Once upon a time, long, long ago in my writing youth, I sat in an editor’s office and heard her say, ‘The problem is, you’ve written a thriller and we only publish mysteries.’ In my naiveté, I suggested that it would be fine by me if she wanted to call it a mystery. Really, you can call it what you like if you’re going to publish it…’Yes, but it’s just too thrilling.’
And so we negotiated, and Hen’s Teeth was born and went on to be short listed for the Orange Prize and suddenly I had a real writing career – and friends in the CWA who could sit me down over a pint and explain the difference between a mystery and a thriller – or the differences, because everyone has a unique take on that one.
‘Anticipation and uncertainty’ was one of the early succinct answers. Mine, when I finally crafted one, boiled down to this: ‘A mystery is a literary crossword full of solvable clues, a who-dunnit, and perhaps a why/how/where dunnit. A thriller might answer all of these, but the primary question, the one that drives the reader forward is, ‘Will the character for whom I have most sympathy, survive to the end?’
It’s a good question in a reader. For a writer, it’s a glorious, lucent, fiery drive that can lift a novel and carry it from beginning to end with zest and vigour – and the heart that will make our readers care.
Yes, we need anticipation and uncertainty and a credible threat to bring these about, but more than these, we need empathy. We need passionately to care about the people under threat.
And it’s this, the creation of threat, the cadences of it – because you can’t just ramp it up and leave it a screaming pitch from page one to page 400, or the reader will break – that has driven every book since, whether they were the Roman-era spy thrillers or the Boudica: Dreaming series or, now, the two intertwined time lines of INTO THE FIRE.
Here was not one, but two plot-driving questions. First and most obvious is ‘Who was she?’ because I’m utterly certain the Maid of Orléans was not the illiterate visionary peasant of history, and the uncovering of the reality was a work of detection all its own.
But it’s the impact of that radical –and in some quarters unpalatable – truth in the modern day that creates the danger, the threat, the anticipation and uncertainty that drive both narratives forward with all the glorious, magical vivacity of a thriller. There’s no better thing to write. Or, for me, to read.
Into the Fire is published by Bantam Press