Sooner or later, everything comes home to roost. That was in my mind when I sat down to write The Scent of Death, the sixth novel to feature British forensic anthropologist David Hunter. Without giving away any spoilers, in some of the previous novels I’d deliberately left some plot threads dangling. Partly because… well, I like the sense that not everything is tied up in a neat bow at the end of a book. Life isn’t like that.
But I also wanted to return to them at some point, to show how these events from the past continued to resonate in Hunter’s present. The question was how to go about it? I’d originally intended to tie-up these floating ends sooner, but novels tend to have a mind of their own. Plot developments can’t just be shoehorned in. They have to develop naturally, or at least seem to.
Another consideration was that The Scent of Death also had to work as a standalone. I didn’t want a story that only made sense to anyone who’d already read the other books. I wanted new readers to be able to jump right in, without slowing down the narrative with tons of exposition.
Easier said than done.
Writing crime thrillers is a lot about misdirection. A little bit like a stage magician, the aim is to keep the audience distracted until it’s time for the big reveal. That isn’t easy at the best of times, and even less so in a series, where readers have become familiar with both the main character and the author’s bag of tricks. So, in order for this to work, I had to wait for the right story, and the right moment.
By the time I came to write the fifth Hunter novel, The Restless Dead, I was confident I’d found it. The end of that book – don’t worry, still no spoilers – raised the possibility of a return for an old nemesis from Hunter’s past. Only the possibility, mind, because I wanted to keep readers guessing. But the timing felt right, and I knew that opening that particular door would set the stage nicely for the next book.
Of course, the drawback with trying to be clever is that you then have to deliver. Hopefully, that’s what The Scent of Death does. Instead of having Hunter travel to some isolated rural location as in the previous novels, I’ve kept him in London, in what at first seems to be familiar territory (the key words here being at first). The gothic shell of St Jude’s is the sort of place that’s become all too common in the UK, an abandoned hospital standing empty as it waits for the developers’ bulldozers.
Except that these boarded-up windows, echoing corridors, and shadowy wards prove to be hiding all manner of secrets. And, as Hunter discovers, not all of St Jude’s occupants have actually left…
It was a pleasure to write and, I hope, to read as well. Just remember that for misdirection to work, the audience shouldn’t realise that they’re being distracted, or what they’re being distracted from.
Over to you.
First published 18/04/2019 on gobuythebook.wordpress.com