In conversation with Aline Templeton
Aline Templeton is hailed as “the crime czar of the Scottish small town” for her Marjory Fleming series. She grew up in the fishing village of Anstruther, on the east coast of Scotland not far from St Andrews. She studied English at Cambridge University. Aline lives in Edinburgh. She is the author of seven books featuring DI Marjory Fleming, Cold in the Earth, The Darkness and the Deep, Lying Dead, Lamb to the Slaughter, Dead in the Water, Cradle to Grave and Evil for Evil, published in November 2012.
Q You have been described as “the crime czar of the Scottish small town!' Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Alan Guthrie - to name just a few. How do you account for the phenomenal number of top crime authors currently writing in Scotland?
A There are a lot of hugely successful Scandinavian writers too, so perhaps it’s the northern latitudes and the long dark winters that give us an insight into the darker side of life. Scotland’s also very supportive to its writers and it’s a small literary community where everyone knows everyone else, so a new writer can get a public profile quite quickly.
Q Your books have been translated into several languages. How did you feel the first time you held one of your own books, published in a language you don’t understand?
A It is enormously frustrating! When Cold in the Earth was published in German, I actually got a German-speaking friend to translate the first page for me since I don’t speak the language. On that small sample, I was very impressed – they seemed to have caught the tone and it was very accurate. The only language I can read fluently is French and so far they haven’t been published in France – but I keep hoping!
Q What influenced your decision to write about a female detective? Was her gender important, or would you have been equally comfortable with a male protagonist?
A I wrote half-a-dozen stand-alone novels before I started the Galloway series and I had male detectives in several of these so I didn’t set out to have a female protagonist. The brief I gave myself was that my DI wouldn’t be a loner with a drink problem, an attitude problem, a string of lovers and a very definite taste in music. I thought it would be refreshingly different if she was to be the policewoman you would meet if you went down the local nick. I was a JP for ten years so knew a lot of them – ordinary working wives and mothers with all the problems of teenage kids and aging parents that most women have to cope with. And I decided she would have – gasp – a strong, happy marriage. My editor thought that was very radical.
Q One reviewer said there is a ‘horribly looming sense of inevitability’ in your books. Are you aware of this when you are writing, and if so, do you build it deliberately?
A Yes, quite definitely. I was asked in an interview to define what makes a good crime novel and I described it as being ‘an absorbing plot that arises out of the nature of compelling characters. At the end, the reader should be able to see that the outcome was inevitable, but shouldn’t have been able to guess on the way through.’ My books are very much character based and I want the reader to understand as the book unfolds that the action develops from what each person is, that this is the only way they could behave in the circumstances. And yes, I try to build it by slowly shutting down the other possibilities so that there is the claustrophobic sense that they are being trapped by what they are.
Q Evil for Evil is the seventh of the Marjory Fleming series. Is it advisable to read them in order, or are they standalone investigations?
A You can read them in order for the back story – Marjory’s children, for instance, age in real time – but each novel is a standalone investigation. The only two I would suggest should be read in order are The Darkness and the Deep (2) and Lying Dead (3), but that’s not because each one isn’t complete in itself, just that it makes the dénouement more dramatic.
Q Tell us how Marjory Fleming first came about. Is she based on anyone you know and if not, where does her character come from?
A I don’t know where Marjory came from. She just appeared in my mind one day, a tall, athletic-looking woman at the breakfast table trying to get her children off to school before she went into work. I had her very clearly in mind and was trying to find out more about her when I was driving down to Wigtown, the Scottish Book Town, for an event. It was just at the time of the foot-and-mouth epidemic and it was quite harrowing – the empty fields, the hideous oily smell of the funeral pyres for cattle – and having come from a small community myself I was thinking how hard it must be to be in the police force at a time like this if you had grown up there. You would know everyone, perhaps have gone to school with some of the farmers, and yet you would have to go to them and say, ‘I don’t care if the stock book goes back to your great-great-great grandfather, or if you have a hefted flock of sheep which has learned over hundreds of years where their own territory is, I don’t care even if there’s nothing wrong with your beasts but they’re just in the wrong place, I’m going to force you to let the killing squads on to your land to wipe them out.’ And then, of course, with the splinter of ice that Graham Greene said lies in the heart of every writer, I thought how much worse it would be if you were a police officer and a farmer’s wife. I do know though, where Tam MacNee came from – now! Like Marjory, he appeared very clearly in my mind: a wee Glasgow hard man, always dressed in jeans, T-shirt, and black leather jacket. His personality quickly developed and I find myself looking forward to writing a scene which involves Tam, wondering what he’s going to say this time. All my own work, I thought, and then quite recently I was taken to watch police dogs working – and suddenly it all came back to me. Many, many years ago I was living in an institution where there had been a problem with people walking in and stealing. I came downstairs in our flat and was alarmed to see a small man in our hall, smoking a cigarette. I said, ‘Can I help you?’ in the most intimidating voice I could manage and he held up a warrant card and said, ‘Police.’ And yes, he was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a black leather jacket. We ended up having a long and entertaining chat. He was telling me about vandals who had gone to earth in a school and wouldn’t come out when the police arrived. However, he said, ‘We just got a bullhorn and told them, “Five minutes or we put the dogs in,” so of course they appeared.’ I’m a bit starry-eyed about the talents ofpolice dogs and asked him, ‘What do they do? Round them up -?’ He looked at me as if I was really, reallystupid and said, ‘They bite them.’ I’d forgotten all about him for years, despite recreating him as Tam MacNee. So perhaps one day I’ll remember having met Marjory Fleming too somewhere. I’ll let you know!
Q Tell us about your experience of writing a series. How do you maintain your readers’ interest in your detective throughout the books?
A The lovely thing about a series is that your readers become really involved with the home life of your characters. Because Marjory has a family – husband, children and elderly parents – the crises that occur in any normal family provide a backdrop to the cases she deals with in her career. When I start a new book and return to Kirkluce I feel it’s a bit like going back to somewhere you visit regularly on holiday but which, while you are away, goes on with its own life. I have to catch up with what they have been doing and I think a lot of readers feel the same.
Q What inspired you to write ‘Evil for Evil’?
A There was a very sad case in the newspapers some years ago where a girl had been abducted from her own home and murdered. She had a younger sister who had heard nothing and I always wondered how she coped with the inevitable feelings of guilt and ‘it should have been me.’ That formed the framework from the plot. When I was on a research visit to Galloway I went to see the beautiful Isles of Fleet, a string of tiny inshore islands in Fleet Bay, just off the Solway Firth. I knew immediately there had to be a story set there and created my own extra island (very satisfying!) that would work with the ideas that were forming in my mind. It gave a very striking background for the story, that in its turn drove the action.
Q Do you plan your plot twists in advance, or are you struck by brainwaves during the process of writing your books? In other words, are you a planner or do you write by the seat of your pants - or are you, like me, a combination of the two?
A Yes, absolutely. I always start out with a sort of idea of where the book is going to end but on the way through, as the actions develop, the twists come up. I don’t think I could write a book where I knew exactly what would happen from the start – not that it’s likely to happen! I think I’d get bored, because to some extent I’mtelling myself the story too and I write to find out what will happen.
Q What is next for you, and for Marjory Fleming?
A I’m already well on with number eight in the series – just as well, with a March deadline! I’ve got a working title which I won’t tell you; I still have problems with a previous working title that was put up prematurely on Amazon: readers have emailed asking how they can get hold of this elusive book which doesn’t seem to be available anywhere. I’m hoping for a Christmas inspiration for exactly the right title for the new one!
This interview first appeared in Mystery People