Milonga

Danuta Reah

1 October 11 words: James Walker
"My father was declared an enemy of the state by Stalin, because he, like so many Poles, fought against the Red Army."
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Danuta Reah is a former Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association and a CWA Short Story Dagger winner. In Not Safe, a novella for the Crime Express series, she draws on her experience of working with refugees to highlight the plight of these often maligned people. We caught up with her to discuss this, the welcome return of Tina Barraclough, and how crime is literally in her blood… 

What makes good psychological suspense?
I think it needs awareness of the way people think and act. It should be convincing – readers need to understand why the characters behave the way they do. I think, as well, if the readers know more than the characters do, this can create real suspense. But it has to be real – it has to convince, you have to think ‘people do these kinds of things, people behave like this.’ I’m never convinced by books that have characters who are wholly evil or wholly righteous, for that matter.

It’s a scary thought that it’s not just evil others who commit crime…
Most people are capable of terrible acts, given the wrong set of circumstances. The psychologist Philip Zimbardo talks about this. In reference to the Abu Ghraib atrocities, he rejected the idea of ‘a few bad apples’ and said that what society had created was a bad barrel – an opportunity for evil. This doesn’t exonerate people for the things they do – people remain responsible for their own moral decisions, but it’s very easy to be drawn in, step by step. There’s often a planned psychology behind this. For example, in executions in the US, each guard has a specific job which is part of the process but not the whole process, so no one feels that they, personally, killed the person. It’s all done at one degree of distance – which suggests at some level, we expect people to feel shame and guilt about what they are doing.

We all have our inner concentration camp guard, and need to be aware of this and stand guard against our own worst instincts. It frightens and depresses me when I hear people say that, for example, torture is OK under extreme circumstances. If you want to keep your soul intact - and I say this in a non-religious way - you have to be absolute about this.

Good psychological suspense explores these issues. I’ve only ever had one character for whom the motivation wasn’t clear, and I’ve always seen that as my weakest book. In most cases, I feel pity for the killers in my novels.

In 2005 you won the CWA Short Story Dagger for No Flies on Frank. How did this feel and how important are awards to authors and publishers? 
It felt wonderful to win the award. I don’t think it did much to up my profile, but it was recognition that I valued very much. People whose views I respected said my writing was good – and that matters. For some reason, the Dagger Awards don’t impinge much on the public, but as I found when I was Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, it’s almost impossible to get the publicity the awards need. They get no mention on the BBC arts programmes, almost nothing in the national newspapers. Booksellers don’t publicise them. Where are the displays of shortlists? Where are the posters? We did try, but got almost nowhere. I got very frustrated with some of the big booksellers who could have given us a lot more support – they did well out of crime fiction – but we could never persuade them to splash with the shortlists or get involved. It’s a bit better now that ITV3 are publicising the Daggers, but the TV and acting awards get a lot more out of this that the writers. Most writers are not celebrities – it’s not that kind of fame.

Tell us about your writing life…
I work every day, in the mornings, unless I have a tight deadline for my other work. Around midday, my brain turns to cold porridge, and I can’t be creative anymore. I’ve always enjoyed writing and telling stories. I got thrown out of the needlework class when I was 10 for curdling the teacher’s blood with gruesome stories. Looking back, I’m a bit surprised. It was a full-blooded catholic school, and stuffed to the rafters with gory crucifixions, bleeding hearts and blood-and-guts martyrdoms. We loved the stories of the martyrs which the nuns read to us with great relish – the gorier the better as far as we kids were concerned.

Would you say that crime is in your blood?
Well, I have one or two memorable ‘criminals’ in the family tree. My father was declared an enemy of the state by Stalin, because he, like so many Poles, fought against the Red Army. He wasn’t able to go back to Poland for decades after the war, because he would have been arrested even though, at the time, he was fighting for his country against an invading army – not that Stalin was strong on that kind of logic. What happened to Poland after the war was a great betrayal that the country has still not recovered from.

I also have an ancestor who was hung, drawn and quartered for being a member of the wrong branch of Christianity. He was one of the Lancashire Martyrs, and was a Catholic priest when this was not a wise thing to be. He was The Blessed John Woodcock, but I think he’s a saint now. I have an ancestor who is a saint. The nuns would have winced at the irony.

