David Lawrence is an acclaimed poet and TV script writer. He lives in Barnes, West London. There are now four novels in the DI Stella Mooney series: The Dead Sit Round in a Ring, Nothing Like the Night, Cold Kill and Down into Darkness.
David gives us some fascinating insights into the writing of Nothing Like the Night, character-development and his plans for the series.
Nothing Like the Night is your second novel featuring Detective Sergeant Stella Mooney. Will there be others? And what are the advantages of having a returning character?
There will be others, yes. In fact, the third – Cold Kill – is already written and will be published later this year; and a fourth is humming in my brain. The advantage, from a writer’s point of view, lies in continuity. Instead of abandoning your characters at the end of each book and introducing a new cast, you’re able to expand and develop a main character (Stella in this instance) and the people associated with her. I like the idea of being able to find out more about the cops in the AMIP 5 murder squad and about the people in Stella’s life outside the nick. In The Dead Sit Round in a Ring – the first Stella Mooney novel – Stella put at risk a long-standing relationship by becoming involved with John Delaney, an investigative journalist. I was curious to know how all that might pan out. In Nothing Like the Night (and in the midst of a particularly gruesome and puzzling series of killings) she takes even greater chances in her personal life. I didn’t have that planned for her when I began the book, but I like the fact that I was (and, of course, readers were) able to get to know Stella better and watch her walk the high wire of relationships.
Stella Mooney’s patch is the Notting Hill/Kensal Green area of London. Was there a particular reason for this?
I suppose it comes under the heading of ‘write what you know’. I used to live in Notting Hill. That aside, it’s an area of London where the very rich live (almost) cheek by jowl with people from high-rise estates and I liked the tension that provides. When I first lived there I was in the posh bit (luck, not money got me there); when I moved back after a short while away, I was on the borderland and it was a completely different perspective. Stella’s patch includes both luxurious three million pound mansions and high-rise sink estates: one in particular called Harefield. On Harefield you can buy anything and sell anything and the desperate and disaffected who live there will cross the border, walk into your house, take anything that isn’t nailed down and slam-dunk you if you get in the way. One of Stella’s advantages in policing that patch is that she’s an estate girl. She used to live on Harefield. She knows the rat runs and she knows the bad guys and she knows how to fight dirty.
Stella has a pretty complicated private life, as you say. And in Nothing Like the Night she has some hard decisions to make. Are you more interested in character-development than plot-development?
No but the two have to go side by side: they’re interdependent – or they should be. It would be a dreary novel that cared only about its plot and whose characters existed only to solve the puzzle; by the same token, the characters shouldn’t put the plot in the shade or make it seem incidental. It’s a crime novel after all, and one of the fascinations in writing crime fiction is that characters are formed and influenced by extreme events and are often under pressure. If you think about it, crime writing usually depicts characters in extremis, so for the crime-writer the balance between event and character is a particular skill. All that said, I do have a soft spot for Stella and, yes, she’s in trouble in her private life. I’m looking forward to writing the next Stella Mooney novel to find out what happens to her.
How much research do you do?
As little as possible – not because I’m lazy or don’t care about authenticity, but because the imagination is by far the best researcher. It’s important to get things right (police procedure, for example) but it’s equally important not to have the story buried under the weight of too much information. I always smile when cops of a totally inappropriate rank arrive on the doorstep or go out on the collar (‘I’m Chief Superintendent Nabber and this is my sergeant…’) and I have a number of good police contacts who keep me up to date and supply me with essential information, but it’s all too easy to become obsessed by the precise mechanics of a set-up and forget that the idea is to create believable characters in believable situations rather than pass an exam. However, it’s true that I made Stella a detective sergeant precisely because ranks above that (contrary to television norms) tend to be desk-bound. Stella is a street cop. She knows her way through the badlands and she’s tuned-in to the rhythms of interrogation.
Nothing Like the Night contains a particularly terrifying plot-aspect which – for obvious reasons – I won’t give away here. But I want to ask how that idea came to you: did you come across it by chance, in a newspaper report or whatever, or was it entirely imaginary?
I know what you’re referring to and since we can’t discuss it without giving the game away, I won’t spend long on it. Basically, you’re asking me whether I lift that sort of scary stuff from life or whether I’ve got a dark and lurid imagination. Dark and lurid is the answer though, of course, such things have happened and been documented. So I did talk to a couple of clinical psychotherapists – no, not about my lurid imagination; about the terrifying plot-aspect you refer to. The shrinks were specialists in the subject and the book does make use of that research.
Talking of shrinks – the secondary characters in Nothing Like the Night (in fact in both the Stella Mooney novels so far published) are an interesting bunch. There’s Anne Beaumont, a profiler who was Stella’s shrink when she had a breakdown; DC Pete Harriman, who works the street with Stella; DI Sorley, Stella’s boss; DC Maxine Hewitt, who’s gay; and most important, perhaps, John Delaney, the investigative reporter with whom Stella is having an illicit affair. You manage to keep us interested in all these people without ever letting the pace slacken. How difficult is that?
The fact that each of the characters has a distinct and important role to play in the investigation allows me to have them progress the plot at the same time as we learn more about them. This applies particularly to Stella’s colleagues in the AMIP-5 murder squad. I’ve been allowed to sit in on a couple of investigations, watching and listening as things went on round me. I gained a good sense of the rhythms of squad-room life: the banter, the breakthroughs, the letdowns, the way detection works, though none of my characters is drawn from life.
