About the Book
British author, Harry Bingham, blew critics and readers away with his crime debut, Talking to the Dead. His second novel, Love Story, with Murders, established DC Fiona Griffiths as the most compelling heroine in crime fiction. With this, the third novel in the series, comes Fiona’s darkest, strangest and most challenging assignment yet . . .
It started out as nothing much. A minor payroll fraud at a furniture store in South Wales. No homicide involved, no corpses. Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths fights to get free of the case, but loses. She’s tasked with the investigation.
She begins her enquiries, only to discover the corpse of a woman who’s starved to death. Looks further, and soon realizes that within the first, smaller crime, a vaster one looms: the most audacious theft in history.
Fiona’s bosses need a copper willing to go undercover, and they ask Fiona to play the role of a timid payroll clerk so that she can penetrate the criminal gang from within.
Fiona will be alone, she’ll be lethally vulnerable – and her fragile grip on ‘Planet Normal’ will be tested as never before …
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When you’re writing a series, the hardest challenge is keeping everything the same, but completely fresh. Readers want to see the same character, and want her to keep doing, thinking and saying things the way they expect . . . but at the same time, they don’t want to be bored. You can’t, as a writer, let them think they’ve seen all this before.
And when I was trying to think up ideas for the book that would become The Strange Death, I was coming up short. I had no ideas that I liked or that seemed new enough.
I read a lot of crime stories looking for inspiration. Nothing.
Walked a lot. Scoured the evening news. Took pages of notes on things that only half-interested me.
And still nothing. Nothing really clicked or inspired me. I was pretty sure I could just churn something out if I had to . . . but I really didn’t want to do that, both for my sake and the reader’s.
Then I came across a comment by a former police officer. He said sometimes the old tricks still worked the best, and one of his favourites involved putting an undercover police officer in a prison cell with a key suspect, in the hope of getting the suspect to talk.
Straightaway, I knew that my character – Fiona Griffiths, simultaneously very tough and very vulnerable – would be brilliant in that situation. But I didn’t want just one night of pressure, I wanted to ramp it up to the max. So I started reading about police undercover work and started to meet some former undercover officers.
They blew me away. Their stories were so true, and so scary, that I wondered why anyone would choose that life. Undercover officers are, almost by definition, at risk of their life, because you don’t insert undercover operators into anything except seriously organised and dangerous criminal gangs. The officers are not allowed to have any contact with their family, except once a month. They have to live two lives and two identities – and they have to be ready with either identity at any time. Oh yes, and they don’t earn one penny extra over their normal salaries. No overtime. No danger money. Nothing. (All that is true of Britain, where I live and where my stories are set. I don’t know exactly ho these things work in the US.)
I knew straight away that I wanted to make use of those stories. I wanted to build them into a novel that was dark and romantic and scary and ongoing – something that you couldn’t just put down because you had to know what would happen next.
Here’s one tiny snippet of what I gleaned from talking to those guys. If the people handling an undercover officer become worried about that person’s safety, they’ll never just tell him to walk away. It’s much more common for them to make a big, loud, public arrest, in a location where the criminal gang will see it. That way they think, “OK, that guy wasn’t police after all,” and the officer’s undercover “legend” is maintained.
My character is a petite woman and I knew it would be thrilling to have her tugged between the gang and her own police force . . . while knowing that, all the time, my heroine would be making plans and stratagems of her own. Also, I created a (sort of) dual love story. In her regular life, Fiona becomes engaged to a handsome police officer who she loves and respects. But in her undercover world she becomes dangerously drawn to a man who is as dangerous as anyone can be.
How do those two things play out? Can she manage a love affair with the light side and one with the dark side?
Plus, it gets more complex than that because my Fiona Griffiths is a little crazy and the pressure of handling her dual (and later on, triple) identities start to blow her brain. Will she handle the pressure? Or will she fall dangerously apart before the climax is reached? It’s really not clear.
Once I started to write the book, I couldn’t stop. I wrote in a real fury of creation. The one thing I really worried about was that the book was going to be too intense: basically, Fiona is under a lot of pressure from quite early in the book and the pressure never really releases from there. But when I gave the book to my editor, he just said, “Ramp it up even more.” So I did.
The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths has a troubled beginning but it is, I’m pretty sure, the best book I’ve ever written – and readers seem to agree, giving it a really flattering 4.9 stars average on Amazon. Not bad for a work that I didn’t even know how to start!