Blog tour: We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings 

Last year, I was on holiday with my family and my father told us the story of ‘The Fox’, who operated not far from where he grew up in Berkhamsted. He remembers a feeling that everyone was understandably on edge, and even on one occasion, when my grandparents were out, he pretended that he’d fallen asleep in the kitchen whilst studying so he didn’t have to go upstairs in the rambling, creaky house that he grew up in. As he told us a little more about the Fox, and what he did, my then-sixteen year old brother said furiously ‘You expect us to go to sleep after this?’ And indeed, we were staying in quite an isolated and not hugely secure house at the time… Malcolm Fairley was eventually arrested and jailed for his crimes. He was released under a new identity in 2012.

So when I received We All Begin As Strangers, I assumed I’d be reading a fictionalised version of the true events. But it quickly becomes apparent that what interests debut novelist Harriet Cummings more, rather than Fairley’s violent attacks on people, are reports that sometimes he would do no more than flick through people’s photo albums, build dens for himself in their houses, or even simply watch them in their sleep, before slipping away soundlessly.


Reminiscent of Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, We All Begin As Strangers is the story of a village filled wth secrets that its inhabitants are desperate to protect. But unlike Goats and Sheep, in which the residents come together to protect a terrible crime from being revealed, Harriet Cummings’ carefully drawn debut explores the secrets that the residents are desperate to keep hidden from each other, even their nearest and dearest.

In the stiflingly hot summer of 1984 in the village of Heathcote, a mysterious figure called the Fox is creeping into people’s homes through backdoors, open windows, and moving things around, or leaving curious objects with them. He seems to know all their secrets, and is happy to let them know it.

The novel opens with Deloris, a Londoner who has moved to Heathcote to marry the rich and obnoxious Harvey. Stifled not only by the heat, but by the expectations of married life, and finding only escape in the soaps she watches obsessively, she almost welcomes the gossip around the Fox as a sign of some sort of excitement. Until the kind-hearted Anna, loved by all, goes missing. It is clear that the Fox is responsible. The villagers alternately rally together or turn against one another – for if the Fox can take Anna, he could too reveal all the secrets they the villagers have been harbouring. And he could be any one of them.

Harriet Cummings has built a cast of completely believable characters, all of whom are keeping often painful secrets which the Fox is trying to tease into plain view. It is here, for me, where this novel works best, in its representation of people, in all their weaknesses, follies, and small kindnesses. From Jim, the vicar desperately seeking redemption, to Stan who wants nothing more than acceptance from the rest of his village, and Brian the young copper, always wondering what could have been – all are incredibly, believably human. I also loved the 1980s setting building, from the references to Dallas (‘Oh J.R., how could you?‘), to the food (at a dinner party, Deloris serves vol au vents and blacmange, amongst other things.)

I enjoyed this surprisingly gentle, thoughtful debut, and I can’t help but wonder what people who lived through that tense time in Leighton Buzzard, Tring, Berkhamsted, will make of it…

And now, Harriet Cummings has very kindly joined me at Back to the Books Blog, to tell us a bit about the publishing process as part of her blog tour!


My Publishing Journey by Harriet Cummings

How did you find an agent?

I did a novel writing course with Faber Academy which culminated in an event where all the students read extracts of their work-in-progress to a room full of agents. A terrifying experience! But I got my wonderful agent off the back of this and we’ve worked together since.

What was your writing process like for this book?

I’d previously ditched another novel because I couldn’t work out a satisfying ending. With this one I came up with a plan first – nothing too detailed, just a couple of pages that included the key turning points in the story and, importantly, an ending I was excited about. This approach gave me a great sense of direction which meant I could really build up momentum in my writing.

I was fortunate to be able to devote three months to simply writing this book (I’m a freelance copywriter and able to juggle my time like this). Throwing myself into the writing meant I could become really absorbed in it without distractions of other work. I realise I was incredibly lucky this way!

Are you part of a writing group?

Yes, I’m part of a group with seven others. We take it in turns to share short stories or chapters of novels we’re working on, then get written notes and feedback from the others. I’ve found this process really useful and don’t think I’d have gotten a publishing deal without it. Apart from receiving lots of pointers, it’s gotten me used to sharing work and overcoming the fear of exposure. Having said all this I wouldn’t say it’s essential to always share work with others. Writing is incredibly subjective and arguably the best stories are not decided by a committee! I’d say people should do whatever feels right to them, even if that’s showing no one your work until you submit it to an agent or publisher.

Any surprises about the publishing industry?

