When I was writing Written in Bone, the second book in the David Hunter series, a friend commented that it should be much easier than the first, as this time round I’d already established my main character. "All you need is a plot," he said. "How hard can it be?"
We’re still talking, but it was through gritted teeth for a while. With the fourth Hunter novel, The Calling of the Grave, published in February, the series is now well under way. And, I suspect like most other writers, I’m still waiting for the ‘easy’ part to kick in,
The idea for the first David Hunter thriller came about after I visited the Body Farm in Tennessee, a scientific facility dedicated to researching human decomposition. I’d been commissioned by The Daily Telegraph magazine to shadow a group of US police officers who were being given extremely realistic – not to mention hands-on – forensic training. It was an intense experience that stayed with me even after I’d written the article. Gradually, I developed the idea of a thriller centred around a British forensic anthropologist, a damaged individual who would use the skills and expertise I’d witnessed in Tennessee, but in a UK setting.
Writing the novel was relatively painless. I’d had four stand-alone thrillers published in the 1990s, none of which had exactly threatened the bestseller charts, despite one being adapted for TV. By the time I visited the Body Farm I’d had nothing published for several years and was working full-time as a freelance journalist. I wrote the book in between commissions, with no idea if it would find a publisher or not. And, consequently, without any real pressure.
That changed when The Chemistry of Death was sold at auction, first in the UK, then in Europe and the US. Suddenly, I was being asked if I’d a sequel planned. Of course, I said…
One of the pleasures of writing crime fiction is being able to play with readers’ expectations: creating the impression that one thing is happening while all the time you’re setting up something else entirely. The downside is that you can’t pull the same trick twice. You have to come up with something new for each book, at least if you’re not going to bore your readers – and yourself – senseless.
That’s especially true of a series. In The Calling of the Grave I felt it was time to reveal more about Hunter’s background, something that’s only been alluded to in the previous novels. It opens with a flashback to eight years ago, when a happily married and confident Hunter was part of a search team responsible for locating buried victims of Jerome Monk, a convicted rapist and murderer. Now, eight years on, Hunter is a changed man. When he learns that Monk has escaped from prison and appears to be targeting anyone connected with the original operation, he’s forced to confront a part of his life he’s tried hard to forget. In the process, he comes to realise that nothing about it is as straightforward as he believed.
It struck me as an intriguing set-up, and in Jerome Monk – a bestial killer who’s universally loathed and feared – I knew I had strong dramatic potential. Of course, knowing an idea has potential and actually writing it are two different things. Twice I got 25,000 words in, only to bin it and start again.
Then there was the research. I don’t want the books to be purely forensic mysteries – the characters’ motivations are as important as trauma wounds and time-since-death. But the forensic aspect is obviously central to the plot, which means digging around in textbooks and consulting real-life experts who are generous enough to help. Mostly it works out, but not always. Part way through the book, what I thought was a routine query to a forensic specialist led to the sort of response guaranteed to make any author’s heart sink: "Oh, no, you couldn’t possibly do that. No, no, that just wouldn’t happen."
Back to the drawing board. Again.
Whenever I finish a book there’s as much a sense of relief as there is satisfaction, and The Calling of the Grave was no exception. Now the characters and situations I’ve spent the past eighteen months wrestling with, cajoling and occasionally swearing at are out of my hands. All that’s left to do is cross my fingers and hope for the best.
And start planning the next book.
The Calling of the Grave is published by Bantam Press