Sharon Dempsey, Belfast author: ‘We are all a product of the environment we grew up in’
When the body of local architect James McCallum is found in the grounds of his old school in Sharon’s new book The Midnight Killing, DI Danny Stowe and forensic psychologist Rose Lainey – who readers will have met in Who Took Sharon’s Eden Mulligan? – suspect a criminal act.
The two must work closely together to separate fact from fiction in a captivating, tightly plotted read that will have you quizzing just about anyone.
Fans of local mystery novels will appreciate the many mentions of Belfast and its surroundings sprinkled throughout the novel. It is also something important for Sharon.
“The location really helps inform the character,” she says. “We are all a product of the environment in which we grew up.
“I was born and raised in Belfast, although I’ve lived in London and Cardiff for a long time, but I love this place. I think that comes through in the writing.
Yet The Midnight Killing has a universality that also appeals – “it probably could have been placed anywhere”, says Sharon – when we talk about development and almost veer away from material specifically related to Troubles, which often rendered the ‘local write inaccessible.
“It was the only narrative that was coming out, whether through mainstream media or books like the Troubles thrillers which were all very hard-hitting, political, almost journalistic,” Sharon explains.
“People were tired of it, writers and readers, and people who weren’t from here really didn’t understand the nuances of the conflict and the politics around it and weren’t really interested. .
“Time has allowed a kind of hindsight to emerge, and now I think a lot of writers have been able to tell stories of The Troubles, but also other stories that happened at the same time.
“Probably Anna Burns’ Milkman and Derry Girls really helped break down those kinds of barriers.”
The Midnight Killing is the second in Sharon’s series and already the main characters feel integrated.
“I could see it continuing for at least five, probably seven pounds,” she says.
“It depends on the readers; if it sells well, publishers will want more.
“Publishing is a precarious business, but that’s just the name of the game. If readers want more from the story, I certainly have more to say.
This novel gives greater insight into the character of Rose, who has recently returned to Belfast after years away, explaining her family background in more detail – it’s hard not to feel empathy when she discovers a “180 degree turn “about his mother.
“There’s something about the fact that when you grow up and move on, you think everyone who’s been left behind has stayed exactly the same,” says Sharon. “And they don’t, they grow. I think we think our parents are set in stone, but they change and grow too, and I think Rose cut off her family for so many years, and had to come back and reassess everything.
“It’s an interesting character arc to get involved in, for her to find that she has to change her ideas about the past and what happened.
“I think it’s interesting and exploring the psychological development of that.”
Plot in a novel is vital, and Sharon calls her plot time “thinking time.”
“When you start writing, you think that if you don’t hammer out the words, you’re not doing the job.
“But there’s a feeling that the story sits in your own mind for a long time maybe before you even start writing it.
“You have to work through all the nuances and plot points and you get a feel for the structure, and you drape the story over that structure and use that to really help tell the story the best you can. .
“I really like all that kind of quiet crafting and I like figuring that out.
“I have now reached the stage where I know that this thinking time before even getting to the page is really important and I don’t have to feel like I have to completely rush this time.
“If you’re unhappy as an author, no one will enjoy reading it.
“It is learned quite quickly when you start.
“Also, it’s a long time to go through with these characters and this story if you don’t enjoy it either.
“You have to feel like the story needs to be told, needs to be told, and you’re the only one who can tell it and really feel that kind of pressure to get the story out. If all of those things come together , then you’re pretty sure that’s a good thing.
In The Midnight Killing, the reader is immediately taken to the scene of the crime, placing the victim at the forefront of our minds – a character for whom Sharon is trying to bring justice.
“I love that the prologue kind of takes you right to the heart of the matter.
“The crux of the matter, you might not get to it until the very end of the book, so you have this idea of what the underlying crime is.
“You’re trying to do justice to the characters and highlight the victim in a way.
“It’s hard to write this stuff and not feel this emotional tug.
“But when you feel like you know your reader is going to react to that too, and I think at the end of the day, I write crime so it’s always going to be a little on the verge of being uncomfortable at times .
“Detective fiction has been accused in the past of forgetting the victim and we focus only on the investigation and the murderer.
“We need to overturn these tropes.
“I do my best not to be exploitative and you will dispel misconceptions.
“You think of these characters as if they were real people that you give them that respect.
“I don’t think anyone in the genre doesn’t write really good top-tier content around the victim.
“They look at human behavior; that’s what detective fiction is after all.
“We look at human behavior and we look at society.
“And we see those who maybe push the boundaries of what is acceptable or they do things that are wrong, and maybe they did these things that are wrong for stupid reasons, or they did terrible mistakes.
“Sometimes the great tragedy exists in a really terrible mistake, as opposed to someone going out of their way to hurt someone,” Sharon adds.
The Midnight Killing by Sharon Dempsey, HarperCollins, £12.99, available now