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Highland sleeper train inspires new thriller

By Margaret Chrystall

Writer Mason Cross has left his regular hero behind to write a one-off title set on a Highland sleeper train. On Monday he comes to Waterstones Inverness to talk about that new title, What She Saw Last Night. Below he answers some questions about the book and why he wrote it ...

1 You are probably best-known for your Carter Blake series. What made you decide to do a standalone ie your latest novel What She Saw Last Night?

I had written five Blake books in a row and I thought it would be fun to do something completely different from the series. Many of my favourite writers, like Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin, do standalones in amongst their series books, and I think it’s a good way for an author to keep things fresh, and hopefully attract new readers too.

2 What was the trigger idea for this new one?

I think I had seen some articles about the planned launch of the new sleeper, and it occurred to me it would be fun to set a mystery aboard this particular train. It’s one of only two sleeper services in the UK, and it connects two massively contrasting areas: the centre of one of the world’s biggest cities, to the comparatively sparsely populated and rural Scottish Highlands. We think of Britain as pretty small in comparison to America or mainland Europe, but if you go north and south, there’s a lot of ground to cover. I was sure somebody would have had the idea before me, but was amazed that it didn’t seem to have been done.

3 I love the idea of the story being set on the Caledonian Sleeper. Have you experienced it yourself? We have just got a stage version of the Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes (which I love) coming to our theatre Eden Court this coming week. There is something so glamorous, also mysterious and retro about sleeper trains!

Of course – I had always wanted to travel on a night train, and the book gave me a great excuse to do it a few times for research. It’s actually a great way to travel to London. You get a reasonably good night’s sleep, and you’re there first thing in the morning. The Caledonian Sleeper company itself was immensely helpful – they answered all of my obscure questions and even gave me a tour of the train when it was parked at the station during the day.

Totally agree about the retro glamour, and that was especially true when getting to experience the last few months before they bring in the modern carriages. I love thrillers set on trains – from The 39 Steps, Murder On The Orient Express, From Russia With Love, right up to Girl On The Train, there’s something very appealing about a train-set mystery.

4 Does it set some plotting challenges – not quite a locked room mystery, but the limitations of doing a crime on a train etc?

I think the limitations are a bonus, if anything. I was talking to Mark Billingham a couple of weeks ago and part of the book he’s writing is set in the 90s, so he’s really enjoying having far less technology to worry about. It’s kind of the same on the old sleeper carriages: they date from the 1980s, almost as old as I am. That means there’s no wifi, no air conditioning, and very importantly, no onboard CCTV cameras. And of course the other bonus is when you get far enough north, you lose phone signal too. Not all of the book is set on the train though, so I got to have my cake and eat it in a way.

5 What has been the most fun thing about starting from scratch, as it were, not having the Carter Blake world to worry about?

I think getting to create an entirely new protagonist. Jenny, the heroine of the book, is an interesting character, because she’s not an action hero, nor is she an unbalanced, unreliable narrator. She’s a normal person flung into an extraordinary situation, and has to come up with a way to deal with it. Some of my favourite stories follow that pattern.

6 Talking of Carter, when will you be returning to the series – or are there other things coming up first?

I’m working on another standalone for next year which isn’t a Blake book either, but after that’s done I’d love to bring him back after his break.

7 Have you ever done a book event in Inverness before? Or if not a book event, have you any other experiences of Inverness?

I’ve never done a book event here before now, but I’ve visited a few times. The first was when I cycled all the way from Glasgow in my early twenties. The most recent time, I stayed a few days longer than I had intended due to the Beast From The East! The unplanned holiday gave me some time to explore the place and discover the fantastic Leakey’s bookshop.

8 At the moment, there are quite a few new books out – crime and thriller – set in and around Inverness or in the Highlands – (Douglas Skelton's Thunder Bay, imminently GR Halliday's From The Shadows and Neil Lancaster's Going Dark, also Margaret Kirk's second Detective Inspector Lukas Mahler ). Not Fort William, apart from you, that I know of, though! What, for you, is the attraction of bringing this area into your writing?

There are only a couple of scenes set in Fort William in mine, but I did visit again to refresh my memory! I had a whole paragraph about the smell of the steam from the Jacobite train that I had to scrap when I discovered it wouldn’t be running in November, when the book is set. Margaret Kirk shares a publisher with me and she can certainly write about this neck of the woods better than I would ever be able to. For me, the attraction was that juxtaposition between the bustle of London and the wide-open-spaces of the Highlands. I’ve always loved visiting this part of the world, as it’s so different from the Central Belt, where I live – the sheer scale of the area, the beauty of the landscape, gives you such a fantastic canvas. It’s similar to why I write about America, that sense of enormous space and isolation.

9 If you were to find yourself having to share a sleeper cabin with anyone, who would you like it to be – a favourite crime writer, a celebrity, an otherworldly figure or maybe someone else!

Good question! I’m someone who enjoys his own company, so I’m more than happy in a solo cabin, but if I had to choose I’d probably go with Stephen King. It would be awesome to have a drink with him in the lounge car and talk about writing all night as we watch the world go by

Mason Cross will be at Waterstones Inverness on Monday at 5pm to talk about his new book What She Saw Last Night.

* Also read an interview with G R Halliday (mentioned above) in our books section.

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