Each week, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to tell us a bit about themselves and their writing. This week, Stephen Puleston offers a fascinating insight into the challenges posed by setting a crime novel during the pandemic.
My last novel A Cold Dark Heart was the eighth in the Inspector Drake series and I had decided that after its publication I’d to return to my Cardiff based series featuring Detective Inspector John Marco. The last novel in that series Somebody Told Me was published in 2017. Since then I have been concentrating on the Inspector Drake novels.
I began writing the novel – Times Like These – at the beginning of the lockdown. I had finished the first major draft by the end of May when it was likely that lockdown restrictions would be lifted over the summer. The novel is based in the autumn after the restrictions are eased – after all the Eat Out to Help Out scheme had been introduced and there was optimism for the future. After having the structural and line by line edit completed by August, I managed to book a couple of weeks holiday in Dorset and Devon.
It gave me time to think and I realised that with the implications of the developing “second wave” of the Covid 19 pandemic I needed to revisit some parts of the novel. One of the dangers of basing a novel in such a contemporary setting is that it can look out of date and inauthentic.
I had quite specifically decided not to refer to the practical difficulties the police face in conducting interviews in a socially distance setup, largely because having to describe in detail the minute by minute process of modern policing would be extremely tedious for the reader.
However, I realised when I got back from holiday that it wasn’t that simple and that I needed to layer in more reference to the impact Covid 19 restrictions were having on everyday life and policing. Rather than have Detective Inspector John Marco and his team describing how they donned their masks at every occasion I opted to layer into the novel references to the practicalities of day-to-day life and policing.
Below is the first paragraph of the novel. The last two sentences were added after I’d realise that the second wave of the pandemic was going to create a very different world to that in which I had envisaged John Marco policing when I wrote the first draft.
“In normal times I would have balked at the instructions from Superintendent Cornock to attend the Cardiff Domestic Violence Taskforce forum by complaining that a detective inspector should be focusing on more important matters. But the coronavirus pandemic had changed everything. I had spent months getting to grips with a new kind of policing – shoplifting was down, burglaries didn’t happen and it had become a running joke in the Southern Division of the Wales Police Service that our regular burglars must have feared the virus more than the prospect of being caught. Interviews were conducted in rooms kitted out with screens and video links for non-serious matters. Bottles of hand sanitising gel seemed to occupy every spare surface around Queen Street police station, and my desk drawer was full of standard-issue WPS face masks.”
As well as having an experienced and very professional editor I’m lucky to have a superb proof reader and she pointed out that I had included six examples of handshakes. I had to have a rethink. Again when I had written the novel I was assuming that things would have been returning to normal by the autumn of this year.
Over the summer a feeling that we had endured the worst seemed to be gaining ground. That was certainly a false dawn and by September when I was working on the final amends to the novel handshakes were replaced with “nods of acknowledgement”.
Usually I employ a theme to give the narrative of my novels a structure without being preachy. I think it is important for crime authors to be able to reflect what is happening in society. As you can see from the opening line domestic and sexual violence was an underlying theme to the book. It is a real indictment on our modern society. During the early weeks of the pandemic there was a lot of press coverage about the impact the lockdown would have on women having to live around the clock in close confinement with an abusive partner.
I know from personal experience when I was practising as a lawyer how damaging domestic violence can be. The legal system isn’t designed to offer real solutions effectively and the impact it has on families is one of the challenges we face as a society.
But the overriding focus of the book is on the characters of John Marco and his sergeant Lydia Flint and the team as they set about investigating the first murder.
Read more about Stephen Puleston
To discover more of Stephen’s books, follow the link here to his Amazon page