Following in the bloody footprints of the likes of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Peter May, author Helen Fields is paving her way as a crime writer, setting her thrilling novels in Scotland.
After the success of her first crime novel, Perfect Remains, set in both Edinburgh and the Cairngorms, Fields is back with Perfect Prey which sees character DI Callanach investigate another murder in the Scottish capital.
We had a chat with Helen about her writing, how Scotland inspires her and some of her favourite places in Scotland to visit.
Tell us a bit about yourself?
I grew up in Hampshire, spending most of my childhood filling notebooks full of poetry, stories and plays. I always had a passion for writing although I got diverted into the law for a while. I took my degree at the University of East Anglia, then attended Bar School in London. After practicing law for several years, I worked for a media company and wrote scripts. By the time we had my third child, I realised that I wanted to write full time and that’s when I started writing my novel. I wrote Perfect Remains while I was researching a different book, just to keep writing every day. By the time I got a publishing deal with Avon at HarperCollins I knew the crime genre was right for me and I haven’t looked back.
What got you into writing crime fiction?
Crime fiction was a relatively easy subject for me to tackle given my background in criminal law. It’s also the sort of subject matter I’ve always enjoyed reading; although I like my thrillers dark rather than cosy. I grew up reading Stephen King, James Herbert, Dean Koontz and Thomas Harris. Crime is a global obsession. TV shows, true crime documentaries, the popular press and novels are filled with pages and pages of real and imaginary cases and evil-doers. Strangely these days, now that I’m writing crime, I often turn to lighter subject matter for my down-time reading. We all have a limit!
Do you have any Scottish literary heroes?
Christopher Brookmyre. It’s a rare talent to be laugh-out-loud funny as a writer, within the context of producing hard-hitting crime thrillers. My favourite book of his is Not the End of the World. Recently Gail Honeyman brought out Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, adding to Scotland’s triumphant list of world-leading authors, and I’m a complete fan. Am I allowed three? Stuart MacBride – brilliant crime writing, great characters, some of the best dialogue in the crime genre ever. All three of those writers are also utterly lovely people, which is annoying when combined with such spectacular talent.
Have you always been a big fan of Scotland as a place to visit?
I didn’t get to know Scotland really well until I was in my early twenties. It was a family wedding that took me there as an adult, and I was blown away by the friendliness of the people, and the sense of peace I had travelling around the countryside. Since then I’ve been a regular visitor. The benefit of setting my books there is that I have the best possible excuse to visit as often as I possibly can (for research, of course). These days it feels like arriving home when I get off the plane north of the border. The Scots still have the best manners of any place in the UK as far as I’m concerned, matched only by having some of the best bars in the world!
What are your favourite places in Scotland?
The Cairngorms are a great place for stoking one’s imagination. They are home to the opening scene of my first book, Perfect Remains, as they provided a dramatic backdrop that would stick in the mind of the reader. Having been snowed in at Braemar during one visit, I can honestly say it’s worth just kicking back and waiting for the thaw. It’s great fun.
New Lanark Mill on the River Clyde is home to some of the country’s most important industrial history. I’ve stayed in the hotel there a couple of times, and love walking the riverside. The architecture is stark but stunning and the stories of the mill’s past are endlessly fascinating. And Edinburgh, of course, layered in history and education, home to so many great writers and artists. It’s a city I’d love to live in. Every corner has something worth stopping to look at. Edinburgh is a tiny, diverse universe of its own. I defy anyone not to fall in love with it.
Do you have a favourite time of the year in Scotland?
For me it has to be spring, especially up in the Cairngorms. The wildflowers start to show their faces and the air has the crispness from the dying edge of winter. It feels like a new world. It’s a great time for hiking, early mornings are spectacular and the summer crowds haven’t arrived yet. I also think it’s the most beautiful time to see the lochs.
If you had one week to spend in Scotland, what would be your must-dos?
Langamull beach on the Isle of Mull has to be a favourite. Going to watch the waves and dream is a precious experience. is a popular favourite but with good reason. It’s impossible to take a bad photo of the castle. Be sure to go there at sunset: It’s mesmerising and haunting. Go and see Ben Nevis in the early morning in summer. When the sun comes out and the upper clouds start to disappear, it’s like looking into a crystal ball in the sky. Skimming stones across Loch Lomond and watching out for the stunning rainbows. Keep your camera handy. There are places to sit and eat as you stare across the water, and great ice creams if you hit a sunny spell. Finally, catching the ferry to Tobermory and drinking in Macgochans pub. There’s always time for a glass of something… usually two.
What area of Scotland are you eager to explore next?
I haven’t been as far north in Scotland as I’d like, and I know there’s a prehistoric village – Skara Brae – a stone-built Neolithic settlement, on the Bay of Skaill in Orkney. It sounds absolutely fascinating. I love doing historical research and the thought of treading in early man’s footsteps somewhere so unspoilt and unchanged is amazing. I’ve got a couple of books to write first, though, so that trip may have to wait until next year unfortunately.
What makes Scotland such a great place to write about in terms of your crime fiction?
Scotland is completely timeless. So much of the country is filled with towns and natural wonders that are sufficiently untouched you could be looking at them a hundred years ago, or five hundred years ago. It has an amazing integrity and sense of groundedness. I love the gothic feel of the cities, the sensation that history is one continuous loop and that Scotland’s past is a living breathing factor in its future. Few cities in the world are so evocative. That’s what lends Scotland so perfectly to crime stories. And, of course, Scotland has such an esteemed history of crime writing. It’s a world leader in the genre, which is slightly intimidating at my stage, but it’s good company to be in. Just the phrase Tartan Noir gets my pulse racing.
What are you most looking forward to at the Bloody Scotland Festival?
I’m overwhelmed to be on the longlist for the McIlvanney Prize for the best Scottish Crime book of the year, particularly given the company I’m in. Bloody Scotland may well be the friendliest of the UK’s crime festivals and it certainly has the most colourful characters. I’m going to be in Stirling for the torchlight procession and opening ceremony, so that’ll be the highlight for me. I’m also on a panel this year which I’m really excited about. It’s always a joy to be able to hear so many experienced and vibrant authors talk about their work, so expect to see me in several queues. I’m also looking forward (if that’s the right phrase) to seeing/hearing the Funlovincrimewriters band in action. (There may be some single malt involved).
Finally….Are you a big fan of Halloween? What would you do in Scotland if you were there on 31 October?
I’ve not been in Scotland at Halloween yet, but it’s a time of year I’d love to visit. Top of my list for places to be at midnight is Goblin Ha’ and the Yester Castle in East Lothian. It has the most fascinating history, having been built by Hugo de Gifford, also known as The Wizard of Yester, a necromancer by repute who raised an army of Hobgoblins to do his bidding. Only ruins remain but Goblin Ha’ still looks an amazing place to go. It’s hard to imagine being anything other than terrified at Halloween in the old stone hall, in the pitch dark imagining all that came before. I certainly wouldn’t be brave enough to do it alone!
Perfect Prey is available now in paperback, eBook and audio.