A Poisoned Mind
by Natasha Cooper
Published by St. Martin’s Minotaur
384 pages, 2008
A crime writer who does much to support the crime-fiction genre both in the United Kingdom and United States is the extremely talented Natasha Cooper. It was just before the millennium that I first met Cooper (a pseudonym used by Daphne Wright), back when she held the demanding and prestigious post of chair of the British Crime Writers Association. At the time, I’d just finished reading her novel Creeping Ivy (1998), the first of her Trish Maguire legal thrillers, and I was fascinated with her ability to compose such vivid prose about the darker side of human motivations. I readily ranked her in the same league as Ruth Rendell.
What made Creeping Ivy especially interesting to me was how it struck off in a wholly different direction from her previous work. Cooper started out by writing romantic historical novels, such as The Distant Kingdom (1987), under her real name. Her first stab at penning crime and mystery fiction had been a rather lighthearted succession of miss-adventures starring Willow King, a former civil servant turned romance novelist and amateur investigator.
As the Trish Maguire novels progressed, the darker and more intense became the material with which Cooper was dealing, and the more I became hooked on those books. Then, in an unexpected turn of events, the author adopted another pen name, “Clare Layton,” in order to compose two psychological thrillers, Clutch of Phantoms (2000) and Those Whom the Gods Love (2001), the stunning latter of which showed she was capable of confronting the violence that lurks inside all of us. It seemed that, under the Layton persona, Cooper was morphing into Barbara Vine.
However, she didn’t change completely. Instead, she returned to the Trish Maguire series and has now had published nine of those books, with another due out next summer. Cooper’s audience has grown on both sides of the Atlantic, and with the November paperback release in Britain of A Poisoned Mind (the same novel was issued in the States last June in hardcover), she has established herself firmly as a major voice among modern legal thriller writers. The plot of A Poisoned Mind is summed up by publisher Simon & Schuster thusly:
As an industrial chemist myself, I was quite drawn to this book. But it doesn’t take someone with my background to appreciate A Poisoned Mind. Novelist Laura Lippman called the novel “simply gorgeous -- a smart, complex, grown-up entertainment that rewards the reader on every page. Intricate in plotting, deft in characterization, it is one of the best legal thrillers I have ever read.”
Recently, I had the chance to talk with Cooper about her professional background, her early days as the author of historical romances, her interest in today’s economic uncertainties and what it is she finds so fascinating about the complex world of laws and lawsuits.
Ali Karim: Given your background in publishing and, more recently, journalism, can one assume that you came from a bookish family?
Natasha Cooper: You’re absolutely right. I come from a very bookish family. My mother co-wrote the first of the Nuffield Election Studies [of each United Kingdom General Election since 1945] after she graduated from Oxford, my father has published well over 150 books and papers on paleontology, and his mother was a novelist, writing in the 1920s and 1930s. When I was a child the house was always stuffed with books and journals, everything from Noddy for us to Hansard for my mother.
Who inspired you to read, and ultimately to write?
Unlike the rest of my family, I had a bit of a problem with reading and now know that I’m dyslexic, although when I was 5 and should have been learning to read, no one ever talked about dyslexia. In those days you were just classed as “thick.” But eventually my mother realized what was happening and taught me herself. Oddly, given my late start, I had always thought of myself as a writer. My novelist grandmother encouraged me, though always adding practical caveats about contracts and advances. She herself had given up writing when her agent embezzled his authors’ royalties. He died in prison.
My experience of dyslexia is the main reason why I’ve written No More Victims for Barrington Stoke, a publisher that specializes in books for people with reading difficulties.
And which books made an impression on you and perhaps steered you toward the writing of crime fiction?
I think the earliest crime stories that may have set off my lifelong interest in the genre were Cynthia Harnett’s historical novels for children. All of them have crimes and investigations in them. In one, A Load of Unicorn, William Caxton has just set up his printing press in London [during the 15th century] and the scriveners are doing everything they can to stop him ruining their trade. They interrupt his deliveries of paper, beat up his apprentices, and generally commit all kinds of sabotage. One of Caxton’s apprentices, Benedict (himself the son of a famous scrivener), is the lead investigator. Wonderful!
What of your early education?
My education was quite unlike that of my siblings, because of the dyslexia. They all got scholarships to seriously academic places, while I went to a charming, friendly, unthreatening convent school. One of the nuns sensibly warned me off adding German to my other three A-levels and suggested that I read for pleasure instead. When I asked what she wanted me to read, she said: “Anything. Virginia Wolf, Georgette Heyer. Anything.” She taught maths and was one of the cleverest of the nuns, and also one of the most enlightened. She probably played as big a part as my English teacher in my continuing ambition to write.
