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Carrbridge crime writer Lin Anderson returns with the 16th in her Rhona MacLeod series – and is ready to get back to book events

By Margaret Chrystall

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WHO knows yet how the pandemic and the experience of lockdown and looking back on it will impact in the future fiction of writers like Lin Anderson whose 16 Rhona MacLeod crime thrillers focus on the Glasgow-based forensic scientist and her world, a contemporary Scotland.

By the time Lin is talking about her newly-published book, Rhona’s 16th outing The Killing Tide, partly set in Orkney, you can already discuss the experience of lockdown partly as if it is the past.

Writer Lin Anderson spent lockdown in Carrbridge.
Writer Lin Anderson spent lockdown in Carrbridge.

For Lin the experience changed a few things about the way she might normally have written the book.

“It did feel particularly odd because it was the business of not being able to go out ­­­­– or not being able to get to Orkney while I was writing the book.”

In the past, Lin has revealed a crucial moment in creating a new book for her, is having the opening image.

"For me, a very strong visual image of the opening – if it stays with me long enough – means I know there’s a book in it,” Lin said a few years ago at the Cromarty Crime And Thriller Weekend festival.

And she explained the three elements that had come together to give the core of first Rhona MacLeod book Driftnet – and how, as Lin put, “It’s as if a story knocks for you”.

Talking about The Killing Tide, Lin said: “Normally when I have an idea for an opening scene, I work on from that. With this one, though, I had my idea for the opening scene and wrote it, but I found it quite difficult to concentrate on what I would call the prose, the actual writing of the book.

“I could think of the ideas, but I’ve never really done it before having a chapter by chapter plan of what I think might happen.

“I could do that in note form, but it took me a while to settle to writing it the way I normally do.”

Being in Carrbridge rather than Edinburgh during lockdown, Lin enjoyed.

“You could still go out a walk through the woods most days. And we are lucky, my daughter lives almost next door with her partner, so we were sort of a combined household and we would go out and walk the dogs – her dogs.

“It was much easier than being in Edinburgh in that respect because you could go out – and you could go out in Edinburgh – but it wouldn’t have felt so safe.”

Lin also noticed in lockdown everyone getting more interested in the wildlife they could see in their own gardens.

“My family came to Carrbridge when I was 17, but I think I know it better now than I ever have because you pay more attention.”

Though unable to be in Orkney which is a crucial setting in The Killing Tide, not being able to travel had its bonuses.

“You forget how much time is spent just travelling in a vehicle or a train getting somewhere. When you are then doing all your stuff online, the amount of time that that releases is dramatic, so you do have time to watch the world and think about it a bit more.”

Being in Carrbridge also offered an added way to think through the writing.

“I enjoy cooking and if you do practical things, your brain works in the background and the ideas pop up.

“If I’m really stuck and I can’t think where I should go, I’m a keen swimmer and obviously I haven’t been doing much swimming! But I stand in the shower, I find it amazing. So it’s there that sometimes the idea sometimes pops in and once I stop tormenting my brain, it seems to come.

“The other thing about being here – we are on a hill with trees around it, I have a conservatory at the front of the house which is more like a self-watering greenhouse, but I’ve always worked with the plants in there and it does give you space to think.

“Every scene is psychology in action – you are thinking ‘What was the psychology of the last scene, what were people saying or not saying?’. And it gives you a chance if you step away briefly.”

With main character Rhona MacLeod, as well as the pressures of her work and life – and the conundrums the forensic evidence sets her, there are always the mysteries of other people and her relationships with them to occupy her mind.

In The Killing Tide, there is a scene which is perhaps a good example of what Lin calls ‘psychology in action’ as Rhona notices a new acquaintance, investigative journalist Ava Clouston, strangely distant with her suddenly at a meal with friends:

'Rhona barely registered the food, despite how good it was, all her thoughts centring on Ava. Something had definitely spooked her since they had last met. But what? … Ava seemed a different person from the one who had met them both in Glasgow. Then she’d been totally commited to discussing and investigating … Tonight, Ava had chosen to sit as far away from her as possible, although occasionally when Rhona turned her way, she would find Ava studying her.'

For the reader, it’s a chance to see the forensic analysis Rhona brings to her day job extended to unravelling the motives of the behaviour of people around her.

For anyone first meeting Rhona in The Killing Tide, there are subtle hints of her past life and the many cases that have gone before.

Happily, there is also a taster of where it all began with the first two chapters of Lin’s first Rhona MacLeod book Driftnet included at the back of the new one.

Lin explained that she is now with her third publisher, Pan Macmillan.

“We’re now in a situation where Pan Macmillan have all the backlist which gave them the opportunity to reissue them all with lovely new covers! And it also gave them the chance to put the opening of Driftnet in this one.

“If you find a book you love and then you realise it’s a series, people absolutely do go and look for the character at the start in a long-running series. You read a book and you say ‘I like these characters, what happened to them before – or after?’. And that seems to be the way it plays out.”

For the writer, there is the puzzler of how to tackle references to past cases, for those who might not have read those books yet, but possibly will.

In The Killing Tide, there’s a moment where Rhona considers going to return to have a look at a yew tree, but changes her mind as it seems she may have a history with the tree that she’s not keen to revisit …

Lin laughed: “Yes, that is in Sins Of The Dead which is book 13, unlucky for some, including Rhona …”

Lin reveals it’s a testing episode for her heroine.

New book, the 16th in the Rhona Macleod series.
New book, the 16th in the Rhona Macleod series.

