Lesley Thomson grew up in west London. Her first novel, A Kind of Vanishing, won the People’s Book Prize in 2010. Her second novel, The Detective’s Daughter, was a number 1 bestseller. The other novels in the Detective’s Daughter series include Ghost Girl, The Detective’s Secret, The House with No Rooms, The Dog Walker, The Death Chamber and The Playground Murders. The Detective’s Daughter series has sold over 750,000 copies to date. Her latest novel, Death of a Mermaid, is published on 7 May, 2020.
Death of a Mermaid: How I came up with the story
Ideas for my novels are often inspired by something I’ve seen when out walking. For Ghost Girl it was a gravestone. An ancient burial site prompted The Death Chamber. The motionless swings and roundabout in a park, inspired The Playground Murders. All of these I saw while out with my dog, hence The Dog Walker.
My inspiration for Death of a Mermaid was a fish van. Every Wednesday a fan-fare announces the arrival of the mobile fishmonger in our street. The fish – skate, plaice, cod – is displayed on a bed of ice. Neighbours cluster around the van, catching up, as we choose what fish we’ll have for supper.
Death of a Mermaid gestated over several years. I’d jot thoughts in my notebook. ‘A mobile fishmonger goes everywhere, what do they see?’ ‘Murderer or detective?’ ‘Poison the fish?’
Last year, keen for the challenge of writing new characters, I began the story. Three convent friends, estranged for twenty years – they called themselves the Mermaids – are back in Newhaven, their hometown. Mags is a librarian, Toni is a police detective who nicks Snickers bars, and Freddy is a mobile fishmonger.
Researching Death of a Mermaid. I tramped around Newhaven’s vast cemetery where I sited two graves for my characters. I explored the rugged beach with the lighthouse in at the end of a stone pier, a Lunette Battery dug into the cliffs. I visited the Coast Watch tower that overlooks the English Channel.
Early one morning I watched the preparation of a Waitrose fish counter. I stored detail, little of which ended up in my novel, which is typical. A fishery owner gave me a tour, I saw the freezing machine, vats of live lobsters, the scaling area. I laid out my plan for the crime and – possibly, this is worrying – was pleased that what I’d conceived was entirely plausible.
My character Freddy grew up in a fishery. Aged ten, as a rite of passage her dad gave her and later, her brothers each a set of knives. That’s three characters who can fillet as soon as they look at you. Research for Death of a Mermaid required me, and therefore my family, to step up our fish consumption. I discovered Cullen’s Skink and cooked bass and bream and salmon.
I watched fishing documentaries and felt sea-sick when a trawler crew hauled in their catch. They gutted and packed fish while towering waves smashed against the hull. Marine Accident Reports describe drownings due to open hatches, incorrect net deployment or failure to wear a life-jacket. I learnt that a vessel has only to snag on a lost anchor or a ridge on the seabed to capsize and sink. I learnt that a beam trawler is one place to die.
Mags, Toni and Freddy met at a Convent in Newhaven during the eighties. I’m not a Catholic. However, I know someone who is. A dear friend invited me to Mass and gave me a rosary blessed by a monk in the Sacre-Coeur. I plunged into Catholic texts including Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich and the Catechisms.
I try to write the kind of novels I love to read. Those that absorb me so I’m unaware of turning the pages. Novels by Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark or E.M. Forster for example, become my own experiences and linger in my mind like memories.
I’ve always used libraries. I borrowed from the mobile library in our road during the 1960s. These days, when for travelling to events or book groups, I borrow unabridged audiobooks. During this challenging time, I can still download these, but I do miss library events where I meet readers. And I miss browsing with other readers in our library.
However, there are virtual book groups. I wrote Death of a Mermaid hoping to entertain, transfix and provoke discussion. Indeed, if groups go online, perhaps I could join in.
Death of a Mermaid is finished but in my fictional world, I think Freddy is still operating her van. Ours is delivering, the neighbours buy fish through open windows. I got some bass this week, we’re having it tonight with chips.
Finally, to every reader and our librarians out there, keep safe and happy reading.
To be in with a chance of winning a signed hardback copy of Death of a Mermaid contact us via email with the subject line I want a copy of Death of a Mermaid.
Apply by 12 midnight on May 6, 2020.
Open to UK residents only.
This competition has now closed.