Like my previous novels, The Magpies and Because She Loves Me, Follow You Home was inspired by something that happened to me when I was younger, an experience that I took and turned into something much scarier in order to entertain my readers.
When I was nineteen, my then-girlfriend and I scraped together our pennies so we could go Inter-Railing around Europe. We spent months planning our itinerary, intending to head on a whistle-stop tour of the continent that would last the entire summer. The budget was tight but we were going to have the time of our lives.
After spending a day in Brussels, we headed to Paris. From there, we took a night train south to Avignon. We went into a private compartment and shut the door. Exhausted after a day trudging around Paris and a sleepless night on a noisy campsite, we fell asleep.
When we woke up, the pouches we wore around our necks, which contained our Inter-Rail tickets, passports and money, had been stolen. We ran up and down the train but, of course, the thieves were long gone. The reality of the situation sunk in as we arrived in Avignon at dawn. Inter-Rail tickets are not replaceable. Our ‘grand tour’ was over before it had begun.
After struggling to overcome the language barrier, we reported the incident to some gendarmes and headed back to Avignon station. Fortunately, we had travellers’ cheques from Thomas Cook, who told us what we needed to do: we had to get to Marseille, where the British Consulate would give us a document that would allow us to travel home.
We hitch-hiked to Marseille, arriving late in the evening, the strong hot winds of the mistral swirling around us. We spent the night lying on the floor of the train station, drinking water from the taps in the public toilets, with no food… (I hope you have your violins out.) At one point, a shifty man approached and asked us if we would like him to buy us a hot meal. We refused and hid.
The next day, we got our documents from the Consulate and replaced our travellers’ cheques. We couldn’t leave France, except to go home, so decided to make the best of the situation. We hitch-hiked home, Marseille to Calais, 663 miles. It took two weeks. And apart from the nights spent lying beside the highway, the rides with men who fortunately didn’t turn out to be serial killers, and an unfortunate incident with a packet of laxatives on a campsite near Dijon, we had a pretty good time.
When we got home, the English papers were full of stories about French bandits gassing tourists on night trains, sending them to sleep so they could steal the passengers’ possessions at their leisure. Though this may have been typical British paranoia about the French.
Years later, when my publisher asked me jokily if I had any other disasters from my past, I immediately thought about that night on a train out of Paris. And an image came into my head: a couple on a night train, falling asleep and waking up to realise that something awful has happened – but with no idea that the worst, the absolute worst, is yet to come…
Buy from Amazon.com
Buy from Amazon.co.uk
I read a lot of novels, about two a week, and although I dip into other genres my favourite genre is the one I write in. I’ve read so many great thrillers and suspense novels over the last twenty years that choosing ten that I rank above the others was no easy task. I’m sure a few of my favourites have temporarily slipped my mind. But here are ten that made a big impact on me and that I heartily recommend to everyone who loves books that take us to the darker side of the street.
1. THE SECRET HISTORY, Donna Tartt – “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?” The Secret History is a literary thriller that tells the story of a group of Greek students at a New England college who set themselves apart from their fellows and are arrogant, snobbish and beautiful. Led by the strangely charismatic Henry, and enthralled by their elitist tutor Julian, the group commit a terrible crime and go on to plot the murder of one of their own, Bunny, because he threatens to expose them. The first half of the book leads towards this momentous event; the second half reveals the consequences – the guilt, the anguish and the fear of being caught. This perhaps makes it sound serious and gloomy, but it really isn’t. The book is fast-moving, drenched in atmosphere and contains some moments of pure comedy.
The Secret History is not merely my favourite mystery novel – I put it above my favourite album, movie, song, above everything. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m slightly obsessed with it. One of the highlights of my life so far was watching Donna Tartt talk about and read from it in London in 2014. Afterwards, she shook my hand. It was like a Rolling Stones fanatic meeting Mick Jagger. I loved The Goldfinch too, but I know that no matter how many books I read none will ever top The Secret History.
The rest of the books on this list are in no particular order.
