan with complicated plotlines (a deluded, unachievable goal, needless to say).
Then I was lucky enough to be accepted on a mentoring scheme and spent a year working with crime writer Martyn Waites. Martyn opened up a whole new world of crime fiction. He introduced me to writers like George Pelecanos, Dashiell Hammett, Christa Faust, Gillian Flynn and the incomparable Megan Abbott. Until Martyn, I thought I knew a lot about crime fiction. I was very wrong.
Inspired by all this great writing â€” and subsequent books and authors I’m still discovering â€” my writing grew darker. It reached the place it was meant to be which, for me, is hovering somewhere along the spectrum between noir and commercial crime fiction.
I adore crime fiction and am a voracious reader. I read widely and don’t confine myself to crime fiction. But there is something about a good crime novel, isn’t there? And damn it if there aren’t some brilliant writers around at the moment. Apart from the genius that is Megan Abbott, so many great writers keep appearing. Recently, I’ve read three stunning debut crime novels by Stephan Talty, MD Villiers and Derek B Miller. Talty’s book was so good I wrote to him and told him I wished I’d written it. And I really do.
I mentioned the importance of location. It’s something crime writers speak about a lot. My novel is set in south-east London and the north Kent coast, two places very special to me. Anything I got right about location is down to two very special writers who do this better than anyone: Ken Bruen and Robert Edric. Galway city is possibly my favourite place in the world and when I first read Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels it felt like coming home. He gets Galway â€” warts and all – better than anyone. As for Edric, I’ve never been to Hull but I feel as if I have. In fact, his Song Cycle trilogy are amongst the best noir fiction I’ve ever read.
The thing about the best crime writers is that they have real heart in their writing. There’s nothing gratuitous. Bruen’s novels, for example, can be brutal. But the violence is always there for a reason. His character lives a brutal life and Bruen’s skill is that he doesn’t flinch from that.
A while ago, I read Sam Hawken’s wonderful, angry novel The Dead Women of Juarez. It’s a very violent book. So much so that I had to put it down more than once. But Hawken is writing from a place of righteous anger. Juarez is a brutal, horrible place where terrible things happen.
There’s another reason the violence doesn’t feel gratuitous in Bruen’s and Hawken’s books – the graphic violence is non-sexual. In Hawken’s novel, a young woman is horribly raped and murdered but Hawken’s veers from describing the actual event, choosing to tell us second-hand, after her body is found. This isn’t cowardice. It’s just very, very difficult to write about sexual violence. Why? Because all too often sexual violence is packaged as something to turn you on (Fifty Shades of Grey, for example). I am certain this is why the best writers don’t do this.
So, the lazy exploitation of violence against women isn’t my thing. As for sex itself, I’m not so sure. Sex is part of life so there must be a place for it in crime fiction. The only problem, really, with sex, is that it’s so difficult to write. I’m struggling with a sex scene in my current novel and I just keep stalling. How do you write about sex without cringing? If anyone has any tips, I’d be very grateful!
In fact, it’s not just the sex I’m finding difficult. There’s a bit of second-novel syndrome going on at the moment. Writing a sequel is hard work and, of course, I’m terrified this one won’t be any good. However, I suspect fear is something all writers experience. Again and again. What foolish people we are.
The book is a sequel to Hunting Shadows. It’s called Watch Over You and it’s full of dark, demented females. I’m a bit worried no one but me will like it. Still, if all else fails, at least the sex might make people giggle…
Hunting Shadows is published by Brandon Books, an imprint of the O’Brien Press.
Sheila Bugler grew up in a small town in the west of Ireland. After studying Psychology at University College Galway, she left Ireland and worked in Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland and Argentina before finally settling in Eastbourne, where she lives with her husband, Sean, and their two children. Sheila adores crime fiction and has never wanted to write anything else and would be delighted to share her recommendations and to hear yours too. If you’d like to contact Sheila, you can do so through her website: www.sheilabugler.co.uk or via Twitter: @sheilab10.