Sarah Hilary admits she thinks of dark things. ‘I do have a dark mind…’ she’s quoted as saying, ‘a friend of mine pushed me into crime writing, saying…‘your mind is in a dark place already, you should make some money from it’.’
I love dark minds. I have one myself, especially when I’m asleep. My dreams are a deep recess full of images and actions useful to a writer. I dream of torture, of lost babies, of running at night from beasts, of hiding from men with guns. One morning I woke to discover I’d scribbled something at three am, before falling back to sleep. The words ran down the page like oozing blood – death and mayhem all night long.
So Sarah Hilary’s first novel, Someone Else’s Skin – a brilliantly apt title, by the way –was right up my dark alley, absolutely my cup of hemlock. Everything about the story leads to darkness. The symbols are disturbing; a woman blinded by an acid attack, a hand severed by a scimitar, a victim chained, waiting for torture. The themes explore hate, violence, misogyny, and sadism. Her characters are women fighting for some peace – some justice from men who have attacked them – but they all have inner demons to contend with. Even Hilary’s fiercely intelligent investigator, DI, Marnie Rome, has memories of a violent family event, and losses she’s trying to forget while she’s doing her dark, dark, job. Her partner, DS Noah Jake, is black and gay, which isn’t a problem to anyone except dyed-in-the-wool homophobe, DS Carling. However this is not a formulaic police procedural. KTW readers will know how I love my crime novels (read and written!) to be about why crime is committed, and what affect that has on victims, investigators, bystanders and even the perpetrators.
On the WH Smith Blog, http://blog.whsmith.co.uk/sarah-hilarys-fictional-heroines/ Hilary says: ‘Marnie Rome walked fully formed into a story I was writing two years ago. She was undercover, in biker boots and a black wig, but she was unquestionably Marnie. I recognised her at once. Later, I came to realise how many secrets she was hiding.’
According to C G Jung everyone has a ‘shadow aspect’. This is a repressed area of the unconscious reflecting the side of us we don’t see in our conscious selves. He wrote: The less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. I don’t know Sarah Hilary well, but she looks a lovely cheery person in her photos – slightly quixotic, in fact, rather ethereal. If, like, me, she’s fundamentally a sunshiney person, it stands to reason your shadow aspect is going to be a cold sweat of despair and agony.
Jung believed that we should endeavour to be aware of our shadow aspect, so that we grow into balanced people, and I have a theory that writers have a way of gaining that balance, even without knowing it. They draw out their shadow aspect in their writing. That might explain why nice people end up writing about the worse sides of human nature. Ann Cleeves, a crime novelistand judge of the 2015 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, which Hilary won with Someone Else’s Skin, said… ‘she has this dreadful sense of horror, but it is done delicately and subtly. It always stops just as your imagination takes over.’
Rome and Jake want to interview a resident of a women’s shelter in Finchley, Ayana Mirza. They want her to testify against her own brothers, who have driven her to the shelter with violent intimidation. But as the detectives arrive they witness a stabbing. A husband has sneaked in, bringing flowers for his wife, and now lies bleeding on the floor. In that moment, the book gains its delightful complexity, because Rome and Jake thought they had one, cut-and-dried crime to investigate, and now they also have a mystery. Was the knife inside the flowers? Has Hope Proctor just saved her own life, or did she always plan to attack the husband she’s been hiding from? The answers to those questions are dark and twisted, and the story will spiral out of the detective’s control before they’re answered. As Simone, another woman who has sought refuge remembers in the book…‘He thought he'd broken her in a thousand pieces, but sometimes... when you are broken... You mend hard.’
Domestic violence has often been lumped under ‘misery memoirs’ and it’s refreshing to see someone take the subject and create both a complex, crime novel and serious examination of the problem, without descending into cliché. Hilary writes with understatement. She doesn’t shout out her messages, but when she wants to describe violence, she does it with such power…Mum's bread knife, its steel teeth full of tattered red skin…Despite its subtlety, Someone Else’s Skin has its terrifying moments, the sort you have to hide behind the sofa to read. I read this book on Kindle, and right now it's only 99p on Kindle if you click here.
Since its publication in 2014, Hilary has published the second Marnie Rome novel, No Other Darkness, and I believe she’s ready to publish the third. I can’t wait to read them – I have my sofa all prepared to hide behind as I do so.