2. THE TREATMENT, Mo Hayder – The second book in Hayder’s Jack Caffrey series, The Treatment is also the darkest. It’s the most terrifying, disturbing novel I’ve ever read. A family in south-east London are put through an unspeakable ordeal. Meanwhile, Detective Caffrey is trying to find out what happened to his brother who vanished years ago. This book is so dark that reading it is akin to having icy fingers scrape at your soul…and the experience was intensified for me by the fact that I lived in the area where it’s set. I saw the building in which the killer lived on my walk to work each morning. My children played in the park where a murder victim is found hanging from a tree. Since The Treatment, Mo Hayder has eased off a little on the horror, but the whole series is great, especially the latest entries, Poppet and Wolf (which works as a companion to The Treatment and resolves one of the mysteries left over from that book).
3. INTO THE DARKEST CORNER, Elizabeth Haynes – There have been loads of excellent psychological thrillers published over the last few years but Into the Darkest Corner remains my favourite. A woman with OCD is hiding out, recovering from a terrifying experience, unsure if she is safe…and, of course, she’s not. Haynes nails the psychological thriller here: a damaged, loveable heroine, a truly loathsome villain, her attempts to escape his clutches and rebuild her life. It’s jaw-droopingly good – scary, sexy and impossible to put down. Her subsequent novels have been excellent too but for me this is still her best.
4. RED DRAGON, Thomas Harris – It’s almost obligatory to include a Thomas Harris book in any list of top crime novels and this, the original serial killer thriller, is still hard to beat. Hannibal Lecter remains, with the possible exception of Lisbeth Salander, the greatest character in the genre, and many novelists are still making a living rewriting this book: the twisted killer with a warped back-story, the flawed but brilliant FBI profiler, the game of cat and mouse between the pair. It doesn’t matter if Harris never writes another book, his first two Hannibal books outshine the entire backlists of most writers.
5. THE CONCRETE BLONDE, Michael Connelly – The Harry Bosch series was the first cop series I got into. It’s been consistently brilliant for twenty years and this is my favourite, the novel in which all of the elements come together in perfect, pulse-pounding fusion. I still remember the sensation of reading it, back in the nineties, being completely unable to put it down, desperate to find out what happened next. Connelly writes such hard, clean prose and is a master when it comes to plotting. Bosch is a wonderful creation and the recent TV series was pretty excellent too.
6. THE BLACK DAHLIA, James Ellroy – I read this around the same time that I read The Concrete Blonde and was utterly blown away. It takes about forty pages to really get going but as soon as Elizabeth Short’s tortured, multilated body is found the novel takes off like a rocket, propelled by Elroy’s savage wit and the raw emotion that comes from the connection, in Elroy’s imagination, between the murders of the Black Dahlia and his own mother. The second book in the L.A. Quarter, The Big Nowhere, is even nastier and it’s difficult to choose between the two. L.A. Confidential is another masterpiece. After that, Ellroy’s sentences got shorter and the books got longer and longer, and he never quite recaptured the storytelling genius that made The Black Dahlia such a great read.
7. THE CRY, Helen Fitzgerald – And now for something completely different. Arguably it’s not really a mystery novel but The Cry features an event more terrible than any brutal murder or gangland slaying. A couple flying from the UK to Australia accidentally give their baby an overdose and, gripped by panic and horror, try to cover up what they’ve done. It sounds like a grim topic, and a lesser writer might have turned such a premise into a depressing read. But The Cry manages to be darkly funny about a completely unhumorous topic, and Fitzgerald produces a novel that is compelling, life-affirming and impossible to put down.
8. THE FOLLOWER, Jason Starr – Starr is a New York based writer who should be far more famous as all of his books are brilliant. His speciality is in creating an ordinary protagonist, usually one with a job he or she hates, stuck in a crappy relationship, who makes a terrible mistake and is then sent into a downward spiral of panic and disaster. Starr delights in making his messed-up characters suffer. The Follower was the first of his that I read, and is about a stalker and his victim, told from both their points of view. It’s creepy and very funny. All of his books are brilliant and if the TV adaptation of The Follower happens (Bret Easton Ellis, another of my favourite writers, is involved) it will hopefully catapult Starr into the big league.
