Susan Gee is a crime writer from the North West. She was a finalist in the Good Housekeeping Novel Competition and The Daily Mail ‘Write a Best Seller’ Competition. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester University. Love Me to Death is her second novel. Susan lives in Stockport with her husband and two children.
Celeste has been running from her past for seven years. But now her past has found her.
For seven years, Celeste has battled her guilt and shame over the tragic events that led to her little brother’s death. But when her high-school boyfriend comes back into her life just as she gains a stalker, she wonders if there’s more to the story than she realized.
Celeste is determined to discover the truth – but she’s about to find out that when you play with fire, you get burned…
I received a copy of this book from Head of Zeus – Aria via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
This dark and twisty psychological thriller explores the effect of domestic crimes on the victim. Celeste’s past emotional trauma defines her. Cleverly written with a noir ethos and menacing undercurrents it is compelling reading.
The complex plot has many characters and differing timelines. The psychological detail is well- researched and adds to the story’s unpredictability. Its focus is on crimes that are difficult to read about it, but this element is vital to the plot and the action and motivations of the main character.
The story is rich in visual imagery that enhances the characters and events. It resonates and keeps you guessing right to the end.
Q&A with Claire S. Lewis- No Smoke Without Fire.
Thank you so much Jane, for inviting me to Q&A on your wonderful website and for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts in response to your fascinating and perceptive questions.
No Smoke Without Fire explores humanity’s darker side, how do achieve balance in your plot between noir and lighter moments?
You are so right that No Smoke Without Fire explores the darker side of humanity. At the core of the plot there’s a family tragedy and a rape that together propel the damaged protagonist, Celeste, on a journey that will not have a happy ending nor bring redemption to any of the characters. The novel touches on bleak themes of patriarchy and female oppression and explores ideas of victim shaming and the ways in which false, repressed and recovered memories can alter perceptions of morality and the truth. So, there are undoubtedly dark elements to the novel. But as you suggest in your question, I have tried to create a balance between noir and lighter moments. For example, death is ever-present, not least in the sense that Celeste’s online business venture (CelestialHeadstones.com) involves delivering memorial flowers to headstones in graveyards. On the other hand, she is a florist and the scenes in the florist shop, Seventh Heaven, provide opportunities for vivid colour and brightness which contrast with the mournful descriptions of cemeteries. Even on Celeste’s visits to graveyards, I have tried to give a contrast of shade and sunlight. Some of these take place at night, when ghostly shadows of the statues of black angels seem to trip her up. Others take place in glorious spring sunshine when her heart is lifted by the sights and sounds of nature bursting into bloom and teeming with new life. The relationships between the characters also provide a balance in the plot between noir and lighter moments – the opening scenes at a Cuban nightclub and scenes at Celeste’s flat where she enjoys flirtation and fun and light banter with her friends, contrasting with the darkness of oppressive and abusive encounters between Celeste and her father and teenage boyfriend in the flashback sections, for example, or the sinister scenes involving Celeste’s stalker. I have quite a visual imagination, and I find the use of colour very effective in creating this balance. In the opening nightclub scene and the florist scenes, I focus on the colour red – Celeste’s red dress, the red mood lighting on the dance floor, the vivid red of the Valentine roses – whereas black and grey tones help to create an atmosphere of melancholia or menace in other scenes. Settings can also be used to create light in the narrative, and I hope that the descriptions of the beautiful city of Cambridge and picturesque towns in the Surrey hills, have this effect in No Smoke Without Fire.
This story, falls into the noir crime genre, what are the positives of writing this type of literature? Are there any negatives?
Characteristics such as the presence of violence; complex characters, plotlines and timelines; mystery; moral ambiguity and ambivalence – these all come into play in the noir crime genre and can be found in No Smoke Without Fire. The positives of writing this kind of literature include the fact that characters are generally drawn in a way that is more nuanced, not two-dimensional, reflecting the real complexity of human relations in situations of conflict. The writer sets out the interplay between the characters without dictating moral judgements on their behaviour. Readers are left to ponder and come to their own conclusions – or not. Like crime in real life situations, in this genre there is no simple black and white clear-cut line between right and wrong or between the goodies and the baddies. Again, in the real world, many crimes are never fully solved or only become solved after many years of investigation. There may always be a lingering doubt about the justice of a conviction or an acquittal. Even where the jury reaches a conclusion on innocence or guilt, the ‘standard of proof’ for such a ruling is not 100 percent certainty – the prosecution must prove its case ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. So fiction in the genre of crime noir which has the characteristic of moral ambiguity and allows the reader to ruminate on the rights and wrongs of the situations and the ‘truth’ or ‘integrity’ of the characters, is perhaps more interesting and a more authentic reflection of real life than stories which leave no room for doubt as to which character is the hero and which is the villain. I like the ‘smoke and mirrors’ aspect of the noir crime thriller in part because it feels truer to real life than the type of ‘whodunnit’ thriller in which all the loose ends are tied up neatly at the end. As for the negatives of writing in this style of fiction, one down-side may be that because the protagonists of noir fiction are a mix of good and bad, and a mix of selfish and altruistic motives etc, none of them are particularly likeable? Perhaps there are no heroes or champions or characters to engage or fall in love with? On the other hand, because the characters are nuanced and flawed this makes them in one sense more true-to-life and relatable.