But the nod to the character’s past adds depth and the reality that everyone has a past.

“I try to put little things in, but you can’t put in too much, just a little of the back story, just enough – to say these people are coming from somewhere and are going somewhere, just like all of us,” Lin revealed.

Just back from the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate before speaking about her new book, Lin recalled a discussion about fiction and science on a panel she was part of there.

“There was a question about people working in forensic science. But there is something that is behind every story, I said, and that is that a story is about a character.

“It’s the life of a character and what happens within that and I think that is what drama is.

“It’s a character in action – and the world they are in is fascinating – but it’s how the character reacts to that world that certainly makes me want to go back and think ‘These are real people doing a real job’.

“A fictional real! But doing a real job.

“But they still have to live, they are not just doing a job.

“Rhona is a woman who happens to be a forensic scientist. And that quote really comes from Willie McIlvanney the writer of Laidlaw. He said about Laidlaw ‘He was a man who happened to be a policeman’.

“That always stuck in my head.

“The way you react to things is because of your humanity, your character.

“The person you are determines the way you react to the situations you are put in. I do find it fascinating.”

Lin enjoyed the chance to return to the experience of being among people again with both readers and other writers at Harrogate and the chance for some people-watching!

“I’ve missed interacting with people and particularly interacting with readers. Once you got over your live trepidation at Harrogate, just talking to writers again and talking to an audience, it was just magical.”

The writer’s personal contact with fans is still clearly important to her too, despite the distancing effect Covid may have had.

Lin said: “I got a lovely message from a Scot in Germany with a lovely photograph on Twitter and it was a picture of every one of the Rhona books and he was starting at the beginning and had bought them all – apart from one he couldn’t get, so I posted that one to him yesterday, because I thought ‘You deserve this!’.

“God bless all the fans!”

Another fan has shared her love for Lin’s Cannes-based ‘fixer’ Patrick de Courvoisier and has requested Lin write the third book in the series about his investigations.

Lin said: “I got an email from my agent the other day from this woman in Hawaii, completely obsessed with Patrick and who just loved these two books and asking when was the next one coming!

“It was the most wonderful, joyous email – and saying that I should be writing one every single year.

“But in the last year, instead of writing a Patrick book, I finally kept a promise to my granddaughter that I would write a children’s book and I wrote about Blaze Fae Skye, who features in the Time For The Dead book set on Skye – and is a real dog with his own Twitter account, though it’s his ‘dad’ who writes it.

“And I thought he would make a great dog detective. So Blaze and The Fairy Flag Mystery was sort of my release book in lockdown and I wrote a second one that will come out in the autumn.”

“In a way that took away my release writing from the Patrick books.

“But I think I will get back to him, the aim would be to go back – we do have a tiny place in Cannes with a courtyard, and that is where I write Patrick.

“For the last couple of years I haven’t been able to get anywhere near Cannes and that is where I used to do most of the writing, there, or sitting in a café watching the world go past – all the characters in the books are based on people I have known in Cannes."

Interestingly, Lin mentioned at the Cromarty Crime and Thrillers Weekend a few years back that it seemed her books were inspiring life to imitate art.

Lin told the audience that in the first book, The Case Of The Black Pearl, Patrick’s hotel-keeper friend Pascal – who often looks after Patrick's French bulldog Oscar – is based on real life hotel-keeper Pascal.

And after reading Lin’s book, the real Pascal informed her ‘I have ordered a French bulldog. I am going to call it Oscar’.

But before the next Patrick book, there will be a return next month for Lin to Scottish crime writing festival Bloody Scotland – the one she founded with fellow crime writer Alex Gray.

Lin Anderson is looking forward to this year's Bloody Scotland, the crime writing festival in Stirling she co-founded with fellow crime writer Alex Gray. Picture: John Anderson
Lin Anderson is looking forward to this year's Bloody Scotland, the crime writing festival in Stirling she co-founded with fellow crime writer Alex Gray. Picture: John Anderson

The festival was just confirmed this last week as returning to its Stirling home after a year’s break when it was online only.

But as well as the return of live events, the festival will continue to host everything online too, in a hybrid approach.

Last year, everything went well in the online format and it was voted a success.

There was a massive boost from the worldwide audience able to ‘go’ to the talks, interviews and panels via online sessions.

Lin said: “It was a real eye-opener. We decided to go for it and be more international than we already were! Over 30,000 ‘came’ from abroad with people tuning in from countries around the world. We expanded the international audience and it also worked for people who can’t come to Stirling and find accommodation or aren’t fit enough to travel there – and it felt more inclusive.

"It can also be hard to get international stars along unless they are on a European tour themselves, but we could get them online – and we shouldn’t be jumping on a plane all the time.

“So we can do the two things.

"The way we will go forward is definitely to keep that connection internationally as well as having that wonderful atmosphere of being in Stirling, which is astonishing. And for people who don’t know Scotland or Stirling or haven’t been there before, they are gobsmacked when they get there and the Highlands is in front of you, yet you are so close to major cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow.

"I’m very excited about this year.”

The Killing Tide (Pan Macmillan, £16.99 in hardback and on ebook £14.99) by Lin Anderson – the latest in the Rhona MacLeod forensic scientist series – is out now.

The full line-up for this year’s Bloody Scotland crime writing festival in Stirling and online (September 17 to 19), will be announced on Wednesday (August 18), with tickets going on sale from noon that day. Find out more about it here: www.bloodyscotland.com

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