9. GONE BABY GONE, Dennis Lehane – I’ve chosen this not just because Lehane is one of the greatest crime writers in the world, who crafts prose that would put many literary novelists to shame, but because it has what I think is the best ending of any novel I’ve read. Warning – SPOILERS AHEAD. (Skip to book 10 if you haven’t read Gone Baby Gone or seen the pretty-decent movie.) After a truly ghastly scene in which Kenzie and Gennaro discover the body of a child, but not the one they were looking for, they discover that little Amanda has been taken away from her deadbeat, junkie mother to be given a better life with a nice, affluent couple. Kenzie has to decide – give Amanda back to her mother or keep the nicer couple’s secret? The reader is willing him to do the latter…but Kenzie’s decision might make you want to throw the book across the room. There’s a follow-up too, Moonlight Mile, which was disappointing though still worth reading. But Gone Baby Gone is a stunning writer at the top of his game.
10. ROSEMARY’S BABY, Ira Levin – Imagine what it must be like to have written four perfect novels, two of which were made into movies that will remain in the public imagination forever: A Kiss Before Dying (noir with an unreliable narrator decades before Gone Girl), The Boys From Brazil, The Stepford Wives and, best of all, Rosemary’s Baby. My book, The Magpies, has been compared to Rosemary’s Baby, but I didn’t read the book or watch the movie until after mine was published. At which point I rushed out to read everything else Levin had written. Everyone knows the premise of Rosemary’s Baby. A young couple move into a creepy old New York apartment block. Rosemary is pregnant. The people next door are…weird and Rosemary’s husband is willing to do anything to help his acting career. It’s acerbic and tense and contains one of the greatest lines ever written: “He has his father’s eyes.” Apparently there’s a sequel in which it’s all revealed to be a dream but I choose to ignore that. Why mess with perfection?
What You Wish For is a book about a group of people who believe in aliens. But it’s not a book about aliens – or UFOs, or abductions, or little grey men – even though on the surface it’s a thriller featuring a search for a missing woman who is convinced that she can communicate with extra-terrestrials and is set in a world of UFO-fanatics.
As Stephen King says in On Writing, most good books have themes, but the story should always come first…and as you are writing, the theme will emerge. This is exactly what happened when I wrote What You Wish For.
I started writing this book waaaay back in 1997 and it was originally going to be called Staring Into Space. Back then, aliens were trendy. The X Files was the biggest programme on TV, that Levi’s ad featuring ‘Spaceman’ by Babylon Zoo had recently been a massive hit, and the media was full of stories about alien autopsies and crop circles. Pre-millennial madness perhaps. One Sunday afternoon when I was walking on the East Hill in Hastings, where I lived, I bumped in to my best friend from primary school. I hadn’t seen him for years. We went for a drink and he told me, excitedly, that he had recently been to Roswell to see where the US Government kept the bodies of the aliens that had crash-landed in the New Mexico desert. His eyes burned with the conviction of a religious zealot.
This sparked the idea for a novel, and after reading up on what UFO-watchers believe, I started writing it. And as I worked on the novel, I realised the theme of the book I was writing: belief.
Because She Loves Me was inspired by a number of events that happened to me.
Firstly, like the protaganist Andrew, I suffered a detached retina a couple of years ago, and spent two weeks sleeping upright with a gas bubble in my eye, imbibing a cocktail of drugs and wondering if I would ever recover my sight. It was scary. Fortunately, thanks to the surgeons at my local hospital, I recovered. But the experience, including the horrible follow-up laser surgery, has made me slightly obsessed with my eyes.
Eyes feature heavily in Because She Loves Me – but to say more would be a spoiler…
Secondly, there has been my experience of jealousy. When I was at university I had a girlfriend who made my life hell because a green-eyed monster lived inside her. She accused me of fancying every woman I met; she got angry if an attractive woman appeared on TV; she demanded that I break off contact with my female friends. Going into a lecture, I squirmed and sweated if a good-looking girl sat next to me, in case my girlfriend found out. Being a nineteen-year-old idiot, I let her get away with it for quite a long time before the relationship burned itself out.
Years later, I lived with a woman who wasn’t jealous but who told me, after I broke my leg and was trapped in our upstairs flat for weeks, that this situation made her happy.
‘I like knowing exactly where you are all the time,’ she said. ‘And what you’re doing.’
And I have experienced jealousy myself. I know what it feels like when that darkness fills you up and devours good sense, filling you up with paranoid rage and fear. It’s the most irrational and nasty emotion and I’m happy to say it hasn’t afflicted me for a long time.