Tell us about your days in publishing. And how have things changed since you switched sides to writing, as opposed to working in editorial?
I feel very lucky that I fell into publishing. I’d worked in a variety of arts-based jobs until then, but I instantly felt at home and -- to my surprise -- kept getting promoted. But I was frustrated because I could never publish exactly what I wanted. I always thought that after the next promotion I would be able to choose only books I loved, but of course that never happens: there are always accountants and marketing people to be pacified, and every publishing decision comes out of complex negotiations with colleagues.
I don’t think there have been any really big changes in the life of an editor, except that the commercial pressures are even heavier now than they were. The loss of the Net Book Agreement and the tyranny of the three-for-two and other front-table promotions have meant that the variety of books being published is less, and fewer writers can make a living from fiction. In the old days, a writer was allowed six books before he or she was axed for not selling enough. Then it became three. Now it can be only one. I feel very lucky indeed, still to be writing novels after more than 20 years.
Did working the editorial desk help you as a writer?
Having spent time on the editorial side of the desk has definitely helped me as a writer. Although I rarely edited fiction, my experience in-house does give me an insight into what is happening to my book in all the gaps between delivery and publication. Talking to friends who have never been publishers has shown me how scary it can be when you let go of your book. But my experience also makes me less tolerant of sloppiness and mistakes than I might be. I made plenty of mistakes myself as a young editor, of course, but I do think that time and financial constraints mean that there is less training and supervision of young staff than there once was.
What are your feelings about the economic uncertainties of late?
The economic disasters are truly frightening. Someone said the other day that it feels weird to read a paper and not see news of another bank collapsing. But I can’t help feeling that we have had dreadful crises in the past (if nothing with quite the global size of this one), and in a few years it will probably look like no more than another blip in the economic history of the world. I hope so.
I have the most intense sympathy for everyone facing job loss, foreclosure, or bankruptcy. But I would hope that memory of this crisis will persuade bankers not to traffic in financial products they don’t entirely understand and everyone else to be less cavalier about taking on debt they can never service, let alone repay. On the other hand, I also hope the uncertainty won’t prevent entrepreneurs raising money to set up the businesses we need. And it would be dreadful if the current disasters destroyed the best aspects of the culture and unbelievably hard work of the city [of London], which has led to such enormous contributions to the GDP [gross domestic product] of this country.
More frivolously, I hope the uncertainty will, as it has done in the past, make everyone want to read more crime fiction.
Why did you begin by writing historical fiction?
I started writing historical fiction because I thought that was the genre I most liked. As I said, I loved Cynthia Harnett’s novels as a child and thought it was the history rather than the crime I enjoyed. I also enjoyed Ronald Welch’s historical novels at that stage and, as I grew up, I continued to choose historical fiction over most other sorts.
When I started to write, I found it reassuring to have the framework of real historical events for my plots -- and I enjoyed doing the research. Reading the letters and diaries of the relevant periods seemed to me to be the quickest route into the attitudes and tastes my characters would have had, and I have always been more interested in people’s minds and emotions than anything else so that was pure pleasure.
Tell us about the transition to crime fiction you made by writing the lighter Willow King books.
While I was writing the historicals, I began to feel reluctant to deal only with women whose passport to adult life was marriage. There were of course plenty of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries who did not marry, but the assumption was that they would -- and should. I found myself wanting to write about a woman who could choose for herself -- to marry or not to marry, to live here or there, to do this work or that, to spend her own money as she wanted and be answerable to no one. Crime seemed the obvious genre to pick, but I wanted my fiction to be light and a little wicked. After four years or so of working earnestly to re-create particular aspects of the past and dealing with the pains of war and its aftermath (all my historicals were set during or just after wars), I wanted some fun.
My character Willow King had a double life. In her own name, she was a part-time civil servant, living in a damp flat in south London, wearing dreary clothes, no make-up and dull hair. Her colleagues despised her because they assumed she had no sex life. In her other life, she was a romantic novelist, calling herself Cressida Woodruff and living in luxury in Belgravia, where she cavorted with her merchant-banker lover. Her acquaintances and publishing friends despised her because they thought she had no brain.
I had a lot of fun with her, killing off fictional versions of various people who’d annoyed me, while using and misusing conventions from various Golden Age novels; e.g., I gave her a chilly housekeeper, Mrs. Rusham, as the equivalent of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Bunter, Lord Peter Wimsey’s valet. To my surprise, quite a few critics assumed I was writing seriously and completely missed the jokes. One review even started, “When you stop laughing this isn’t a bad novel.”
