When I was first inspired to pen a novel, I took a Writers’ Workshop creative writing course which gave me the confidence and momentum. I soon discovered its founder, the incredibly productive Harry Bingham, truly is a writer’s writer. He has done so much to support authors and is known for his candid accounts of the industry (see what I mean in his Big Publishing and Me blog series here). In particular, he likes to remind writers that, whatever you do, it’s the quality and exceptionality of what you write that matters most.
With such a strong emphasis on quality and getting things done, it’s not a surprise that Harry has been published by some of the largest publishing groups in the world, has picked up great reviews, created debates, won awards and had his characters star in a TV drama.
It won’t shock you then, that I’ve been keen to get my hands on one of his books for a while so I can tell you what I truly think about the work of an author that a number of literary critics are raving about. So, recently I picked up Harry’s most recent book: The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths which crossed the Atlantic to the US in January following its publication in the UK last year. It’s the third book in a series (but can be read as a standalone too) and joins DC Fiona Griffiths as she risks her life as an undercover payroll clerk to entrap the murderous mastermind behind an ingenious fraud operation.
True characterisation mastery
Fiona Griffiths is by far the most original fictional detective I’ve come across. Very often, after reading crime, I’ve forgotten the lead characters’ names within a few days. Not this time! Fiona is far from a cardboard-cutout detective with alcohol issues (although she does enjoy the odd joint when undercover) because she is brilliantly complex. So, don’t expect Wales’ answer to Rebus. She’s deeply troubled yet warm and witty, a maverick without alienating superiors, fragile but courageous. She represents true characterisation mastery.
Fiona, who has only cried once in her adult life, is portrayed with great physiological depth without being dark. Even though Fiona battles with her identity and borderline psychosis, I never found her depressing. She is a strong woman. A survivor. She’s perfect for working undercover as she’s used to managing multiple forms of self and her demons give her drive. Men are attracted to her but not because she flutters her eyelashes. They’re intrigued by her. What I found particularly clever is the way that, at times, she shifts in and out of referring to herself in the third person, showing confusion rather than describing the fog. In fact, as much as this is a story of the search for a criminal mastermind, it’s a story of Fiona’s search for her identity.
Fiona’s instability gives scenes vibrancy
As the book is written in the first person, I ask Harry what it’s like being in Fiona’s head. He tells me he enjoys writing from a female perspective although, as a result of his research, he’s now being ‘stalked’ online by adverts for damson dresses and breast enlargements. However, he tells me his biggest characterisation challenge isn’t gender but rather portraying the instability of Fiona’s mind. She is, after all, a woman who takes comfort in thinking about corpses, turning scenes that could be boring – like clothes shopping – into vibrant ones. He says he wants her to be dark and odd yet funny and interesting so readers want to stick by her and root for her. One of the things that is fun about Fiona is that she won’t simply tolerate rules and moan about them, she’ll break them and won’t care. There were times she made me cheer and think “you go girl!”
An intense and potent experience
Despite Fiona’s vulnerabilities, the story by no means proceeds tentatively. There is mental and physical brutality. The story takes longer to build than most police procedurals because of the time taken to establish the characters but, as a result, when action ramps up, the experience is potent, with the intensity of a psychological thriller. It made me feel breathless with worry, concern and eventually fear for Fiona.
The plot is relatively simple in order to give space for characterisation and, although the book has a literary feel, the pace is saved largely because remarkable detail is built up with so few words. Harry, clearly not one to rely on a casual flick through a thesaurus, has a knack for picking precise words or choosing unusual objects that create a vivid image, such as a saucepan used to hammer in a nail and a hockey stick with which Fiona asks to be hit on purpose.
The story accelerates significantly as it heads into the final act before slowing after the climax towards a more literary-style ending that sets the scene for the next book. This gave my tangled brain a chance to catch up.
But what is this strange death?
Maybe Fiona lives. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she’s something in-between. One thing’s for certain: It unlikely to be what you expect. This clever surprise and Harry’s courage to tackle the genre in a new way means this is the easiest five stars I’ve ever awarded a book.
I’m elated when Harry tells me there are more books to come in the series. Ten in fact. He already has the overarching narrative in his mind but, in terms of the specifics, he’s tackling each book at a time. This could explain why book three stands so well on its own. I hope he’s typing the next one quick! I’m already experiencing withdrawal symptoms like the one day – I vow never to repeat — when I tried to give up coffee. With so many twists and turns, I know that whatever’s next will be truly surprising.
If you’re interested in a really strong female investigator who is quirky, different and unlike anything you’ve read before and/or you’re a writer keen to study brilliant characterisation in practice, you should definitely check out The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths.