Comments on the background of Aftermath

Unlike most crime novels, Aftermath opens with the capture of the culprits. During what seems to be a simple domestic call, the wife is discovered unconscious in the hallway, and her husband becomes involved in a scuffle with the police, which results in his death. DCI Banks leads the investigation. Before long, what he first thought was the end of the matter turns out to be only the beginning of an even more puzzling and disturbing series of mysteries, not least of which is the enigmatic figure of the surviving wife, Lucy.

The origins of Aftermath are twofold. I read a magazine article about the aftermath of the Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka affair and its lingering effect on the small-town Canadian community where they operated, especially on girls around the same age as the victims. In my book, the character Claire Toth is a school-friend of the last victim, and she stands as living proof that the problems do not simply go away when criminals are caught and sentenced; they can actually ruin more lives than those of the immediate victims.

Secondly, I remember watching a TV documentary about the killers Fred and Rosemary West in England, which showed the scene-of-crime officers digging up their garden, carrying boxes out of the house and generally dismantling the now notorious 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester.

Being a crime writer, I have a naturally morbid imagination–it came first, by the way–so I merely found a good use for it! I woke up one morning, looked out the window, and wondered what it would be like if the police were digging up the garden across the street!

Though I know we crime writers are expected to produce a book a year, and I usually manage to do that, Aftermath was much longer in the making. I first started working on it in 1996, in fact, but soon found it wasn’t an easy book to write. There are a number of reasons for that–one obvious one is the subject matter–but for whatever reason, I couldn’t seem to get it going.
The first version was set in the neighbourhood in Toronto where I now live. The main character was Maggie, a nervous, edgy young woman on the run from an abusive marriage, who has befriended Lucy, the wife, because she believes Lucy is suffering the same sort of abuse at the hands of her husband. Maggie is naturally devastated when the truth starts to come out and Lucy is suspected of helping her husband abduct, torture and rape five young girls. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that Lucy was involved, and Maggie feels the pull of loyalty, the need to stand by her friend.
One question people never fail to ask me in interviews is why I set my books in England though I live in Canada, and I have as many answers as there are questioners. But this time, it seemed the only solution. Here, everything was just too close to home, quite literally, and far too close to the real horrors of the Bernardo-Homolka affair, something I certainly didn’t want to appear to take advantage of. I wanted to write a book about the whole mysterious subject of male-female couples who kill for sexual pleasure, and about the aftermath of such an unimaginable horror on the community, but I wanted it to be fiction, not thinly disguised true crime. And somehow, being so close, I felt tyrannized by the reality of it all.

So I moved the setting to an imaginary suburb of Leeds, the northern English city in which I grew up. It wasn’t so difficult; after all, I had already set six or seven Inspector Banks novel in Yorkshire.

But Inspector Banks wasn’t in the second version of Aftermath. Again, it was Maggie’s and Lucy’s story. It certainly went much better than it had with the Toronto setting, but there was still something not quite right about the structure. It was too claustrophobic, too limited and limiting. It needed a larger canvas. I thought that there ought to be at least some emphasis on the police investigation–after all, I’d been writing about police for years–but it wasn’t until later, after about 200 pages of this second draft, that I had the brilliant idea of bringing in Inspector Banks! Why didn’t I do this in the first place and save myself a lot of time and trouble? You may well ask. If I had an answer, I’d tell you.

So Inspector Banks saved my bacon. Of course, I had to go right back to the beginning again and scrap most of what I had written, the same way I had to scrap the Toronto scenes. The only connection that remains is that Maggie is running from Toronto, which at least allows me to say one or two things in passing about the city.

Aftermath isn’t a comfortable book; it’s a book that involves and challenges the reader. But as anyone who has read the last few Banks books already knows, I don’t like to follow a formula. I like to take risks. On the other hand, I have also tried to include all the mysteries, clues, suspense and thrills that readers of crime fiction expect, and in doing so I hope I have succeeded in producing a provocative page-turner.