You send the first three chapters of Hester & Harriet off to three carefully selected agents and you sit back and wait, assuming it will be months until you hear anything.Except … someone’s not following the script. All three agents reply within a week (yes, honestly). Something about your uncompromising sisters of a certain age finding themselves harbouring a young Belarusian fugitive and her baby (and then their surly great-nephew) seems to tickle a number of fancies. Long story short: you get taken on by Jane Gregory.
A week later you’re in Jane’s office. The walls are lined with Val McDermids and Minette Walters … and you’re starting to wonder if the comedy of manners you pitched has found quite the right harbour. Because you’re not a crime writer. Not a writer of those twist-in-the-tail psychological thrillers or visceral gore-fests you indulge in from time to time between the Anita Brookners and Kate Atkinsons (Jackson Brodie notwithstanding…)
‘We love the book but we’d like a bit more crime,’ say your agent, your editors, your publisher. ‘It doesn’t have to be murder.’
What?! You know nothing of police procedures, post-mortems, the intricacies of the legal system (despite the law degree lost in the mists of time). Sure, you watch Happy Valley, Scott and Bailey and Spiral (with sub-titles and between your fingers for the mortuary scenes – mon Dieu, how those French love their graphic close-ups!) but a crime writer? You, with the penchant for life’s absurdities and the snide asides? You who are so irredeemably squeamish? Seriously?
But they’re right. Your illegal immigrant can’t hide forever: her improper status must be confronted, along with the growing number of dodgy characters on her tail. The suspicious activities of some village inhabitants need fleshing out: what exactly are they up to? Germs of ideas float into your mind, half-recalled newspaper stories, fragments of conversations and you start to re-draft. Soon your poor unwitting protagonists are tussling with all sorts of problems, dangers and challenges that demand the right – the accurate – response. And it must be as accurate as possible given that you’re forever shouting ‘Oh, for goodness sake! How ridiculous!’ at the TV when some unlikely plot device is employed. Or when a supposed ‘expert’ through poor direction or – worse – poor writing demonstrates unequivocally that they haven’t the first idea what they are doing.
And then you discover with delight and relief just how willing real experts are to help. The busy immigration specialist, plucked from the ether, takes thirty minutes to explain the ever-changing regulations. A retired barrister and judge (admittedly, a dear friend) advises on drugs, trafficking and sentencing. A translator at the UN (friend of a friend) corrects your internet-derived Belarusian. Your oenophile husband scrutinises the sisters’ wines. A local policewoman responds patiently to your muddled procedural questions …
Until finally somehow, observational humour and crime mix into a miraculous cocktail of mystery, mayhem and (not quite) murder. And you’re a crime writer, for Heaven’s sake!
Hester & Harriet by Hilary Spiers, published by Allen & Unwin, is out now in paperback, price £8.99.