I’ve always been intrigued by actors. There’s a great saying by the legendary New York drama teacher Sanford Meisner: ‘Acting isn’t lying. Acting is being truthful under imaginary circumstances.’ In this post-truth, Falsebook age, when almost everyone, from your best friend to the politician who represents you in parliament, seems to be wearing some kind of mask – and almost every book comes with an unreliable narrator – it seems extraordinary there aren’t more suspense novels set in the worlds of drama and movie-making. (Trying to list some, I came up with just three: Somerset Maugham’s Theatre, Deborah Moggach’s The Stand-In, and John Le Carre’s peerless The Little Drummer Girl).
I’m also intrigued by forensic psychology, which in some ways is the very opposite of acting – the peeling away of layers of deception to reveal a truth someone is trying to hide. As the criminal psychologist Paul Britton observed in his memoir The Jigsaw Man, serial killers are often brilliant actors – they spend their lives trying to appear normal, to resemble the people around them, even though underneath they’re very different.
These two interests came together when, many years ago, I read about Operation Edzell, the undercover operation put together by Paul Britton and others to try to entrap the lead suspect in a particularly savage murder, the killing of a young mother called Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common in 1992. Colin Stagg had a reputation as an oddball who sunbathed naked. The police recruited an attractive policewoman with orders to make him fall in love with her. The idea was that when she revealed she had a morbid interest in knives and sexual violence, Stagg would be motivated to confess that he was a murderer. The main problem with this scheme was that Colin Stagg was actually innocent, but long before that was conclusively established when the real killer confessed, the judge at Stagg’s own trial had thrown out all the evidence against him as unsafe.
That flawed but fascinating operation lingered in my mind, and many years later became the basis for my book. I’ve transposed the story to New York, where my protagonist is a talented young British woman studying acting at one of the many elite New York drama schools. Unable to get regular work because she doesn’t have a green card, she’s persuaded to act as the decoy in an undercover operation to entrap the lead suspect in a gruesome murder. But right from the start, she wonders whether the man the police are asking her to snare might actually be innocent. Is she right? Or is she just getting too deep into her own part? For an actor, where does roleplay end and self-deception start? And if she is right, what’s her duty to this innocent man with whom she’s now genuinely falling in love – how can she protect him from being manipulated into saying or doing something that will appear to incriminate him when it’s played back in court?
By the time I’d worked through these plot shifts I’d left the real Operation Edzell far behind – perhaps only I, the author, would still be able to see its bones underneath the skin of my story. But the fascination with play-acting remains. And in my protagonist, Claire, I’ve had the pleasure of creating a character who is herself playing a character, with all the ambiguities that entails. I hope readers enjoy her company as much as I have.
Believe Me by JP Delaney is published by Quercus