I’ve tried writing all sorts of novels in various settings but somehow, mysteriously, always find the characters drifting back to housing estates, council graveyards, rented flats, rundown pubs and fields on the edge of town.
There’s an obvious reason for this: it’s the world I live in and have always lived in. It’s the world most of us live in.
Bins in the yard. Litter in the hedgerows. Brambles and bus stops.
In fact, I have a suspicion that if you could climb into my brain and wander about, you’d find a landscape that resembles the outskirts of a fading town – all traffic-calming measures, ditches and fly-tipping.
In other novels I’ve written (unpublished, as yet) these settings have crept up on me. The stories somehow always leading police officers away from the nice end of town to the terraces and industrial parks where I feel at home.
I used to worry that people would find this boring and un-glamorous but, growing more confident in my instincts, I’ve come to think it only enhances the horror of the crimes I’m writing about.
After all, these are the places where murders really happen, where murderers really live and work – next door to you, me and Auntie Pat.
I want people to respond the way I do when I watch Car Share or This Country only with added unease.
When I describe suburban houses that are a little worse for wear I hope people will think, oh, I’ve been here.
If I describe the broken windows of an unremarkable Gothic chapel in an overgrown cemetery, I want the reader to picture a place they know.
We’ve all stopped to buy something at the One-Stop Shop on the new estate on the edge of town. We’ve all been to a christening in a post-war church on a new estate. We’ve all seen sitting rooms full of laundry, toys and half-finished cups of tea.
Like the details I’ve borrowed from true crime, these help sell the fiction.
The Grave Digger’s Boy takes place in London, Exeter and Okehampton, with a brief excursion to Birmingham, but even so there’s a touch of Subtopia in the treatment: dual carriageways, waiting rooms, scraps of woodland, new-builds and laybys that could be almost anywhere.
Though I can’t claim to have done it consciously, this all echoes the sense of drift and loneliness that defines the protagonist, Ben Hodge. He doesn’t belong anywhere but that’s fine because everywhere is nowhere.