How does a police officer on a career break to raise her children spend her time? Revel in the rare luxury of spending quality time with the family, of course, but, if you are like Clare Mackintosh, indulge your other passion: writing. And what better things to write about than those that she had first dibs on during her 12 years with the police force: the many shades of darkness in human society? “I’ve been writing for what feels like forever. Even when I was in the police, I blogged and wrote articles. Given the chance to write a book, it seemed an obvious choice to write about what I knew — and that was crime from a police officer’s perspective. I suppose the genre picked me!” says Mackintosh, 41, over an email interview. The British crime fiction writer’s third novel, Let Me Lie (Hachette India), was released in India last month.
Like the work of many of her contemporaries, including Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, Alex Marwood and Tana French, at the heart of Mackintosh’s psychological thrillers is the family and the grey zone of domestic lives. Like Flynn, Mackintosh’s focus is often on motherhood and how its various unwieldy facets impact lives around it. “I’m a huge fan of mothers everywhere — it really is the hardest job in the world. I’m intrigued by human nature in general, but I am absolutely fascinated in the way mothers act and react, particularly under duress. In my opinion, there is no one more capable than a mother in a situation that affects her children,” she says.
Her urgent first novel had emerged out of a personal crisis. She had lost a child soon after birth, and its traumatic aftermath had brought to mind her anguish at an unresolved hit-and-run death of a nine-year-old boy in Oxford, where she lived and worked. The case would become the plot point of I Let You Go (2014) that has sold over one million copies and won Mackintosh UK’s top crime fiction award, Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, beating Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling), and picking up other awards for its translated editions afterwards. It prompted Mackintosh to give up her policing career and take up writing full time. Her second novel, I See You (2016), unravelled a web of cyber deceit in which her protagonist, a single mother with two teenaged children and a live-in boyfriend, finds herself unwittingly tangled in. In her latest novel, too, Mackintosh, who lives in Snowdonia with her husband and three children, is exploring the wrenches of filial attachment — a young affluent new mother tries to make sense of the dissolution of her happy family life when her parents commit identical suicides a year apart from each other.
In her books, running parallel to the themes of dysfunctional families is another leitmotif — that of the crises posed by fragile mental health. Mackintosh says it’s an issue that she is deeply invested in. “One in four people in the UK suffer from mental health problems, yet there’s a huge amount of stigma surrounding it. I worked with lots of people with mental health issues when I was in the police and was interested in how everyday activities and relationships can be affected. I think the more it’s discussed, the better chance we have of reducing the stigma,” she says.
Over the last decade, and in particular, after Flynn’s dazzling Gone Girl (2012), there’s been a noticeable shift in the way crime fiction has finetuned its focus on psychological thrillers, moving away from the gory revenge sagas of Nordic noir or the action-packed police procedurals of Ian Rankin or Andrea Camilleri. Instead, it’s the violence of the everyday, interior life that surfaces like a bare-knuckle punch in the gut. “I think readers like books that are relatable and I work hard to make sure that my characters are normal, everyday people just like you and me. Personally, I find books scarier if what happens to the protagonist could, in theory, happen to me,” says Mackintosh, who is often found making a case for authenticity in writing on her Twitter page. “I was a police officer for a long time…. Forensics, police procedure and the crimes that ordinary people commit every day were my daily life. I think authentic atmosphere and dialogue come from knowing the little things firsthand — like the sound a cell door makes when it slams, the way a blue light run feels and how police speak to each other. With regard to stuff I don’t know personally, I am lucky to have a wealth of police contacts that are very generous with their time and expertise in areas like child protection, homicide and cybercrime,” says the writer who first maps out her plot and characters on whiteboards before writing brief summaries of each chapter and the plot twists.
In January this year, the Staunch Book Prize was announced in the UK to honour the best thriller “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered,” declares its website. The idea behind the £2000 award, entries for which are currently underway, is to contain the casual depiction of sexual violence against women in fiction. Mackintosh says she finds the purpose of the award astigmatic. “Violence against women is a huge problem, and anything that stimulates debate about it is a good thing. However, I don’t believe the answer lies in ‘cleansing’ fiction so it doesn’t reflect reality. I would prefer to see an award for the thrillers — and there are many — who tackle these issues without being sensational; who raise awareness without being gratuitous. As long as violence against women is perpetuated in society, I’ll continue to write about it,” she says.