Published by Hodder.
I feel like I have just made a discovery when reading my first Dreda Say Mitchell novel, but the great news is that I am late to the party and now need to get back to reading her four novel backlist.
Hit Girls is a fast paced East End gangster tale packed full of great characters, each of whom has clear motive for their actions,good or bad, leaving the reader reeling page after page.
The opening, where ten year old twin sisters are killed by a 4×4 vehicle outside their school and a young boy is left fighting for his life is real heart-in-mouth stuff, particlularly resonant on this, the first week of my own experiences of the morning and afternoon school runs.
The possibility that it is not an accident but something far more sinister leads the mother of the two girls and the mother of the injured boy on a search for the truth and to discover who the killer is.
With a labyrinthyne plot and cast set inside and outside of the prison system, it’s a real skill being displayed here in keeping all of the plot plates spinning and the character links revealed as the story charges towards its conclusion.
If you only read crime books by white males featuring middle aged white male alcoholic detectives, or your female writer choices only include the Gerritsen’s, Slaughter’s or Cornwell’s of this world, then here’s a chance to check out a gritty (I knew I couldn’t get through this without that word) East End female character led refreshing change.
Action, high drama, emotion, thrills, sex and some dark and deadly plotting – Dreda Say Mitchell’s book literally has ‘HIT’ written all over it.
And, I’m very pleased to have Dreda drop by to Books and Writers for a bit of a discussion about her books, her writing and her excellent job as Chair of this year’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival:
KBW: Loved the book, as is hopefully made clear above – when did you first start to write or realise that’s the career you wanted?
DSM: I’d always loved reading. My parents would make sure that me, my sister and brothers would go to the Whitechapel library because we didn’t have any books in the house apart from my mum’s hymn book and Bible. Also my dad was such a gifted oral story teller – telling stories is big in the Caribbean community – and my family just loved to talk. I did an evening creative writing course at Goldsmith’s University way back in the early 90s and then got caught up in my career as a teacher and it wasn’t until 2001 that I decided to try writing again. I was very lucky to get a place on the Complete Creative Writing Course at the Groucho Club. There I met Maggie Hamand, the course director who a few years later decided, with Jane Havell to set up their own small independent publisher, MAIA Press and Maggie asked me to contribute the opening chapter of my novel, which I was now calling Running Hot, to an anthology. I still can’t believe it sometimes but two weeks later they came back and asked if they could publish the whole book. Wow! It’s interesting but writing isn’t the only career that I wanted I still see myself as an educator so still work in this area. I think that’s what I’ve learned about life, explore the type of person you want to be which can mean that you don’t just have one career. Although I have to confess this is my first of your books and works great as a standalone, there are some reoccurring characters from previous books – do you have a main series story arc plotted out for those characters or did they just suit being in another story? Funny thing is one of the reasons I wanted to write was I was obsessed with putting on paper the life of a fictional character I had created called Schoolboy, who then became the protagonist for Running Hot. He was the embodiment of me trying to write about some of the experiences I witnessed growing on a housing estate in East London. I had no idea that Running Hot was going to be the springboard for a series of books. After I wrote Running Hot readers started asking me if I was going to write about some of the other characters, so I decided to take the plunge and do it. I soon realised that the characters I was most interested in were Jackie Jarvis and Schoolboy and the bond between them. Also a big thing for me was having the opportunity to write about London so the city became a character as well. Hit Girls is the final book in this series so I’ve just started writing about a new character – nothing to do with gangsterland this time – and I’m hoping this will be the start of a new series. I’m much more organized this time round about plotting what that series might look like.
Can you tell us a little about your writing process. The depth of characters linking with each other led me to think there’s a hell of a big whiteboard or wall of post-it notes at your home to keep track? Do you use any particular writing software? Have any special routines or methods that you use?
Character, story and plot, these are the ingredients of what you need to make a crime novel. I’m an obsessive plotter so do heaps of work on the plot before I actually start writing, although recognizing once the writing process starts I will get to know my characters better and so the plot will occasionally change. I’m very lucky that my partner Tony also helps with the plotting process and believe me two heads are much better, and quicker, than one. Before we start plotting we ask ourselves what’s the story about and should be able to sum this up in a single sentence – ‘This is a story about…’ So in Hit Girls case, ‘This is a story about a mother trying to find out why her child was critically injured outside his school.’ So this sets up the great dilemma, conflict, problem facing the main character. The plot is the sequence of events that will answer this question and basically the plot is a ying yang process of the character getting closer to answering this question and having setbacks. It’s the plot/main character’s journey that allows me to explore themes, like family loyalty, betrayal, love, revenge, etc. At the start of each chapter/scene I ask myself is the character getting closer to solving their problem or will they have a setback? I do character work but this usually amounts to half a side of A4 of writing about them, so no software I’m afraid. I like to know what my characters look like, what drives them and any vulnerabilities they may have.
