Hands up who’s ever found themselves staring into a stranger’s house late at night?
You’re strolling along the street, say, minding your own business – taking the dog for a walk, or on your way home – and your attention is caught by soft lamplight coming from inside a home. The curtains are open so you can see right inside, you see everything. You slow. The dog may helpfully stop to sniff something on the pavement, giving you the excuse to stop in front of the house.
Your eyes drink in all the details of someone else’s life. The flowers in a vase on the dining table, the photos on the mantelpiece of friends and family. The room is filled with knick-knacks accumulated over a lifetime. There may be a flickering fire and a comfortable armchair with a paperback laying open on the arm. You can’t help but wonder who lives there, and what it must be like to be them. You want to know how it feels to relax in that cosy armchair, feel its worn fabric beneath your fingertips, in front of that crackling fire.
If you’re unlucky, you might get busted. Someone will walk into the room, or appear suddenly behind the curtain, silhouetted in the light behind them, to glare at you for staring into their house. They’ll pull the curtains shut to hide their personal space from your prying eyes.
Have you ever done that, stood outside a stranger’s house staring in…
Oh. Only me, then.
It’s like that one time. I was house-hunting – this was years ago – and for some reason the only time I could view a particular property was late one winter’s night. I remember standing alone in a stranger’s bedroom, surrounded by all their personal things, their bedclothes folded neatly on the duvet, all their cosmetics neatly arranged on a dressing table, a full moon shining in the window, and I had a weird sense of dislocation. For a moment, I felt like I already lived there, that it was my room – in my home.
Oh dear. I’m not coming out of this very well, am I?
Point is, it’s those fleeting moments, those tantalising glimpses into the personal space of other people, that inspired my second novel, It Was Her.
I wanted to write about a cuckoo in the nest. Someone who slips into other people’s houses when they’re empty, like a modern-day Goldilocks. To take a bath, watch a bit of telly, eat the lovely food in the kitchen cupboards, curl up in bed. I wondered what would make them do such a thing? Perhaps they need to go into other people’s houses because their own happy home was once taken from them. And, of course, I wanted to discover how such a creepy obsession can lead to murder.
And the more I thought about it, the more it was obvious that it was exactly the kind of fucked-up investigation that my enigmatic detectives Ray Drake and Flick Crowley would get their teeth into. So that’s It Was Her in a nutshell.
But, anyway, if you ever see some guy staring in the front window of your house looking in, don’t worry, it’s probably just me taking the dog for a walk.
Except I don’t have a dog.
It Was Her by Mark Hill is published by Sphere, £8.99