In this series, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to showcase an excerpt from their books. This week, Alison Layland writes in praise of the prologue in crime fiction, with illustrations from her novels, Someone Else’s Conflict and Riverflow.
Begin at the beginning
Sound, if obvious, advice. But where is the best place for a novel to start? Many, especially in the crime genre, open with a prologue – and there, opinion is divided.
Some say a novel should dive straight in to the main story. If the prologue has something worthwhile to add, why not make it the first chapter?
Others, myself included, find an atmospheric prologue enticing, like a map – I love a book with a map. Far from delaying the action or distracting the reader, a well-written prologue is an apéritif, giving the reader a foretaste of the main course to come.
Although neither has a map, both my novels open with prologues – one a classic prologue, the other less so. This is the prologue of my debut, Someone Else’s Conflict:
Through tears he looks up and sees the foreigner’s rifle aimed at him. Why is this man here? This is not his conflict. It is not the boy’s conflict, it is not anyone’s conflict any more, it is hell. The heat from the burning buildings is becoming unbearable. Motionless with fear, the boy stares at the foreigner. It is not the face he expects to see; it is an ordinary man’s face. The eyes blazing with intensity, but otherwise unremarkable – dark hair, weathered skin, the shadow of a beard. Not a hideous face. Not a child-murderer’s face. The foreigner moves slightly, breaking the moment, and the boy tenses. He does not want to die, not even now.
He realises the man is saying something. Trči! The boy hardly understands through the foreign accent and the crackling of the flames. He hears it again, more clearly. Run! The rifle twitches. Not to kill him, not this time, but to indicate the lane he has just come down. Run, idiot, go! The foreigner aims high, shoots. The whining ricochet from far above the boy’s head snaps him from his paralysis and he obeys.
This scene from the novel’s backstory, set in the 1990s Croatian conflict, introduces a turning point that is revisited later in the novel, the boy who haunts the present-day narrative, and a glimpse of the novel’s protagonist, Jay.
The beginning of my most recent novel, Riverflow, is also a prologue of sorts. Like the previous extract, this one also focuses on an absent yet central character. This time it is Joe, the uncle of protagonist Bede, whose story is told through longer diary extracts interspersed within the narrative. The scene also introduces the backdrop to the novel: the central characters’ sustainable lifestyle beside the River Severn, threatened by flooding that is itself indicative of the climate change that preoccupies them.
21st October 1998
So Bede and I finally met. And now the initial
joy’s faded, I’m seriously wishing he’d never
made that call, wishing he’d vanish from my life.
Joe snapped the diary shut. Every so often he’d retrieve it and pour out his thoughts, but as far as he could remember this was the first time he’d actually read back over anything he’d written. After all these years, such negativity was hard to recall, now that Bede was more like a son than a nephew, Elin a daughter-in-law.
This was no time to wallow in memories; he was here for a purpose. Once again aware of the wild wind and the rain like a horde of devils dancing on the roof, he picked up the metal box and stuffed the battered book back into it. The hollow creaks of the workshop surrounded him, part familiar, part warning, water dripping noisily from the dormant waterwheel. He glanced around in the semi-darkness, then climbed the wooden ladder to the platform in the rafters and negotiated the intricacies of shafts and belts towards the hidden hollow between heavy roof timbers and wall. He’d noted the spot ages ago, when they were rebuilding the place. No one knew there was anything to look for, and if they ever did, it would be safely concealed here. Safe and dry.
Maybe Bede and Elin had been right: maybe there was no need to move anything, and his time would have been better spent in the village, with them, helping others prepare for the flood. But just as he had done in the house, he felt an urgent need to get their most precious things higher, out of reach of water. The dancing devils on the roof slates, along with the ever-present roar of the leat outside, made him feel vindicated. Their renovations to the mill race had not been truly tested yet; the water could easily break out and inundate their house and smallholding. Bede put too much faith in his calculations, trying to convince Joe that, unlike the swollen river running through the fields below, it would stay put. His nephew had a sense of justice, as though the rightness of their way of life meant it was only fair they wouldn’t be flooded here. But Joe knew that life wasn’t fair.
He stowed the box away then wavered. Tempted to dive back into the past, he reached out, but a rustle in the workshop below checked him.