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the Trish Maguire novels, of which A Poisoned Mind is the ninth. Tell me, why are you attracted to writing about Trish and the legal world?
I find the legal world fascinating for a whole lot of contradictory reasons. The gaps between law and justice worry me, and the idea of barristers using every allowable means to defend people they think must be guilty is a hard one to accept. And yet I am mesmerized by the wit and cleverness of all the barristers I know. They are the best storytellers, too, which is not really surprising, given that their whole professional lives consist of assembling facts into narratives that will be better than their opponents’, so that the jury (or judge in a civil trial) in each case will choose their story over that of the other side.
In A Poisoned Mind, Trish has been promoted to a Q.C. (Queen’s Counsel) and investigates a case that borders on the environmental concerns currently in vogue. But the work has a hard criminal edge. So, how did this novel evolve?
When I was first planning A Poisoned Mind and the crimes I was going to explore in it, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way our consumer-led society, with its demand for fuel-hungry high living standards, produces waste products that can seriously damage the natural world. At the same time, we cannot stop some children being so damaged by their emotional and physical environment that they become explosively dangerous. So my plot is a double one. The novel begins with a fatal explosion in some tanks that contain waste benzene. While Trish deals with the legal aftermath of the disaster, she also becomes involved in the life of a troubled teenager, Jay, whose many stresses drive him towards violence. The questions that hang over the narrative are: what -- or who -- caused the explosion? And who -- if anyone -- will Jay attack?
So is it Trish’s character or perhaps the plot that powers your writing?
I’ve always been interested in Trish’s life and character, but I’m also excited by the plots and the questions they throw up. When readers tell me they finished one of my novels in a single sitting because they had to find out what happens, I’m really pleased. When I’m reading, I revel in books that force me to keep turning the pages and forget everything about life outside the story, and I love the idea that I can do that for other people.
I hear that you have a new novel -- which is also the start of a new series -- due out in the spring. Care to tell us what we might expect?
Trish is taking a break from me -- or I from her -- and I’m now working with a new character, a forensic psychologist called Karen Taylor. The novel is at present called Dark Labyrinth, but that may yet change. It’s set on the Isle of Wight and opens with a spree shooting. A blameless family picnic is interrupted by a psychopath with a sawn-off shotgun … and so on.
Can I assume that you have good contacts in the legal profession, who help with the details that pepper Maguire’s world?
I am very lucky to have some really good friends working in the legal world. They explain things, read chunks of typescript to make sure I’m on the right track, show me where they work -- and how they work -- and generally fill out the details of Trish’s professional life. Now that I’m moving into the very different world of psychology, I have found that the experts there are just as generous as my legal friends. It’s very exciting to be embarking on something so different and learning so much new stuff.
You’ve written about your strong feelings related to graphic violence in crime fiction, especially related to hardcore torture. Why do you think some writers become so explicit? Is there room in the genre for such work?
You’re right: I dislike reading about torture, and so I would never want to write about it. It shouldn’t happen in real life, but, as we all know, it does, which makes it an absolutely legitimate subject for writers. My distaste is my own. I wouldn’t presume to tell other people what they should or shouldn’t read or write, but if I’m reviewing a novel with a lot of explicit sadism or torture in it I will make my views clear.
Which leads me to the tough novel Those Whom the Gods Love, which you wrote as “Clare Layton.” How did Layton come about, and will we see any more from her?
The two novels I wrote as Clare Layton came out of my curiosity about the aftermath of serious crime. In ordinary crime fiction, the author leaves the characters at the end of the investigation, but I wanted to know what happened years later, when the perpetrator emerged from prison or when members of the victim’s family began to deal with the long tail of emotional damage that the crime left behind it. I’d love to do another Clare Layton novel at some time.
And how, in your busy schedule, do you fit in the book reviewing?
Reviewing definitely eats up time, but you can’t write non-stop -- or I can’t. And I couldn’t exist without reading. Given that crime fiction is one of my chief pleasures, I would probably be reading it whether I wrote reviews or not.
When you review your crime-writing peers, do you worry that they might get upset by your criticisms of their work?
I do, of course, worry about how writers I review may take what I say about their work, which is why I would never ask one of the literary editors I work for to let me review a novel I disliked. I only propose novels I admire. But sometimes the literary editors want me to review a specific title. When that happens, if I dislike the novel I will still review it, but I will always try to explain what I didn’t like and why. I am sure critics should never lie in their reviews. What would be the point? If you’re doing it, you have to take it seriously and be honest with readers.