How did the spark for Hit Girls come about? Was it based on any real-life events in any way?
The biggest motivator was putting Jackie and Schoolboy in a very stressful situation and seeing how they would react. We first met both characters in Running Hot and its clear they have feelings for each other but don’t do anything about it and by book five, Hit Girls, they’re married and have three children and are living a very successful life, still in East London. But what would happen if something happened to one of their children? Would they go through official channels or would they resort to the ducking and diving we saw them display in Running Hot, Geezer Girls and Gangster Girl? I’m also very interested in how public institutions that are there to help people might adversely affect the very lives they are designed to support, for example the care system in Geezer Girls, the role that education plays in Schoolboy’s life in Running Hot. And Hit Girls…well I can’t say anymore about that or I’ll give the plot away.
I loved the idea of the character of Pinkie, reading with a black pen to scrub out the offensive words in novels. Being a crime novel, obviously there will be language and violence, but is there anything that you would self-censor on in particular or a subject you wouldn’t touch in your work?
As I’ve said the starting point for any story is, ‘This is a story about….’ so it’s this context that drives what you write about. I think if I started off by saying I’m not going to write about two children being killed outside their school I wouldn’t be doing the book any justice. I suppose that the question is do I need to show them being killed and the answer is yes because I want the reader to feel the same emotions that their mum feels as she watches this happen. I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t write about. Strangely when Running Hot came out some of my family, who are very religious, were very offended by the violence and language and one of them told me she was going to burn Running Hot on bonfire night…you can’t please everyone.
You clearly put the character of Jackie through the ringer in this novel – the poor poor woman. Is there an actress that you think could possibly handle/cope with that role on the small or big screen?
Um…a very interesting question. I don’t think I’ve given this any thought, I’d just be grateful for an excellent actress to do a fabulous job of bringing her to the screen.
Has there been any TV interest?
We’ve had some discussions with some companies, but nothing has come of this yet. My big mantra in life is everything happens at the right time so if it happens it will be the right time for it.
You’ll already be aware, from my barrage of reports, that I thought this year’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival was the best to date – so, thank you for doing such a fantastic job of chairing this year and for introducing the real crime elements to the event, which I think, worked very well. Do you have any particular highlights or favourite moments?
I loved every minute of it and am eternally grateful to the festival committee for giving me the opportunity to do this. It’s hard to pick out any events from such a fabulous programme. One highlight was having the opportunity to interview the Queen of Crime herself, Martina Cole. What a lady – insightful, knowledgeable, generous and just a plain great laugh. Getting the true crime into the programme was a real passion of mine, so massive thanks to the superb Duncan Campbell for getting the former prisoner panel organized; so many people came up to me after to say what a true insight that panel was. Lee Child’s Room 101 with the fab Christina Patterson was such a treat and big thanks to Lee for being so game. 61 Hours was so deserving of being awarded this year’s novel of the year and hearing the festival’s lifetime achievement award recipient, P.D.James talk about her work with such vigor and passion was truly inspiring. And Dennis Lehane, I have been a fan of his work forever so hearing him as the final event, with the great Mark Billingham, was a magnificent way to end the festival.
The festival provides an opportunity to introduce readers to new writers or those they may not have discovered as yet. Although we gained a few more black writers this year on panels, are there any that you think we should really be on the lookout for in terms of crime fiction?
Yes, there were some new Black writers but also other new faces, such as Mandasue Heller, Tana French, Christa Faust, Anne Zouroudi and Leigh Russell. The festival is just great at showcasing new crime authors. As I’ve been writing and have a rule not to read while I’m doing this I have to admit I haven’t been reading much crime fiction lately, but I would recommend The Hollow Man by Oliver Harris, a page-turning piece of urban noir. Oliver’s one to look out for. Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez is beautifully written and chilling at the same time. This is Stav’s third novel – I know he’s not new boy on the crime writing block – but this book is a terrific read.
A big thanks to Dreda for a fantastic read and for taking the time to stop by, and you can find out more about Dreda and her great books at www.dredasaymitchell.com