Lots because I was fairly clueless to begin with! Before getting a book deal I didn’t really allow myself to think about what it’d be like, as if this would be tempting fate. There were then various things to learn about, say, the editorial process and how to go about generating publicity. (I used Twitter before but was nervous about shouting too much about my book, knowing this wasn’t the best approach.) But everyone has been very encouraging and supportive, not brusque or business-like in the slightest. One thing that has surprised me is how many people are involved in publishing a book – not just the editors and proofreader of the editorial team but also design, marketing, publicity and sales teams.

What advice would you give to other writers?

Write the book that makes you feel excited. The one you’d want to pull off a bookshelf. It’s so tempting to try and guess what the market will like and want. As writers of course we want to please others and to sell books. But the trouble is no one knows exactly what people will want after the months or years it can take to write and publish a book. More to the point, arguably you can only best write the books you personally believe in. The characters and settings you create can only be created by you. We need to each embrace our own individuality or else we’ll just create cultural litter.

We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings is published by Orion on 20 April in hardback and eBook

Thanks so much to Virginia Woolstencroft, who has possibly the most enviable name in all of publishing, for the review copy and for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Her Husband’s Lover by Julia Crouch

I feel like we’ve had such a wait since Julia Crouch’s last book – though that may be simply because I gulped down all her books in one go. Julia Crouch specialises in psychological thrillers populated with not especially likeable, yet compulsively readable, characters who hold you to them as they spiral through bad decisions, bad luck, madness, and sometimes, just plain badness. And Her Husband’s Lover is no exception.


Lou Turner is finally free from her abusive husband, who died in a car accident chasing her and her two children Poppy and Leon as they made their escape. But that accident also tragically killed the children. After recovering from her injuries, all Lou wants to do is make a fresh start, moving to London to pick up the design career she had loved so much before she got married. But unfortunately for her, Sophie, the eponymous ‘lover’ of the title, is enraged at the loss of her boyfriend, and at what she sees as the smears against his good character. She’s also determined that her baby daughter should inherit some of Sam’s considerable wealth and sets off on a vendetta to clear his name, secure her daughter’s future, and exact her revenge on Lou.

This is a tricky one to review without spoilers, but let it simply be said that this story is not the one you expect. I was riveted by this addictive and often disturbing story of obsession, delusion, paranoia and the unravelling of a marriage. As Lou starts a new life, and a new relationship with a handsome young activist, Sophie, facing eviction and battling the horrors of her own troubled youth, will go to ever greater lengths for revenge.

I came for the insanely good thriller, I stayed for…well, still the insanely good thriller, but also the heartfelt rage against the social cleansing of London which comes in the form of Adam, Lou’s delightfully earnest new boyfriend. A filmmaker, housing activist, and generally lovely person, who looks out for everyone around him – from the beautiful broken woman who has just come into his life, to the homeless man on the street, to Lou’s single mother neighbour. He sees the best in everyone, and is the shining light in this story of revenge and hatred. Some readers may find him too perfect. I am not one of those readers.

Another white-knuckle thriller from Julia Crouch, with a twist that will floor those who confidently assume that they can see where this is all going.

Her Husband’s Lover by Julia Crouch is out now, published by Headline

The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

‘The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick.’

This is the eye-catching opening line from Sara Flannery Murphy’s ambitious debut, a ghost story and a psychological thriller rolled into one. Edie works at the Elysian Society as a ‘body’, people who channel the spirits of the dead so that their loved ones can keep in touch. There are rules of course. It’s a controlled environment. They can’t contact suicides, and they can’t contact people they don’t know, like the woman who attempts to solve a murder. Edie is the perfect body. Detached and distant from others, she is an expert at channelling the dead. Until she meets Patrick Braddock.

Patrick Braddock is contacting his glamorous wife Sylvia, who drowned in suspicious circumstances. To her surprise, Edie feels an instant connection to Patrick, and finds it harder and harder to shake Sylvia off, the longer she spends as her. Is she really falling for Patrick, or is she falling under the indomitable Sylvia’s spell? And to what extent is Patrick himself taking advantage of her? As Edie’s feelings for Patrick grow, she becomes increasingly obsessed with the mysterious circumstances around Sylvia’s death. Previously a guarded character, who hides from the reader as much as from those around her, and a model ‘body’, Edie finds herself taking greater and greater risks to stay close to Patrick and to uncover the truth. And despite her attempts to keep her own secrets hidden, Edie finds her past increasingly hard to conceal.