You use flashbacks to give clues about the protagonist’s past, why do think this style of plotting works so well for psychological suspense?
I think the use of flashbacks is well suited to psychological suspense because it allows for the character to be gradually pieced together in a way which mirrors the way in which criminal trials gradually build up a picture of a defendant or of a crime scene by delving back into the past to gather evidence about a suspect and interviewing a number of witnesses. In the case of Celeste, I have portrayed her as a person who is very private about the tragedy in her past life when she was teenager and the sexual abuse that she suffered in the boathouse on the night that her little brother died. Seven years on, she has buried these traumas deep within her soul and she is trying to live a normal life as a single working young woman of twenty-four. If I had only the present timeline to tell the story it would be difficult to understand the reasons for which Celeste seeks revenge and for which CelestialHeadstones.com is so dear to her heart. The glimpses of Celeste’s backstory moving through her past allow me to gradually build up a picture of her troubled home life as a child (alcoholic mother, dysfunctional and aggressive father) and her sexually submissive relationship with Ben as a teenager, which helps the reader to understand the complexity of her character and perhaps to empathise with her behaviour and motivations in the main plot. The flashbacks also help to create the moral ambivalence that is characteristic of noir crime.
The plot has different timelines and an unreliable protagonist, do you plan your story in detail before writing? Can you give us an insight into your writing process?
I am not very good at planning which I find rather boring. I tend to launch straight in rather than plotting and mapping out scenes in detail before embarking on the writing. My starting point is a story idea – some situation or news item that sparks my interest and which I feel could be the basis of a good plot or the opening scene of a story but without really knowing how it will all play out. For No Smoke Without Fire (or ‘In Loving Memory’ as it was – in part ironically – called when I first thought up the idea and throughout the writing process) I did write a synopsis with an outline of the plot and an ending. As I write, I imagine the story spooling out like a film in my head and I think about what scene should be revealed next. My lack of planning does usually result in me having to do quite a bit of rearranging of chapters once I have more or less completed a first draft. In the case of No Smoke Without Fire for example, I did not write my backstory flashbacks in time order the first-time round. Instead I started with a date rape scene which was very central to the character development of Celeste. However, my editor advised that it was better to drop these backstory chunks into the main narrative in a chronological order as I already had a number of viewpoints and the lack of chronology in the flashbacks could be rather confusing for the reader.
Do you know how your story will end when you start to write? How easy is it to create an unexpected outcome for your characters? Have you any insights into the best way of creating a shock ending?
The ending I had in mind when I started to write the story is not the ending that made it to the final cut. The ending in my synopsis was inspired by my favourite Audrey Tatou French film ‘He Loves Me, He loves Me Not’, but I realised that in the novel form my planned ending would not work structurally and, moreover, I realised that the character of Celeste that I had written in the first half of the book was too sympathetic to allow for her transformation into an all-out psychopath as I had originally intended! When rethinking my ending, I wanted something that brought together all the characters in the novel as well as to some extent coming full circle to the opening page, whilst also being an unexpected outcome. I hope that the ending I have created is both a shock ending and one that will give pause for some reflection and pathos – but that’s for the readers and not for me to judge! As for insights into the best way of creating a shock ending – that is an interesting and difficult question. Obviously, the ending needs to follow naturally from what has gone before rather than being tacked on. Clues should be planted earlier in the story which once the shock ending has been delivered make the reader feel that there was a certain inevitability about it, so that on reflection the ending becomes believable as well as unexpected.
What surprises do you have instore for your next story?
My next story is also in the genre of psychological suspense and is set in post-pandemic north London and Tuscany. I am playing around with the idea of a ‘book-within-a-book’ along the lines of ‘Nocturnal Animals’. So, in addition to the uncertainty as to who did what, there will be an added uncertainty as to whether the secondary line of narration is intended to be true or imagined or a mixture of both.