Just as Stella’s character has developed since The Dead Sit Round in a Ring, so others have also developed. The relationship between Stella and John Delaney is a difficult one and they’re both very independent people, but what lies between them is fired by a strong sexual attraction. I think they’re probably good for one another in a contradictory sort of a way, and I hope they make it. Pete Harriman is a ladies’ man and a tough cop; the tension between him and Stella is productive. Mike Sorley is desk-bound and hates it but runs a good squad; he smokes as if it were an Olympic sport and Team GB depended on him. I used to smoke…fond memories!
I get on with the female characters in this book very well: Maxine has a waspish sense of humour and, like Stella, knows how to hold her own in a world where women can still have a tough time of it. Anne Beaumont is funny and insightful and unconventional. As I’ve mentioned, I never draw characters from life, but I rather wish I’d known someone like her.
The ending of Nothing Like the Night is shocking and tragic and surprisingly lyrical: very unsettling, very effective. I got the feeling that I was supposed to sympathise – to some extent, anyway – with a character who has done some dreadful things. Did you intend this?
The issue of the ‘bad guy’ is one of the most challenging for a crime-writer. It’s easy enough to create a standard-issue nutcase or an off-the-rack underworld villain. The trouble with this approach is that it tends to drain colour from the book and limit the writer’s opportunities. Part of the challenge of crime writing, I think, is to make all the characters believable and interesting. The notion of a ‘perpetrator’ who is, in effect, ‘pure evil’ seems lazy: he (or she) becomes little more than a device: a quarry for the investigator. How much more intriguing – though more difficult, too, perhaps – to think of that person as having a past, an emotional life, a reason, however perverted. Nothing Like the Night does contain characters who might be described as ‘damaged people’. To some extent, of course, Stella Mooney is one of them.
We chat to David Lawrence, author of acclaimed novel The Dead Sit Round in a Ring, about the comparisons between scriptwriting and writing a novel; he lets us into DS Stella Mooney’s most recent escapades in his latest novel Nothing Like the Night, and tells us a bit about his new project for Channel 5.
The Dead Sit Round in a Ring was your debut novel. What made you decide to write a novel?
I wanted to treat myself to the greater expansiveness and depth that fiction allows: the authorial voice permits all sorts of freedoms that screenwriting doesn't allow. (Doesn't allow the writer, that is; screen is really a director's medium: shot-selection is a bigger deal than dialogue.) I also wanted a returning character (DS Stella Mooney) - wanted to have her develop and change, to have the space to write the flux and flow of her professional and private lives over an extended period. In a piece of crime fiction for the screen, we're usually with the principal characters for a short, intense time. I wanted the intensity, but not the brevity. Fiction is the way to get that.
You are also a successful scriptwriter, how does scriptwriting compare with writing a novel?
As I mentioned above, fiction provides more room and also allows for the authorial voice. It's also all your own work. There might (there should) be rewrites, but there are none designed to accommodate the needs of a director or an actor. On the other hand, screenplays offer the chance to create literal effect. You can either describe an event (the novel), or show it (the movie). Writers' directions - the sinew of a screenplay - while they're not there to tell a director exactly what to do, are, nonetheless, the writer's screen-vision of his narrative; seeing that realised, not least with the benefit of good direction and good acting, can be exciting. There can be genuine revelations - lessons to be learned - in watching a talented actor interpret your page.
Your novels are of the crime genre; do you also enjoy reading in this area?
One of the drawbacks to genre fiction - not just crime - is that the talentless flock to it, wearing bags over their heads. Some crime fiction is outstanding, some is junk. The genre is baggy: too baggy, perhaps. At its best, it seems the last bastion of the nineteenth-century novel: big characters, sin and retribution, narrative scope. At its worst, it invites writers who seem to be gambling on the notion that events can move fast enough to disguise bad writing. Wrong: nothing disguises bad writing. My desert island crime writers would be James Ellroy & Martin Cruz Smith: always ambitious and, when on-song, formidable.
Nothing Like the Night is the new DS Stella Mooney thriller. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Well, too much information would be not enough, if you see what I mean. A sketch: in The Dead Sit Round in a Ring, DS Stella Mooney is troubled in her private life and pretty fiercely involved in her work: she takes things seriously. Stella is a DS in an AMIP (Murder Squad) team and her patch is Notting Hill, Kensal Green, Kensal Rise, and a bit of Paddington ... She grew up on a sink estate, was one of only three people from her school to go to university and knows that, in the crime war, the footsoldiers are drawn from the same stock. All this personal stuff carries through to Nothing Like The Night, and develops. She is still living with her long-term partner, George Paterson, but the journalist, John Delaney, is still an un-ignorable presence in her life.
The book opens with the particularly nasty murder of a young woman who lived on the glitzy side of Stella's patch. AMIP-5 polices an area where houses costing £3m are a stone's throw - literally! - from high-rise dumps; where organic shopping shares space with open drug-dealing. The investigation appears to indicate that someone is at work who has a taste for killing, but it's worse than that: uniquely worse. And there's a kid - one of London's waifs - sleeping rough with a dog-pack; but that's as far as I go.
So, is DS Stella Mooney based on someone in particular?
No, Stella's in my head and on the page. And in the readers' heads, of course: I wonder what she looks like and sounds like to them ... I never base characters on real people. Sometimes, I guess, there's a specific and useful reason for doing so: a structural need to take a character from life, perhaps. That aside, it's always struck me as both limiting and lazy.
Are you working on any exciting projects at the moment?
I'm writing the screenplay of The Dead Sit Round in a Ring, which was commissioned by the production company ARG and Channel 5. So far as I know, it's Channel 5's first large-scale, homegrown project, so a bit of a landmark. When that's done, I'll be starting work on the third Stella Mooney novel which (at present) is called Between the Dog and the Wolf.