All of this combined to make me want to write a book about sexual jealousy and how destructive it can be. And, of course, that original idea grew into something much darker…
Buy from Amazon.com
Buy from Amazon.co.uk
In The Magpies, a young couple called Jamie and Kirsty move into their dream home together. The other people in the building seem nice – but then everything starts to go horribly, terrifyingly wrong…
The Magpies is not purely a work of the imagination. Back in the 1990s, I left university and moved into a flat in St Leonards-on-Sea, in East Sussex on the south coast of England, with my then-girlfriend. As in the book, it was a ground floor flat in a large Victorian house, with high ceilings, large sash windows that rattled in the wind and bright, sunny rooms. This flat was where I wrote my early novels, spending a lot of my twenties locked away indoors pursuing my dream of being a published writer.
There was a middle-aged woman on the top floor – we didn’t see much of her – and a young guy above us who, at times, seemed to have a motorbike and a drum kit in his flat. But you expect noise when you live in a flat.
Beneath us, in the basement – or garden – flat were a married couple in their early thirties. I won’t use their real names, just in case they see this and track me down, but they are burned into my memory more than any other neighbours I’ve had.
She was an acquaintance of my girlfriend’s mum, and had a face, as Les Dawson would have said, like a bulldog chewing a wasp. I am pretty sure I never saw a smile crack her face. She worked as a nurse in a care home for the elderly, a detail I borrowed for Lucy in the novel.
He was a great soft-bellied hulk, with what used to be called a crew cut and eyes like a great white shark’s. He was a man of few words and had an air of simmering violence about him. He didn’t smile much either. He mostly lumbered around the garden, watering it at night during the hosepipe ban.
My girlfriend lived in the flat on her own for a while I was at university. On her first night in the flat she was playing music on a tiny cassette player while unpacking. No, she wasn’t playing it loudly. Shortly after she pressed play, the man from downstairs knocked on her door and asked, while staring at her chest, for her to turn the music down as his wife had a headache. Feeling intimidated by this huge man and not wanting to annoy her new neighbours, she obliged.
After I moved in, the trouble really started. Mostly, it was constant complaints about noise. They used to send us letters in which they described the noises that came from our flat. One memorable letter complained about the noise of ‘the toilet brush thrashing about the pan’. They wrote that they could hear me laughing (‘my boring guffaw’, they wrote). They made it very clear that they could hear everything we did – and I mean everything. I feel like I should point out that we were definitely not excessively noisy.
Then we started receiving hoax parcels. In those days, book clubs were popular, and we received a parcel of books from BCA, the biggest, containing such classics as Nancy Friday’s Women in Love, a pre-Fifty Shades of Grey work of true life erotica. We got BCA to send us the order form. The handwriting matched the writing on the complaint letters.
Cigarette butts were often shoved under our door. They constantly banged on the ceiling with a broom. Every time we put music on, they would start playing music much louder so we could hear it over ours. They were always lurking around, looking miserable and intimidating. Although they never threatened us, they made us feel on edge all the time, and we were blissfully relieved when we moved out after buying our own place.
Later, I started to imagine how far the harassment could have gone. Could your neighbours wreck your life if they set their minds to it? The seed of The Magpies was sewn. I wanted to write a scary novel that didn’t contain vampires or demons, but real monsters – the monsters who lurk in our society, causing stress and damage, and worse, to everyone around them.
And I tried to imagine what I would have done if my own nightmare neighbour situation had got a lot worse. How would I have fought back? Would I have fought, or run? I wanted to write a book about someone who is driven to the edge of despair, to act out of character, because of growing provocation. Many of the situations in the novel happened in my real life, but they are taken to an extreme in The Magpies.
I think everybody has had either a nightmare neighbour, or colleague, or some other acquaintance; the kind of person who you wish would cease to exist. Crammed together in cities and towns, in flats and small houses, we are forced to deal with other people. They say that ‘hell is other people’. In The Magpies, I have taken that saying to its extreme.
I hope readers enjoy it far more than I enjoyed living upstairs from the couple from hell.
Buy from Amazon.com
Buy from Amazon.co.uk