Thank you again, Jane, for this lovely opportunity to take part in your Q&A!
Claire Simone Lewis studied philosophy, French literature and international relations at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge before starting her career in aviation law with a City law firm and later as an in-house lawyer at Virgin Atlantic Airways. More recently, she turned to writing psychological suspense, taking courses at the Faber Academy. She’s Mine is her first novel. Born in Paris, she’s bilingual and lives in Surrey with her family.
Emma Andrews was orphaned at a young age with no family to turn to. Tired of the broken foster-care system, and believing it was her only option, she runs to a multi-millionaire with a reputation of hiring young women. It is only then that she learns what real monsters look like…
Emma uses her overactive imagination to help her get through the toughest of days. By daydreaming a life full of love and freewill, she manages her colorless prison, but even in her wildest dreams, she would have never imagined it could become a reality. That is, until she meets Chance, a man willing to lay his life down to save hers.
But what Emma doesn’t expect is to fight her own personal demons—her heart.
I received an audiobook copy from the author in return for an honest review.
I reviewed the audiobook edition of this story. Written from the first-person point of view it alternates between the main protagonists, Emma and Chance. Emma has a tragedy filled past. Her current life with Rick is abusive and controlling. Chance is undercover investigating Rick, but his feelings for Emma are real and hard to control.
The suspenseful plot’s dominant focus is Emma and Chance and their passion. The dark sensual romance is erotic and explicit. Naive and vulnerable Emma is easy to empathise. She is confused and fearful but becomes stronger as the story progresses.
The first book in a trilogy, it ends on a cliffhanger.
The narration is clear and well-paced, although some of the male characters would be more convincing, with a male narrator. The English accent of the butler jarred on me.
T. L. Mahrt is a former business owner, where she utilized her education in cosmetology, barbering, and massage therapy for several years. She was raised on and is currently living on a farm in Nebraska, where you can find her running barefoot in the countryside with her loving husband, inspiring children, and massive dogs.
After having her son, who was born with Cerebral Palsy and DYRK1A Syndrome, she made the life altering decision to stay home to care for her two children and pursue her love of writing. She has a passion for romance and poetry where her overactive imagination, along with her adventures and upbeat lifestyle drives her motivation for her writing.
T. L. Mahrt has a thirst for knowledge and is currently working on her Bachelor of Applied Science in Communication Studies degree.
Five people at the height of their success die suddenly in different parts of the world. A villa in Portofino and a terrace in Capri, both in Italy. A flight to Singapore. A beach in Santorini, Greece. A luxury resort on the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. All five are filed as “death by natural causes”. No doubts, no links. But an intelligence analyst and his television journalist girlfriend suspect there is a connection. And follow a trail of unusual coincidences. Meanwhile, a brilliant businessman chases a dream: prolonging human life to over 150 years. And in perfect health. An ambitious goal. That entices the billionaires club: the privileged few who own over half of the world’s wealth. The human mind possesses hidden talents. You just need to know how to make the most of them. But longevity can prove fatal.
I received a copy of this book from the author in return for an honest review.
An intriguing plot and a complex cast of characters make this an addictive techno-thriller. Five seemingly unrelated deaths attract the attention of a secret organisation. Is there a connection? Is there a ghost killer?
An enticing mix of action, conspiracy and intuitive investigation keep you absorbed in this fast-paced story. It’s a compelling read.
A.D. Pascal is an Italian writer. He lives in Milan. After graduating, he started his career as an economic journalist. Then worked as a marketing manager for multinationals.
He wrote several books on management as a ghostwriter.
In his own words: “Writing has always been my passion and the base of my activities. My purpose was to present facts and figures in a stimulating way.
Later, I realized that I would also be able to create exciting works of fiction.
‘Fatal Longevity’ is the first of a series of books I am working on. They will all combine real events with just a pinch of imagination”.
I received a copy of this book from Hodder and Stoughton via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Told entirely from Sam’s point of view this a psychological suspense novel that focuses on the darkness that hides within a person ready to strike given the right set of circumstances. Sam should be happy with life, but she isn’t. Her husband has let her down with his business failures. Sam’s worn out from fertility treatments, both financially and physically, even though it gave her Caleb, her much-cherished son. Now she’s the victim of a stalker too. A successful crime writer, she dismisses the letters at first, until they drag her back to her teenage and the darkness she left behind.
