With just five novels to her name, Minette Walters has become one of the big names in crime fiction. She burst onto the scene with The Ice House in 1992, winning the Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey Award for Best First Crime Novel. Her two subsequent titles, The Sculptress and The Scold’s Bridle, respectively won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America and the CWA’s Gold Dagger Award, both for Best Novel of the year. Her fourth novel, The Dark Room, was a huge hit and the author’s fifth, The Echo, went straight to the top of the British best-seller lists within a week of being published.
Walters’ work has been compared with Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and Ruth Rendell, placing her firmly in the English tradition of suspense writing. In this interview the author talks about her writing and her interests in crime and fiction.
Minette Walters was born Minette Caroline Mary Jebb in Bishops’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, in 1949. Her father died when she was nine years old, and she and her two brothers were brought up by their mother, Colleen Jebb. The family’s only income was the small state pension they received and, to supplement this, Walters’ mother used her artistic talent to paint miniatures from photographs sent by people who had seen her advertisement in The Times. “We had very little money,” says Walters, “and I often wonder how we would have managed if my mother hadn’t been so gifted. She taught me that women can do anything when they put their minds to it.” All three children won scholarships to boarding school, in Minette’s case to Godolphin School where girls were encouraged to go on to university.
Before going to university, Walters took a year off and travelled to Israel in a group of young men and women. They were taking part in a six-month voluntary service scheme called ‘The Bridge in Britain’. The scheme was set up by Greville Janner, a Member of Parliament, and was designed to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the United Kingdom. The author speaks fondly of that time abroad. “I always say that if I had to choose between my right arm or give up that period between school and university, I’d give up my right arm without a second’s hesitation. It was the most formative time of my life because I’d spent five years in an all-girls institution and I was suddenly offered unlimited freedom. You grow up very quickly in those circumstances. Also, I developed a hatred of all forms of prejudice which exists everywhere and are almost always based on ignorance.”
On her return to England Minette Walters attended Durham University where she obtained a degree in French. She attended few lectures but wrote many short stories without ever having anything published. “It was weird, surreal material,” she remembers, “very post-modernist.” After a succession of temporary jobs to pay off her overdraft from university, she joined IPC magazines as a sub-editor/journalist where she eventually became editor of a romantic fiction publication. In a roundabout way this job would lead to Walters’ career as a crime novelist.
“I shared an office with another editor called Patrick Cunningham, who had won several prizes for short-story writing, and I complained endlessly about the quality of stuff that was being submitted to us. I was reading upwards of two hundred manuscripts a month. That’s a lot of reading!”
Fed up with her complaints, Walters’ colleague challenged her to write a romantic novelette herself. “So I did, and ended up writing thirty. It was good training because in those days the discipline of romantic-novelette writing was very tight—thirty-thousand words maximum, no sex, no strong drink, and only chaste kissing—and it was a challenge to create realistic plots and characters from unrealistic ingredients.”
All of these novelettes were published under pseudonyms which still remain well-kept secrets. “I wrote them for money,” says Walters, “and they each took me approximately two weeks to write. I’d rather be remembered for what I do now.”
Patrick Cunningham was also instrumental in persuading her to try her hand at writing something in a different genre. “He told me that I was wasting my talent because I had the ability to write anything I wanted to. He, more than anyone else, persuaded me to have a bash at something different, although it was some time before I actually did so.”
Before starting on her first full-length novel, Minette Jebb left IPC to work freelance, married Alec Walters in 1978 and had two sons to whom she is devoted, although she adds with a laugh: “They temporarily destroyed my career. Babies and writing don’t mix, not for me anyway. I need peace and quiet if I want to work.” So it wasn’t until her youngest son started full time education that Walters began work on The Ice House.
The suggestion that Minette Walters write something which could win a prestigious literary award was a thought she never considered. “The only thing that ever interested me was whether I had the ability to write crime fiction,” she says. “I’m very fond of the genre, and I’m also very interested in criminology and psychology. I have read vast quantities of true crime books and I wanted to blend all these interests together.”
Explaining why motivation is at the heart of her writing Walters says, “I take a handful of people explore why one of them has suffered a violent death. Where,” she wonders, “does the level of anger and dysfunction, which must exist in order for this most traumatic of acts to occur, come from. It fascinates me.”
Walters’ first contact with crime fiction was, like so many other readers, through classic mystery authors such as Agatha Christie. Though she is eager to avoid the “general dumping on Agatha,” as she puts it, she agrees with fellow writer Michael Dibdin that the Queen of Crime’s success was responsible for hijacking British crime fiction for a very long time. “Publishers,” she says, “just weren’t interested in putting out something that did not conform to the ‘Christie’ format. Consequently only authors with similar styles, like Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, were published.”
About the latter author Walters adds “I think Margery Allingham was a brilliant writer, but sadly she is not as well-known as her contemporaries. She really was remarkable because her stories had a much more violent streak than Christie’s or Marsh’s.”
Returning to the subject of Agatha Christie, Walters says she initially considered Miss Marple a “more realistic character” than Hercule Poirot, but now believes that David Suchet’s television portrayal of the Belgian sleuth has turned Poirot “into a deeply compassionate man, transforming the character into something very convincing.”
For Walters, Christie’s strongest point was the writer’s powers of social observation. “Something that nobody nowadays ever gives Christie credit for is her sharp portrayal of English middle-class life in the thirties, forties, and fifties. I always say that people should read Agatha Christie if they want to know how people of that period talked, dressed, and ate—it can all be found in her books in meticulous detail.”
Walters repudiates the general attitude in Britain that crime fiction has little literary value. “It’s not ‘pukka’ to write crime fiction,” she asserts. “It’s pulp according to the ‘great and the good’, but I would defy anybody who says Ruth Rendell doesn’t write literature. Rendell and P.D. James inherited Agatha Christie’s mantle and gave it a modern twist. I feel Rendell’s books paved the way and allowed me to write my novels, which are also one-offs. I frequently wonder if I would have been as fortunate if Ruth Rendell hadn’t already established this principle.”
The author enjoys reading all styles of crime fiction, but concentrates on the ‘traditional’ genre. She does not agree that these novels merely exist to pose a mystery. “I think the more analytical and puzzle-based novels treat social issues in a different way. Mine tend to concentrate on a claustrophobic environment, often with a family at the heart of them.”
Quoting a statistic that seventy percent of all murders occur within the family environment, Walters is convinced that infinitely more damage is done in a domestic situation. “That is where I differ entirely from a hard-boiled novel,” she says, “because instead of bringing the action out onto the streets, I’m taking it right in into this enclosed environment, be it a family, a village, or both.”
The claustrophobic village, and a family of sorts, are at the heart of The Ice House. In the opening pages the murdered body of an unknown man is found in the building of the title, a structure used to keep food cool in the days before fridges. This ice house lies on the grounds of a mansion owned by Phoebe Maybury. Phoebe lives a secluded life with two female friends, Diana Goode and Anne Cattrell. All three women are the subjects of malicious village gossip due to the unsolved disappearance of David Maybury, Phoebe’s husband.
Walters explains the origins of her first novel. “I’d been thinking about a plot where I could isolate three women within a community, making their relationships very introspective because nobody wants to talk to them. Clearly murder was a great way to achieve this, making people suspicious of them and the circumstances in which they lived. I was interested in exploring whether women would support each other in such a situation. In The Ice House this was very much the case.”
A further theme, also frequently revisited in Walters’ books, is the difficulty caused by non-communication in relationships, especially those between men and women. In The Ice House this is most prominently the case between Anne Cattrell, an acerbic journalist, and Sergeant Andy McLoughlin, one of the investigating policemen.
“What I do in these relationships is to try and show that both sexes are deeply vulnerable when it comes to emotional involvement. The idea that relationships are ever easy is crazy. This whole concept of love at first sight, I simply don’t believe in it. I’m sure it does happen on the odd occasion, but I truly feel that relationships only work when mutual respect is established between two people. One way of doing that is to have them challenge each other. Then, once you’ve got a mutual respect, I think you automatically get mutual liking, and liking is so important in a relationship. You really do have to like the other person if you intend to spend a lot of time with them!” With a laugh Walters adds, “Fancying someone rotten, that part of it passes.”
The author frequently upsets readers when they ask her if she thinks Cattrell and McLoughlin went on to marry. “I tell them that I think it is highly unlikely. They probably would have such a row after six months, that they would just split up.”
Walters does not feel she could sustain a series, believing that, by the end of her books, she always has written all that can be told about the characters. “What I might do one day,” she admits, “is revisit a character readers wouldn’t necessarily expect me to write about. Someone like Phoebe Maybury for instance.”
Walters remembers the commotion when it became apparent that none of the characters from The Ice House would appear in her subsequent novel. Lots of publishers offered her more money, but only if she agreed to write a series. “I had already done about seventy-five percent of The Sculptress,” she remembers, “when I got these frantic calls from my agent saying ‘Minette, you’ve got to write a series!’ Thank God The Sculptress was as well-received as The Ice House,” she says laughing. “Of course when that was published, I was constantly asked ‘Are you going to write a series with Roz and Hal?’.”