As a well as a riveting and uncanny ghost story, The Possessions is a perceptive exploration of our attitudes to death and grief. As Sylvia gets to know Patrick, the neighbourhood is in thrall to the murder of a young woman who the police have named ‘Hopeful Doe.’ Later when her true identity is revealed, there is almost a sense of deflation –  the ‘nameless, angelic girl’ has become ‘a specific woman.’ If we could talk to our dead, would it help us grieve? Or would it simply anchor us further to the past.

Enthralling, haunting, touching, and with more than a hint of a feminist dystopia, The Possessions, for me, marks Sara Flannery Murphy as one to watch.

The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy is out now, published by Scribe.  

Blog tour: Two O’Clock Boy by Mark Hill

Full disclaimer. I think of Mark Hill as a good friend, so although my first instinct when I heard he had a book deal was joy and excitement, I was a little apprehensive about reading it. What if I didn’t enjoy it? I would have to avoid Mark for the rest of my life, concocting elaborate stalking schemes to work out his whereabouts, coming up with ever more implausible excuses to not go the events I knew he was attending! (I probably wouldn’t have had to do these things, but sometimes my imagination runs away with itself.) But, as I’m sure the reader will have guessed (does this blog have readers? Or is it my own personal bookish echo-chamber?) I needn’t have worried.

High res TTOCB
DI Ray Drake is one of the best coppers at Tottenham Police Station. But thirty years ago, he witnessed terrible events at the Longacre Children’s Home, when it was burned to the ground, leaving two dead. Now, a sinister killer calling himself ‘The Two O’Clock Boy’ is brutally hunting down and murdering all those who grew up there, along with their families. Ray is determined to stop the murderer, but more importantly, he will do anything to prevent the secrets of that night coming out. For Ray has a checkered past, which he has gone to extraordinary lengths to cover up.

Unfortunately for him, newly promoted DS Flick Crowley is determined to make her mark with this case. Aware that she has a reputation for hiding behind procedure, she’s sure that there is more to these murders than it seems, and she’s dismayed that her boss who she trusts completely isn’t backing her up. It’s almost as though he has something to hide…

Meanwhile, Elliot Juniper, one of the former Longacre boys, determined to go straight for the sake of his family, finds himself dragged back into the life of crime he was sure he had escaped.

From the get-go, The Two O’Clock Boy is an extraordinary roller coaster of a read, captivating and with an unstoppable pace. The narrative jumps back and forth from the present day, to what happened thirty years previously, at Longacre Children’s Home, a hopeless place, where corruption and drug-dealing are rife. As those events come back to haunt him, Ray Drake heads further and further down a path from which there is no return, whilst Flick, the emotional heart of the story, grows tantalisingly close to solving the case. Twists and turns are thrown from all sides – just as I thought I had guessed the end, a whole load more curveballs were thrown my way. After finishing this hugely accomplished and remorselessly gripping thriller, it took a good couple of hours for my heart rate to return to normal.

Congratulations Mark – and curse you for ending it on such a monumental cliffhanger! You better be working on Book 2 is all I can say…


Two O’Clock Boy by Mark Hill is published 6th April by Sphere

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

Almost as fascinating as reading this scalpel-sharp examination of a destructive marriage is listening to the author Gwendoline Riley speak about it. Whilst interviewers from Marielle Frostrup on Open Book or Susie at Dulwich Books sought to judge either character one way or another, she had a different opinion each time, so it was with curiosity and interest that I picked up First Love.

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Neve, a writer in her thirties, is engaged in a turbulent and toxic marriage to the older Edwyn. From one moment, their relationship veers from the loving (‘we have a little cuddle…we don’t talk much in the evenings but we’re very affectionate’) to sheer vitriolic hostility, in which her advances are rejected and ridiculed, and vicious accusations are thrown around: ‘You’re like a baby, really, aren’t you? You won’t be happy until we’re both just crawling around this place in our own shit.’ 

As Neve traces the journey that led her to her relationship with Edwyn, we meet her strange and aggressive father who ate himself to death, and her prudish but oddly needy mother. We meet a musician, who Neve has never been able to forget, and a picture forms of a woman torn between wanting love and companionship, but also desperately craving independence, which itself chafes against Edwyn’s need to be needed and appreciated.

Riley captures with razor-like accuracy the intimate cruelties that only someone close to you can know can land, and the unique nature of cruelties within different relationships. But she writes just as perfectly about the pleasant and comforting moments spent with someone you know almost as well as you know yourself; the funny and often totally incomprehensible in-jokes that develop, the nicknames that you’d rather die than accidentally reveal (‘Mr Pusskins’ ‘my little smelly puss’).

First Novel is a masterpiece, sharply observed and strangely compelling – like watching a beautifully written car crash, you can’t look away.

