Bev Jones wanders onto dangerous territory, writing about the inspiration for her latest book, Wilderness.
Location. Location. Location.
Perfect photo opportunity! Stunning scenery! Brilliant place to kill someone?
No, not a snapshot of a psychopath’s inner monologue (I hope) but just your average crime writer let loose during holiday season. Unless it’s just me, and I’m a weirdo, I suspect crime writers tend to live in a quantum universe of layered realities, where, even on holiday, especially on holiday, new places always suggest new and dastardly deeds.
While we’re taking in the panorama of the azure sea, admiring picturesque ruins or appreciating the Rioja-hazed ambience of an evening al fresco, we’re probably also thinking, that archway is great spot for an assignation, that guy in the terrible suit looks like a spy, you could kill someone with that barbecue fork or that set of slippery steps is an engineered accident waiting to happen…
Because, all too often, a great location isn’t just the ‘set dressing’ for a crime, a slice of pretty or brooding scenery to place characters in front of. For me it always plays an active role in making the story happen. It’s the impetus of a mystery, a murder usually, that probably couldn’t take place anywhere else.
Of course, committing the murder is not the difficult part for the characters, or in real life. Getting away with it is. I’ve long believed that the trick might be to hide in plain sight, and where better to do that than a wild and dramatic national park? So said the germ of an idea that travelled with me on a road trip I once took through America, visiting the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Yosemite and more. Even as I unpacked my suitcase and admired the sunset each night, it had started to form into the basis of my novel Wilderness, and the road trip nightmare of an unhappy couple on a supposedly dream holiday that turns deadly.
As it happened, just a few weeks before we arrived in Yosemite in the high Sierras of California, two tourists died plunging over a waterfall trying to take a selfie at the edge. A few days before that a man died from what they believed was a result of infection from a rat peeing in his sleeping bag. Then there were the two people who’d seemingly wandered off, a couple unaccounted for after logging a hike with rangers to Tuolume meadows and were two days overdue.
These incidents crystallised in my mind that, while stunning and magical, the environment could also be treacherous, lonely and unpredictable, especially if you throw in the blasé attitude people seem to take to the outdoors, parking their caution and common sense at the roadside with the car, making it the perfect place to pass off a crime.
But the key to any killing (at least one that doesn’t involve serial killer levels of premeditation and psychosis) is to keep it simple – the more pieces you include in the planning puzzle, the more likely one is to get lost and the authorities decide to poke holes in the picture. I know this from years working as a police press officer.
While people think you sit in an office waiting for someone to come in and say ‘put out a statement’ on this, actually, you work very closely with DIs and their teams, get full, often grisly briefings on investigations, post mortem findings and lines of enquiry. You don’t visit crime scenes or meet suspects but you know everything because you have to prepare for everything the media will ask and what you need to say or hold back.
That makes you realise exactly what not to do. The simpler a story is, the harder it is to contradict – if you must lie, mix it with the truth and stick to it. Blend into the environment!
So, when Liv goes out into the wild, she doesn’t exactly have an intricate plan in place to off her unfaithful husband Will. As she says, it’s simply a case of having contingencies at hand, the opportunities built into the lonely hikes, the dangerous cliffs, the natural weapons at every turn. If he fails the three tests she’s secretly set to let him prove his contrition after his affair, this could be the ideal opportunity to take advantage of a third option – instead of leave him, or forgive him – she could just clean the slate.
In the canyons, the high passes, the deserts, who’s watching if tragedy, real or staged, should strike? Pick a spot, pick a moment. Stand your ground. I mean, make sure the characters do, of course.
So, while I made it back from America very much alive, the wilderness might just be the last stop for someone on Liv’s vacation of a lifetime.
Come to think of it, it might just be safer to stay at home!