‘Roz’ is Rosalind Leigh, who together with Olive Martin and Hal Hawkesley are the three main characters in The Sculptress. Rosalind, coping with a personal tragedy, is persuaded by her agent to write a book about Olive Martin. Olive is in prison, convicted for murdering her mother and sister. During her research Roz manages to secure the reluctant co-operation of Hawkesley, Olive’s arresting officer, which leads her to discover new evidence suggesting that Olive may be innocent. In her search for further proof, a fragile relationship develops between Rosalind and Hal.
The inspiration for The Sculptress came from an incident Walters had as a prison visitor, a voluntary activity the author started long before her career as a novelist. “I was assigned to see a new prisoner,” Walters says, “a mountain of a man who told me he was on remand for rape. It really was quite terrifying,” she says. “There I was, sitting in this tiny little room with this extraordinary man who was four times my size. I was very aware that he could quite easily kill me—there would have been absolutely nothing I could have done about it. Then, once we started talking, it turned out he was completely and utterly charming, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
Before the case could come to trial it became clear that the man was not guilty, and the charges were dropped. Yet the incident gave Walters pause for thought. “It disturbs me that we judge each other by what we look like,” she says. “We all do it, and I don’t think we’ll ever stop, but I began to wonder ‘Supposing those charges hadn’t been withdrawn and he had gone to court. Would he have been found innocent when the immediate impression he made was so unpleasant?’.”
Walters developed the idea into a plot, changing the sex of the prisoner along the way, and was awarded an Edgar for her efforts.
Three years later The Sculptress became the first of Walters’ books to be adapted for television by the BBC [UK / US]. It stayed close to the book and successfully kept the ambiguity of the novel’s ending. “I still get letters asking me whether Olive Martin was guilty or not, but I feel it is up to the reader to be the jury,” says Walters, refusing to comment on Martin’s culpability. However, she will admit that her protagonist “was certainly clever enough to have done it.”
Unlike some writers who are dismayed by inaccurate adaptations of their work, Walters is thrilled with the results of the television production. “I thought the series was very good,” says Walters, “because it made exciting television. They caught the atmosphere extremely well. I was a bit concerned that Pauline Quirke, who plays Olive Martin, would just be so good that the others would find it very difficult to match up, but I thought Caroline Goodall as Rosalind Leigh was fantastic. She looked the part and sounded great. She was perfect, absolutely excellent.” In fact Walters praises all those involved with the production, which explains her agreeing to collaborate on a television sequel to The Sculptress. “I’m not going to write it,” she stresses, “but I’m giving them the ideas so that a script can be developed.”
As to why her second book made it to the screen before her other novels, Minette Walters offers various explanations. “For some reason I think The Sculptress was conceived as a much more easily visualised book than The Ice House or The Scolds Bridle. Perhaps because, in a funny sort of way, it is the most conventional. It is more conformist and has these acceptable parameters that perhaps don’t exist in the other novels. Having said all that, we’re getting absolutely as much interest for the film rights to the other books.”
Since Walters was so happy with the dramatization of The Sculptress, she is delighted that the BBC has gone on to produce of The Ice House [UK / US] and The Scold’s Bridle [UK] as well. [Alternatively, there is The Minette Walters Collection Box Set [UK].]
Minette Walters’ third novel, The Scold’s Bridle, was also published to great acclaim, this time winning a CWA Gold Dagger. The book is named after a barbaric cage which, once fitted on their heads, would silence ‘unruly’ women in medieval times. However, it is very much the present when Mathilda Gillespie is found dead in her bath crowned with such an instrument. The scene of death suggests it might be a bizarre case of suicide. Sarah Blakeney, Mathilda’s physician, is not convinced and suspects foul play. In her quest for evidence her philandering husband is just one of the frustrations she must deal with. When the doctor is named the sole beneficiary of the Gillespie fortune, Mathilda’s bitter daughter and grand-daughter start a smear campaign against Sarah.
In contrast to the supportive environment in The Ice House, in The Scold’s Bridle Mathilda and her descendants illustrate a very different picture of sisterhood. Walters explains the change. “In this instance I was interested in what happens to people when they come from a family where there have been several generations of bad parenting,” she says. “What effect does that have on a person from the current generation? I thought that situation would be most interesting in a family where there were only three women, because I think women can be the most appalling verbal abusers. They are much worse than men in the sense that they don’t physically beat up people, but they use their mouths instead. It’s probably because it’s been our only weapon for so long. We are physically weaker than men, but the old gab, that’s the easiest way to dig the sword in when you don’t have the physical ability.”
In The Scold’s Bridle Walters creates an explosive environment by bringing together three generations of women, all of whom are damaged through destructive relationships with men. This damage manifests itself through a cycle of repression, with the women not allowing each other to be happy, free, or contented. “When I started looking for something that could symbolise this kind of repression,” she recalls, “I remembered the scold’s bridle I had seen as a child in a museum in Reading.”
