In writing The Grave Digger’s Boy, I didn’t want to take a detective character off the peg and so created Ben Hodge – a loner, but not in a cool way; and, frankly, a bit odd.
Having grown up with Inspector Morse, on TV and in print, and later graduating to Scandinavian crime writing, from the earliest books I wrote (unpublished) I’ve tried to avoid the obvious tropes.
I just didn’t feel there was room for another middle-aged police officer struggling with personal relationships, drinking too much, driving a vintage car and obsessing over one genre of music or another.
And then, of course, there’s Monkfish:
My first attempts to break free of cliche didn’t really work.
I tried writing detectives who were professional, didn’t drink to excess and had functional families. An interesting exercise in realism but a recipe for boredom: Detective Inspector Graham Beige.
Next, I thought about what a 35-year-old detective might actually do in their spare time in the 21st century and came up with a character who sat in the dark playing video games.
Do you know what? This almost worked. But… It’s not very sexy, is it? (Sorry, gamers.)
In recent years, I worked on multiple versions of multiple novels about an uptight careerist struggling to make connections with his colleagues partly because he doesn’t drink.
This was better, and I still hold out hope for pulling this together in a meaningful way, but in writing a cold character unsure of his identity, I ended up with one lacking personality.
In recent years, there’s been a trend for distinguishing otherwise generic detective characters by giving them mental health conditions: uncontrollable rage, multiple personality disorder, psychotic delusions, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder…
I played with this a little, too: one detective was maintaining an imaginary dialogue with a dead colleague via voicemail; another was haunted by a manifestation of the persona he’d inhabited while undercover – a sort of partner who existed only in his head.
Again, these were interesting ideas, but didn’t quite cohere as I hoped.
In Ben, it feels as if it all came together.
That’s partly because I started with a character in a moment and let the story grow from there.
At points in constructing the plot of The Grave Digger’s Boy, I would find Ben pulling to do things I didn’t want him to do, that didn’t work for the story as I’d envisioned it.
But I couldn’t stop him, could I? The character had an internal power source of its own and would go where it wanted to go.
So, Ben behaves compulsively, inappropriately and badly at times. He’s awkward, emotionally stunted and not terribly likeable, at least on the surface.
What should happen, what I gather from reviews is happening, is that Ben grows on people. Or, at least, they come to understand him, even if they wouldn’t particularly want him to be their new flatmate.
And he does ‘grow’, as the cliche goes. His adolescent fascination with Esther Garrett, and the way it manifests, is a reflection of immaturity – of a childhood disrupted and interrupted.
Lots of young men are a bit like Ben when we’re young – I certainly was, which of course helped me write him. But we learn through life, university, work and relationships how to function.
Ben is a person who lacked those opportunities, or failed to seize them, and so is only half there when the novel begins. At the end, he’s whole, for better or worse.