PHOTO/ Phil Tragen
Marnie Riches is a Cambridge alumna, but we won’t hold that against her. She’s also the writer of the hot new thriller The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, a gritty, globetrotting adventure which has led to her being billed as the British answer to Stieg Larsson. She met with us to discuss her new book, as well as the state of crime fiction.
I asked Riches what inspired her to write crime fiction. “When I was a student, Silence of the Lambs came out, and I was blown away. I fell in love with Hannibal Lecter– I think everybody did. I was always the kid that fancied Darth Vader, so there was always the love of a good baddie. I vowed that one day I would write a crime thriller, but of course life gets in the way. I shelved it all, really, and then in middle age, with a couple of kids under my belt, I’d been writing for children. I thought, ‘I’ve got this skill set’, and then I read the Stieg Larsson books and fell in love with Lisbeth Salander, as I think many people did. I thought ‘Larsson’s dead, f*** it, I’m going to do something along those lines, but it’ll be very much my story, drawing on my experiences.’ It took me two years to get this first book right.”
The novel is partly set in Cambridge, as well as in Amsterdam– I asked Riches what attracted her to write about these settings. “It’s so beautiful– Oxford’s the same. They’re such inspiring cities, and especially being a girl that came from a really crappy council estate in Manchester myself, which was just a really horrible place to grow up in, you go to a beautiful university, and I think that the shock of being in such amazing surroundings sticks with you for the rest of your life. It’s always a time that you will hanker after. I wanted to have amazing places in my novel, I like to travel, I’m a very visual person, so Amsterdam is a glorious setting, and then Cambridge, these old university towns, it’s just inspiring.”
The heroine’s working-class background is an important aspect of the novel: “It came naturally. You always write a bit of what you know, and you always inject a little of yourself into your characters, but make them idealised versions of yourself, or somebody you’d like your reader to fall in love with. She came out that way– there are a lot of very middle-class heroines in fiction, and it just seemed to me, if I wanted to have a really strong heroine, that it made sense for her to come from tough streets. Tough streets make tough women. George very much kicks against the system. She won’t take no for an answer. So yeah, a working-class rebel made good, really.”
There are a lot of very middle-class heroines in fiction… George very much kicks against the system.
The experience of writing a thriller was a new one for Riches, and her previous writing and reading has a significant influence. “After having written for children, the books are very short, but what you need do when you write for children is keep the pace. The characters have to be very well drawn. There’s to be no fat on the novel. If you look at literary fiction, you’ll have entire pages of information-dump, which you absolutely can’t do in children’s fiction, and you shouldn’t really do that in crime fiction either, if you’re going to get this page-turning effect. When I wrote this thriller I was mindful of the fact that it needed to have the punchy plot; the action had to keep going, draw the reader right to the very end, keep them guessing. I looked to Jo Nesbø for plotting advice– I went back to his texts and re-read them in a very analytical way, and I saw the way he wrote hooks at the end of each section and kept the reader going on and on and on. They always say, don’t worry about trying to emulate your idols, because if you can get anyway near as good as them, you’re winning.”
I wrapped things up by asking what’s next. “At the moment I’m just putting the finishing touches to book two, where the lead character George is studying for a PhD in criminology. I did a lot of research with a criminologist at Cambridge for that, so the academic theme is continued. I would like to say, one of the things I really wanted to do with these novels was portray that wonderful lifestyle you have as a student, where you’re free to explore different ideas and different versions of yourself, in many ways. I’ll be doing book three as soon as I finish book two.”
If the next two books can match up to the rip-roaring thrills of the first, Riches looks to be establishing herself as an interesting new talent in the world of crime fiction, and if the overwhelmingly positive reader feedback is anything to go by, she has already marked herself out as one to watch.