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Tain-based writer Helen Sedgwick launches her new crime novel at Dornoch Bookshop – the last in her current crime thriller series before shifting to science fiction

By Margaret Chrystall

WRITER Helen Sedgwick is straddling two epic worlds from her writing room just outside Tain.

What Doesn’t Break Us – the third book in her Burrowhead Mysteries crime series is out on Thursday, the day after a launch event at 2pm in Dornoch bookshop. The book brings to a close a contemporary thriller with a dark centre that Helen completed over the two years of lockdown.

Helen Sedgwick
Helen Sedgwick

Now she is embracing an even bigger project – a four-book series that takes her to new territory, science fiction.

In the past, Helen 's first book in 2016, The Comet Seekers (Harvill Secker), was selected as a best book of the year by The Herald and Glamour. The novel opens with two strangers meeting in Antarctica as a comet fractures overhead. the following year, Helen published The Growing Season (Harvill Secker) which was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scotland’s National Book Awards: fiction book of the year. Set in an alternate realty where artificial wombs have become the norm, the novel explored what happens when biotechnology meets the human body.

Before becoming a writer Helen worked as a research scientist, first as a physicist with a PhD in soft condensed matter physics from Edinburgh University, and then as a bio-engineer.

Helen also spent some time as a literary editor. she founded Wildland Literary Editors in 2012, and was the managing director of Cargo Publishing and managing editor of Gutter.

Returning to the science in her background to a degree, the science fiction novels are absorbing her at the moment.

Helen laughed: “It’s in process and I don’t quite know what it is going to be, but it is set on four different planets where four types of human society are being rebuilt after an apocalypse.”

Last year Helen Sedgwick was selected as the Dr Gavin Wallace fellow which meant being funded to produce the science fiction series that looks at different human societies and how we interact with our environment. The digital fellowship hosted by Creative Scotland meant she could work remotely for a year.

And that was great for Helen because of the pandemic lockdowns, and also because, as she reveals, she developed a chronic illness.

It sounds as if Helen’s road through the Burrowhead books could be testing at times.

What Doesn’t Break Us may have been a title that reflected tests in the writing for Helen herself.

The first book, When The Dead Come Calling, which opens in the north of England village of Burrowhead with a murder ignited not one but two mysteries that must be solved.

Helen Sedgwick's first book in her Burrowhead supernatural crime thiriller series.
Helen Sedgwick's first book in her Burrowhead supernatural crime thiriller series.

Taking on the case was Detective Inspector Georgie Strachan and her small team.

When a psychotherapist is found murdered in the playground, mixed-race policewoman Georgie also uncovers racism, misogyny and homophobia as she copes with doubts of her own about her relationship with her husband.

Also someone – or maybe something – is hiding in the haunted cave beneath the cliffs in the first supernatural thriller in the series.

Talking about that first book, Helen originally discussed deciding who her detective Georgie should be.

“I was at a crime panel event at Wigtown Book Festival two or three years ago with several crime writers and they were talking about who you choose your detective to be,” Helen said. “They all said you needed a detective who was broken or angry or dark – and I was thinking ‘I would like to write a detective who is a really decent person who thinks the best of the world and wants a quiet life!’.

“That is how I approached Georgie to begin with. Gradually, as the book goes on, that gets worn away.

“But I started wanting to write a good detective in a broken world.”

Over second book Where The Missing Gather which came out in 2021, Georgie finds herself severely tested.

Now in book three, the final part out tomorrow (Thursday), everything is coming to a head. The police station is about to shut for good. A deadly drug has appeared in the village, an animal killing seems to be part of a series of rituals and the deaths continue on Georgie’s watch as she tries to get to the bottom of what is really going on before a conclusion worthy of the superb plot delivers one final twist.

At times, writing it has been difficult over the five years it has taken, Helen reveals in the acknowledgements that come at the back of the book.

At times the writer even questioned whether she wanted to continue as a writer, she says.

“It could seem as if I had written myself into a corner and I wondered if there was any point doing it or was I shouting into a void.”

Helen pays tribute in her thanks at the end of the latest book to the people who have “led her through the chaos” and when Helen felt like giving up, “pulled me through”.

“There were times when I thought ‘Is there any point in doing this, is it going to make any difference? Is anyone going to read it?’ Or was I shouting into a void,” Helen said.

“And I was asking ‘Is writing novels a truly worthwhile way to spend a life?’

“I found I was asking quite deep things – and it was to do with the pandemic as well, I think. I think quite a lot of people were asking themselves these deep questions about how they spend their time. And that was definitely happening to me.

“I said at points in the process that I was going to give up writing. But I came out the other end and I would definitely say I have convinced myself that this is a worthwhile thing to do, that this is possibly the best way that I can contribute.