‘Hello? Back already?’
No reply. There were probably rats seeking shelter from the deluge too. The moment broken, he quickly descended the ladder, padded over to the door and put his boots back on.
Hunching against the daggers of cold and wet, he paused for a moment in the scant shelter of the doorway to lock up and pull his hat down securely. The lowering clouds and water-saturated air had brought dusk on early. Late afternoon, and already it felt like time to go back into the house, draw the curtains and turn in on himself. He dashed across the yard, water streaming down his collar. Home and dry in the kitchen, he shook the worst of the wet from his jacket and petted his dog, who came running through from the living room to greet him. After a perfunctory welcome, Kip went to stand by the door, whining. Damn. He’d kept the dog in – these weren’t conditions for him to go wandering – but there was no arguing with a call of nature.
He lit a cigarette and huddled in the porch as Kip nosed around the yard. Gazing down over the floodplain field across the road, now their willow plantation, he saw a regular flicker of motion: the river. It was more or less the highest he’d seen in all the years he’d lived here, so he scribbled Bede and Elin a quick note before following the dog down to the gate for a better view of the spectacle. No longer the benign friend of summer, the river was a restless dragon slithering its way past with a cargo of debris – logs dwarfed to the appearance of matchsticks, what looked like a caravan wall and a range of incongruous domestic items. He briefly wondered how the larger flotsam had got through the arch of the bridge, and what else had caught upstream of it. He doubted it would be long before the inevitable flood swallowed the bridge and most of Foxover High Street.
Joe had always found the river more alluring than threatening, and – safe in the knowledge his wet clothes would soon be steaming in front of the fire – he called the dog, crossed the road and slipped through the lower field gate, stopping at a safe distance to watch the elemental power of the water.
Above the rumbling of rain and river, he became aware of Kip barking. He looked round and jumped as he saw someone swing open the gate and walk towards him. Probably some poor soul lost on the lanes. Hardly surprising on a day like this. He waved, grabbed the dog’s collar and approached to see if there was anything he could do. Maybe he’d get credit for being of some use today, after all. The newcomer bent to the dog, who fell quiet, then straightened with a hint of a smile. Joe nodded back.
‘Can I help you?’
‘I think you can, Joe.’
Jolted, he narrowed his eyes. The voice, slightly raised above the noise of water, had a hint of something he recognised. He could see little of the face in the grey late-afternoon light, but it was enough.
‘You can’t keep me away by simply denying me,’ the half-familiar voice said, and Joe realised he’d been shaking his head. ‘Not any more.’
The main narrative of Riverflow begins 18 months after this event. Joe died in the flood, and although his death was pronounced an accident, Bede remains convinced that his beloved uncle was murdered. The repercussions put himself, his wife, Elin, and the way of life they have built for themselves, in danger.
Both Riverflow and Someone Else’s Conflict are published by Honno Press, and can be bought direct from the publisher at: https://www.honno.co.uk/authors/l/alison-layland/, from your local bookshop, or on Amazon: Riverflow and Someone Else’s Conflict.
Alison Layland will be appearing at the Virtual CRIME CYMRU Digidol festival on 27 March at 8pm along with Mari Hannah and Emma Kavanagh, interviewed by Crime Cymru founder member Alis Hawkins – book your tickets for this and other events here.
We’re so excited to reveal the programme for the Virtual CRIME CYMRU Digidol Festival!
The Gŵyl CRIME CYMRU digital festival will run from 26 April to 3 May 2021 and will feature Welsh and international writers, including Lee and Andrew Child, Mari Hannah, Peter James, Clare Mackintosh, Abir Mukherjee, Matthew Hall, Elly Griffiths and Vaseem Khan.
You can book your free tickets now at https://gwylcrimecymrufestival.co.uk/2021-guests/. All our digital events are partnered by local bookshops. Should you wish to purchase a book by one of guest authors please use the safe links on our website.
Our launch event is on Monday 26 April at 6 pm. Crime Cymru associate member, Amy Williams interviews CWA Diamond Dagger winner, Martin Edwards, award-winning Swansea author, Cathy Ace and up-and-coming Crime Cymru talent, Gail Williams.