Sam is an unreliable protagonist. She is hard to empathise never seeing the best in anyone. As the stalker threats increase, so do the flashbacks to her last summer in Ilfracombe, and what happened. Is she losing her mind? Is someone manipulating her? It’s hard to tell despite the clues along the way.
This story gives a new interpretation of the teenage dare and danger theme. There are surprising plot twists with a dark and twisty ending that is chillingly believable.
Lucy V Hay is a script editor for film and an author of fiction and non-fiction. Publishing as LV Hay, Lucy’s debut crime novel, The Other Twin, is out now and has been featured in The Sun and Sunday Express Newspaper, plus Heatworld and Closer Magazine. Her second crime novel, Do No Harm, is an ebook bestseller. Her current title is Never Have I Ever, for Hodder Books.
Art advisor Kate Carpenter has an off-the-books sideline in art recovery, dealing with thieves and gangsters to reunite valuable artworks with their owners. But this time she’s taking it up a notch. Only a day after her ex-boyfriend was convicted of assaulting her, she’s off to Belarus on the trail of a priceless van Gogh with a posse of ex-soldiers riding shotgun. Right now, the buzz of securing the return of that painting is just what she needs.
I received a copy of this book from the author in return for an honest review.
As an introduction to the intrigues of the art world and Kate Carpenter, art recovery expert, this novella works well. The detailed story draws you into Kate’s world. It’s a fascinating place to be. The story has a steady build of suspense, pacy with a touch of gentle romance.
Kate is a complex character. Past events have left their emotional scars, and there’s an undercurrent of danger in her life. I’m looking forward to the first full-length novel after this insight into her world.
Midlander by birth, Scot by choice, Vanessa Robertson won Pitch Perfect at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival in 2015. Death Will Find Me, a crime novel set in 1920s Edinburgh featuring former spy, Tessa Kilpatrick is her first novel. Later in 2019, Vanessa will be launching a series of thrillers set in the world of high stakes art crime, and the second Tessa Kilpatrick book will be published in early 2020.
Vanessa lives in a cottage in the middle of a Scottish wood with her family and an unfeasibly large dog. She enjoys wild beaches, Venetian cafes and wandering around art galleries. She dislikes celery, cheap notebooks and writing about herself in the third person.
The stunning new thriller from the authors of Serial Damage. In a sleepy country village, Detective Inspector Robin Marshal – now in retirement – is nearly killed by a stranger. His friend Alice, a police psychiatrist, discovers that the murder attempt was almost certainly ordered by a terrifying criminal, ‘Big Mack’, currently incarcerated in a notoriously violent prison. There his criminal kingdom controls not only the inmates but many of the guards, through the power of money and the threat of extreme violence.
When Alice goes to work in the prison to find out more, she too becomes a target, her car machine-gunned on a country road, and Robin is attacked again while recovering in Spain.
Under pressure from an outraged public and with political concern rising, the authorities try to put a stop to Big Mack’s activities. But everyone is under threat when he is suddenly at large following a murderous escape. How can this evil kingpin be stopped?
I received a copy of this book from Urbane Publications in return for an honest review.
Suspenseful and sinister this story starts with an unexpected and near-fatal attack. The action keeps the adrenaline pumping throughout the book’s twists and turns. Ex-policeman Robin and psychologist Alice have been in the line of fire before. They have history and are firm friends. Some of the characters previously featured in the first novel, Serial Damage.
The insight into prison life and problems is well-researched. The characters are realistically flawed and don’t shy away from moral dilemmas. The character development focuses on the protagonists, but a little more insight into the antagonists would have increased impact on the reader.
I like the pacy, short-headed chapters and the gradual suspense building, which rises and falls believably. The ending is clever and unexpected.
Liz Cowley, whose family comes from Connemara, is a long-time fan of poetry, she enjoyed success with her first collection, A Red Dress, published in 2008 and her second, What am I Doing Here? (2010), which were then made into a theatrical show. Her next book ‘And guess who he was with?’ published in 2013, and two poetry books for gardeners, Outside in my Dressing Gown, and Gardening in Slippers, are bestsellers. Serial Damage was her first novel.
Her latest thriller, Locked in Fear, written with Donough O’Brien publishes in March 2020.
Donough enjoyed a successful marketing career in Britain, Ireland and the US. His previous books include Fame by Chance, Banana Skins, Numeroid, and In the Heat of Battle: a study of those who rose to the occasion in warfare and those who didn’t. His latest historical book was WHO? The most remarkable people you’ve never heard of. He has co-authored thrillers Peace Breaks Out with Robin Hardy and Serial Damage with his wife Liz Cowley.
His latest book Locked in Fear will be published in March 2020.