“I do think that storytelling in novels can have an impact and I do think that they can be very powerful.

“I don’t know if I am good enough to do that yet.

“But I am going to try and become a good enough writer so that I can have an impact on our society and make a difference.”

Life and art came together for Helen in an aspect of life which has given her a real sense of hope

“One thing I think that did happen during the pandemic was that there started to be pockets of community action and I was very aware of that happening up here in the Highlands. Things like growing our own food and sharing it with our neighbours – these acts of kindness and community.

“And that ended up coming into the third book and very much came into my life.

“One of my favourite things about the whole trilogy is that I have been able to write a crime novel in which I close down the police station and suggest a community garden. Human beings can be very kind!

“There is a community garden up here which is run by my very good friends Mairi and Seamus MacPherson it’s called The Fearn Free Food Garden.

“It’s an amazing thing! They grow seedlings and share them with the community and we are part of that community, which is wonderful.

“There are gardening workshops and they show people ways to start up their own vegetable growing, so it has become this amazing community action. Being part of that has had a huge impact on me, I think. It brings me a lot of hope to see it happening – and there are now a lot of people involved."

With three books in the Burrowhead series, themes such as community, legacy and racism are explored. Unlike many traditional crime novels which pride themselves on their fast pacing which perhaps doesn’t leave time to dwell on wider issues outside the immediate plot, the Burrowhead books have more space.

“They are definitely not your usual crime novels,” Helen states. “I always knew that was going to be the case. In a traditional crime novel, you normally race through it and it is very entertaining, you get a very satisfying ending. But I think I wanted to subvert all those things. I wanted to spend more time delving into other issues and looking at other points of view.

“I wanted to show that sometimes there is not a satisfying conclusion. Or that what we take as justice may be failing the people living with the system, so let’s turn this upside down and look at the complex reality rather than trying to deliver a comforting resolution.

“I am asking for a big commitment from people I think,” Helen said, referring to asking people to read the three books to discover the answers to everything wrapped up in the plot.

The last book in Helen Sedgwick's Burrowhead mysteries trilogy, out tomorrow (Thursday).
The last book in Helen Sedgwick's Burrowhead mysteries trilogy, out tomorrow (Thursday).

And people have been discovering the books in their audio format – and with many characters, would it not make a good radio drama?

Helen laughed: “I would love it on radio and then all these characters would have their own voices.

“A lot of people have been in touch to say they have really liked the audio books and I think they are doing really well. Audio books have really taken off in the past few years.”

Already, Helen is deep in her next series.

“I’ve been working on it for the past year now as part of the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship. I’ve so far written three novels as first drafts. And I’m now at the stage of seeing how they will all connect.

“But I am going to be connecting them from ideas I get from ‘quantum entanglement’. I used to be a physicist before I was a writer – and there will be a lot of science in these books.

“'Quantum entanglement’ is an idea about how the quantum world might connect us in ways that maybe we don’t even recognise in our physical life and I am paralleling that with ideas of human connection and human community and what that could mean.

“That is feeding into all of my work. So I’m trying to be quite ambitious, I don’t really know why I put myself through it!” Helen laughed.

“But I’m really excited about it, and I think it’s really interesting. It is allowing me to research all about the subjects that I am fascinated by.

“There’s proper physics, environmental crisis, we’ve got how we are relating to our landscape and connections and also human connection with time and space they will become a part of things in future, the idea that we have impact far beyond us and light years beyond that – and what that would that look like?

“So it’s both about our very individual and personal lives, and also in this wide context of what the universe really is. What is our obligation to it and our place in it?”

Helen Sedgwick set her crime novel trilogy in a coastal village. Picture: Michael Gallacher
Helen Sedgwick set her crime novel trilogy in a coastal village. Picture: Michael Gallacher

The challenges of the Burrowhead books also had Helen not exploring new worlds, but new forms – poetry.

To help counter the stresses of completing the last book, Helen has started to write poetry.

“I’ve never done that before, I just needed another creative outlook!”

Helen Sedgwick has a book launch for new novel What Doesn’t Break Us (Point Blank, £8.99) on Wednesday (July 6) at Dornoch Bookshop at 2pm with “the launch, reading – and cake!”. The book is out on Thursday (July 7). Helen will be talking about her work at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August. And the writer also has an event coming up at Highland LIT. More details: helensedgwick.com

* Just an update on Dornoch Bookshop’s Kirsty Gunn poetry workshop event due to be held on Thursday (July 7) and featured in our Here & Now arts supplement a few weeks ago. Sadly, it has been cancelled because of Covid. For more details about Dornoch Bookshop events, check their Facebook page @dornochbookshop and you can phone: 01862 810165.

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