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Which writers do you most admire?
That’s always a difficult one because my tastes keep changing. I think Thomas Harris is an excellent writer – I think Silence of the Lambs is the perfect thriller. I like Andrew Taylor very much, and Henning Mankell. They are both writers who can tell a good story and engage the reader with their characters and contexts. There’s a new writer, Penny Grubb, who has written three books in the same series that I’m enjoying, and I’m very impressed by a recent American writer, Ryan David Jahn.

Is writing a novella more challenging than a novel?
It was quite a challenge. I decided I wanted to have a full crime story – the killing, the investigation, the outcome – but when I’m writing a novel, I can let my imagination run free, and some of the best stuff comes from my following a byway to an unexpected place. Reviewers of The Forest of Souls commented on one or two aspects of the book that were actually completely unplanned – they just popped out of the woodwork as I let myself explore an apparently irrelevant aspect of the plot. I had to be more disciplined with Not Safe, and I wasn’t happy with the first draft. I rewrote it radically after that, and it worked much better. It’s a different discipline.

You work with ASSIST and so I guess this must have impacted on your imagining of the character  Farah Jafari in Not Safe.
Farah is a woman who has drawn the real short straw in life. I have met a lot of young women in the course of my work with ASSIST in Sheffield who are incredibly vulnerable. If they are over 18, and if they have no dependents, then once their first claim for asylum is turned down, they are on their own: no money, no right to work, no home. ASSIST came into being when some people in Sheffield realised that changes in government rules about asylum seekers meant there would be hundreds of people destitute on the streets. Without charities like ASSIST – and there are support charities in most big cities – we would have people dying on our streets. I wanted to write about this, as so many people have the wrong idea about asylum seekers.

I met a young woman like Farah, who was exchanging sex for a roof over her head for the night. I have met other people who are in similarly desperate circumstances – resourceful, talented people in many cases who could be a real asset to this country if we would let them work and pay taxes. What is encouraging is the degree to which these people who have nothing will help each other – the friendship in the book between Amir and Andre is not an unusual one.

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The British liberal press

In the novella, Tina Barraclough has time for the asylum seekers and sees them on a more personable level. Could you tell us a little bit more about her history…Who do you think is to blame for the generally negative view of refugees?
People are quick to take on negative opinions about certain groups. I’m afraid our news media – newspapers in particular – are badly at fault here. Also our politicians. When people find themselves without work, or short of money, it’s easier to give them a scapegoat to hate rather than help them to understand how the system is letting them down. Asylum seekers don’t get money and housing ahead of local people – while their claims are being assessed, they get the barest minimum in accommodation, and yet people are persuaded to believe refugees are privileged over local people.

Tina made her first appearance as a new DC in my first book, Only Darkness. She was a minor character, but she interested me, so I made her central in my second book, Silent Playgrounds. Here, she’s a talented, up-and-coming young detective with a good career in front of her, but at the end of the book, she is a close witness to the death of one of the characters who falls from a tower block and lands almost at her feet. I kept wondering what that experience might have done to her, so when I wrote Bleak Water I thought I would revisit her. She hadn’t dealt with the trauma in any useful way – she was hiding from it with alcohol, cocaine and sex, and was close to driving her career into the ground. She breaks the rules and causes chaos in the investigation. She comes close to getting sacked – but the instincts of a good detective are still there – she has to make choices in the end. From her perspective, the book ended on an ambiguous note. Not Safe is the next stage in her career. I may come back to her – she’s interesting.  

It would appear to be an equally tough path for crime writers…
I’m a bit pessimistic about the future of crime fiction. I think it is going down more gruesome and sillier paths – if I’m reading a book and I find myself sighing in exasperation over yet another torture scene and feeling no empathy for the victim or the perpetrator, and if the serial killer seems almost supernatural in their ability to carry out these terrible crimes – I just think ‘What was the point of that?’ A good crime writer can remind you that there are very few easy ways of dying, that being stabbed to death, for example, is a horrible, painful end, that such crimes spread chaos and distress far beyond the victim, that no one is truly innocent and the world is a strange and complex place. A good crime writer can also remind you there are excellent reasons for being alive, and life can be, and often is, good.

Not Safe is available from Five Leaves for £4.99

Danuta Reah’s website
James Walker’s website

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