 

Eyes Like Mine by Sheena Kamal

The story of how I came across Eyes Like Mine by Sheena Kamal is one that regular readers of this blog (are there any?!) or just people who know me will be familiar with. I saw Sheena Kamal speak at First Monday Crime, thought she seemed pretty cool, and by the end of the night (the bit in the pub) was completely smitten, and shortly after, dived straight into Eyes Like Mine, which sounded like a thoroughly original thriller with a fascinating premise.

Nora Watts works for a private investigation firm. A recovering alcoholic battling self-loathing, betrayals and violations aplenty, she avoids other people preferring the companionship of her dog Whisper, for who she remains sober. Then one morning, at 5am she receives a phone call. A 15 year old girl has gone missing – thought to have run away, but has not returned. And this girl is the baby she gave up for adoption fifteen years ago. Nora would rather not get involved, but this girl has eyes just like hers, ‘so dark that pupil and iris are virtually indistinguishable, fringed by long lashes that might make them pretty until you take a closer look, and then you will see that they absorb all the light around them and refuse to budge an inch. When looking into them, if you ever do, you will suddenly remember appointments that you should be making and previous engagements that you’ve forgotten to put in your calendar.’ How can she stay away?

But as she sets off on her daughter Bonnie’s trail, Nora will uncover a deathly dangerous web of corruption, and have to face traumas from her past she’s been desperately trying to escape.

Nora is prickly, and not always likeable. She is suspicious of any offer of help or sympathy, and is reluctant to see the good in any one, admittedly an instinct which usually serves her well in this misadventure. But she is a survivor, with a broken family and unbearable traumas behind her. Though she keeps an emotional barrier between herself and anyone else, including us, the reader, she occasionally displays flashes of a soft side, from her regular offerings to homeless people, to her refusal to bring in an intimidated witness fearful for his family. You wouldn’t necessarily want to spend too much time with her, but she’s a captivating character, who you can’t help but feel for and empathise with. And she’s put through the wringer – as are those who care for her, especially Whisper.

I rooted desperately for Nora – her story is furiously compelling, not just in the breathlessly pacey plot, which encompasses medical fraud, and the environmental horrors of mining, but from her voice, which is wryly witty, cynical, and yet vulnerable. It’s a terrific debut, from an exciting new author, and I can’t wait to see what Nora does next.

Eyes Like Mine by Sheena Kamal is out now, published by Zaffre

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

Little Deaths is inspired by the case of Alice Crimmins, whose two children went missing, and were later found brutally murdered. The detectives took one look at Alice Crimmins, who was wearing tight fitting clothes and large amounts of make up and disliked her on sight. So certain was the leading detective of her guilt that he didn’t bother to have the scene of the crime photographed or even take notes. It took two years to bring her to trial, during which the police harassed her and had her phone tapped, but Alice Crimmins had been found guilty in the press, by the public, and in the minds of the detectives long before then. 


Emma Flint’s very impressive literary crime debut follows the case very closely. In the summer of 1965, Ruth Malone awakens one morning to find her children have gone missing. Very soon later, the body of her daughter Cindy is found, and a few days later, her son Frankie is also found dead. Sergeant Devlin, who is leading the enquiry is convinced of her guilt, so much so that he barely considers any other suspect, and when no evidence can be found to justify an arrest, begins a campaign of harassment against Ruth, sabotaging her job prospects, tapping her phone, and having her followed. 

Half the story is narrated from Ruth Malone’s perspective, even though the third person narrator keeps us at arm’s length. Trying to cope with her grief, and the tragic loss of her children, she watches aghast as the police misinterpret everything she does, when she does not fit how a grieving mother ought to act. The rest is narrated by Pete Wonicke, a junior reporter who sees this as his big break. He too initially convicts Ruth in his mind, but becomes increasingly uneasy watching Devlin pursue his vendetta against Ruth, tampering and destroying evidence to make his story fit. His interest turns into obsession, and in a discomfiting mirror image of Devlin, he too becomes obsessed with Ruth, following her more than journalist would need to.

Emma Flint effectively racks up the tension, as the net closes around Ruth, with even the men apparently on her side harbouring ulterior motives. And whilst the deaths of Alice Crimmins’ children were never solved, Little Deaths is given an interesting conclusion which hammers home the collusion of men against women. 

Little Deaths is a book about Ruth Malone, about the effect she has on men: irrational hatred from Devlin to obsessive desire from her estranged husband and Wonicke, lust from countless others – and Ruth herself, caught in the middle, coping with the tragedy as best she can, and trying – not quite managing – to live her life to the full. 

Little Deaths by Emma Flint is out now, published by Mantle.