People are often surprised when Walters says that Mathilda Gillespie is one of her favourite characters. “I know she was deeply pernicious,” the author says, “but I am very fond of Mathilda. I weep for Mathilda because there was never any redemption for her.” This was one of the author’s reasons for including the entries from Mathilda’s diary in The Scold’s Bridle. “Trying to recreate a dead person is very difficult which is why I wanted to give Mathilda a voice. The dead cannot speak for themselves. Everybody else is filtering information about them through their own eyes and words, so usually what is revealed are only snippets of truth.”
In Walters’ next novel, The Dark Room, the reader joins heroine Jane ‘Jinx’ Kingsley in piecing together the incidents that led up to the car crash which left her the victim of amnesia. Recovering in a clinic, Jane discovers that, prior to the accident, her fiancé jilted her for her best friend, both of whom have subsequently disappeared. When two bodies are discovered, the police suspect that Jane’s amnesia might be a cover for something more sinister.
In this book, Walters decided to concentrate on a single woman. “In The Dark Room I wanted to see what might happen if everything is taken away from a woman,” says the author. “In other words what would happen when you take away her memory. I put Jane in a situation where she has to rely totally on what she knows about herself because she is too frightened to confide in anyone else. The result is that she fights her corner alone, and I was interested to see how she would do that. It rapidly became very clear to me that the only way she could do this was not to talk to anybody.”
Walters feels that, these days, people cannot allow themselves to be vulnerable because once someone reveals a weakness the general tendency is to start investigating for further personal details. “Society is getting worse and worse, so people are even less inclined to confide in others because there’s too much fear involved. That is something else I wanted to include in The Dark Room,” the author says.
Within days of being published The Echo found its way to the top of the best-seller lists, giving Minette Walters her fifth consecutive hit. The novel was a departure from her previous work in that it concentrated on male characters and lacked the romance of her previous work.
It is journalist Michael Deacon’s interest in the death of Billy Blake, a homeless alcoholic, that fuels The Echo. Deacon’s interest in the case has been piqued by Amanda Powell, the woman in whose garage Billy’s body was found. It is with the help of Barry Grover, a photo-librarian, Terry Dalton, a homeless teenager, and Lawrence Greenhill, a retired solicitor, that Michael is able to solve an intricate mystery.
“After all my novels dominated by women, I wanted to redress the balance with this book. The thing that offends me most about modern society—and I really use the word ‘offend’ lightly—is that a man has to think twice before he goes to help a child in case somebody turns around and accuses him of abuse. The idea that society is flooded by rampaging paedophiles is absolutely absurd, that men are now afraid to show affection or interest in the well-being of children, shocking. In The Echo I wanted to show that most men are extremely pleasant, dependable, and perfectly trustworthy, and long may it be so!”
Walters would like to see her novels illustrated with more dynamic media. After her first book which included a village map, Walters’ subsequent novels have become increasingly more elaborate, incorporating text from diary entries, newspaper cuttings, and police reports. “Computers are doing infinitely more exciting things than books are at the moment, and I see no reason why books shouldn’t try and retrieve a bit of this imagination.” Walters says with some frustration. “Books are presented in just one particular format. What I would love to be able to do is write a fiction novel in the style of a true crime book. I would like to include photographs of a body, or a pathologist’s hand drawing of where the body was found, or maybe scrunched up notes with fingerprints on them. I would love to have the whole thing look like a police file in book format.”
While it might involve considerable expense to publish a book incorporating these ideas, Walters feels something has to change if publishing is to meet the challenge of the new media. “It’s a bit like the fun element in modern art which, like life, is a bit of a black joke,” the author suggests. “I like the idea of fun in life, and I feel the same way about publishing. I get the most enormous pleasure out of reading books, and I think it could be even more fun if they had such a visual impact that it would be exciting to turn the page and find something strange and new.”
Minette Walters once commented that her favourite review describes her work as ‘about as cosy as careering down a winding English road in a sports car whose brakes have failed.’. She liked the comparison because it hinted at pace, twists, fear, suspense, and style, all of which are essential ingredients in a good page-turner. They are also all the ingredients found in the novels by Minette Walters.
The Ice House. London, Macmillan, 1992; New York, St. Martin’s Press,
1992. (CWA John Creasey Award)
The Sculptress. London, Macmillan, 1993; New York, St. Martin’s Press,
1993. (MWA Edgar Allan Poe Award; Macavity Award from Mystery Readers International)
The Scold’s Bridle. London, Macmillan, 1994; New York, St. Martin’s
Press, 1994. (CWA Gold Dagger)
The Dark Room. London, Macmillan, 1995; New York, Putnam, 1996.
The Echo. London, Macmillan, 1997; New York, Putnam, 1997.
© Copyright Adrian Muller, 1997.