One of the great problems comes with the fact that the crime-writing world is such a close one. You must find this too, Ali. We all know each other. Reviewing the work of close friends can be hard, not least because if you know a writer really well you can see very quickly what they’re aiming for in their work, and so you may well read it in a way a stranger could not. Detachment is very important. I always try to read a friend’s book as I would one written by someone I had never met. It’s hard, but it has to be done.
How do you explain the ever-growing market for crime fiction?
Modern crime fiction seems to me to offer more or less everything a reader could want. You can find literary thrillers, novels full of political and social insight, psychological depth, relationships, excitement, art, the international situation, science, mathematical theories, corruption, theology, conspiracy ... the whole world is here. But you also find visceral excitement and healing. I think the combination is irresistible.
As a former chair of Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association (1999-2000), can you tell us how the year went? And did you manage to finish any writing, while holding that prestigious post? And what are the challenges for the CWA currently?
Chairing the Crime Writers’ Association was definitely a challenge. I felt quite shaky as I took it over from Ian Rankin, but I am really pleased I did it. By then I’d been writing for nearly a decade and I’d spent a lot of time alone with my own words and my computer. I’d more or less forgotten that I’d once been editorial director, that I’d managed budgets and staff and so on, and it was good to find that I could still use those bits of my brain. We had an exciting time in the CWA then, working with Waterstone’s over the Dead on Deansgate weekends and with the [London] Times, which produced three magnificent crime supplements with us, one including a paragraph on every single crime writer with a novel published in the UK that year.
The work took up a lot of time, and in those days I was publishing two novels a year. I missed a couple of deadlines and one book had to be postponed, which I regret. But, more than that, it took me at least another year to clear my mind and get back to writing in the way that works best for me.
One of my particular challenges, which I believe will always exist in the CWA, was keeping the balance between members who wanted the association to be more or less a social club for writers working in the same field, and others who wanted it to be a campaigning organization, creating publicity opportunities for members and their work.
You also chaired the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. What sort of work was required for programming Harrogate?
Programming the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate was hard work but also great fun. Discussions about which writers to invite and what panel topics to choose and who will chair them best can become pretty lively. The hardest aspect of it for me was that there is only a limited number of places for writers at each festival, and there are so many wonderful novelists … they can’t all be fitted in.
And the quiz was a terrible worry: there are some teams (and I mention no names here, Ali) with members who know absolutely everything about crime fiction and others who know only about their own favorite novels and novelists. Setting questions to keep everyone interested, happy and involved is hard.
During the festival itself, I hardly slept, because I felt so responsible for the writers and for all the readers who came to meet and hear them speak. I wanted everyone to have a good time. And I think they did. I caught up on sleep pretty quickly: 16 hours on the first night after the festival and then 14 for the next two.
We bumped into each other at Bouchercon in Baltimore recently. Tell us about some of your highlights during that festival and what you got up to in Charm City.
I had a great time in Baltimore. It was the first Bouchercon I’d been to since being toastmistress in Toronto [in 2004], and I’d more or less forgotten the daunting effect of being among quite so many people. I think there were nearly 3,000 in Baltimore. But the organization was so good, that everything worked smoothly. I thought the hospitality room was a great idea. At so many conventions and festivals there isn’t anywhere much to sit and socialize between events, except for the bar, and not everyone enjoys bars. So a refuge where tea, coffee, fruit, cake and so on were available -- free -- all day was hugely appreciated by everyone. The bar was good too!
I enjoyed a lot of the panels. Mark Billingham was, as you’d expect, a brilliant and funny toastmaster. And I have to be relieved that the fire alarm went off while I was on the ground floor, waiting to go into a panel, and not up in my room on the 23rd floor. Memories of The Towering Inferno were impossible to ignore.
Finally, let me ask what books you’ve enjoyed reading lately.
This is a very hard question to answer briefly, because there are so many great crime novels being published these days, and the full list would go on and on. I really liked Val McDermid’s A Darker Domain, Caro Peacock’s Death of a Dancer, George Pelecanos’ The Turnaround, Mark Billingham’s standalone, In the Dark, Laura Wilson’s Stratton’s War, Daniel Silva’s The Secret Servant, Andrew Klavan’s Empire of Lies -- and Andrew Taylor’s quietly chilling Bleeding Heart Square. They’re all very different writers, and the novels have little in common with each other, but all of them stand out for one reason or another, and all of them gave me pleasure. | January 2009
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to his being a regular contributor to January Magazine and The Rap Sheet, he’s also the assistant editor of Shots, and writes and reviews for Deadly Pleasures, Crime Spree and Mystery Readers International magazines. In a rare pocket of spare time, Karim recently launched a personal blog.