Article published on April 26, 2017.
January, 1987. In the depths of winter, only joggers and dog walkers brave the Thames towpath after dark. Until a young woman, Helen Honeysett, set off for a run from her riverside cottage and never came home. Her body has never been found.
Twenty-nine years later, Helen’s husband is still searching for answers. He’s asked Stella, the detective’s daughter, and Jack, a tube driver, to find out what happened all those years ago. But the five households on that desolate stretch of towpath refuse to give up their secrets. And as winter tightens its grip once more, Stella and Jack find themselves hunting for a killer whose trail has long gone cold…
We asked reviewer and BookDiva (and occasional trespasser into BookNoir!) Sheila A. Grant to review The Dog Walker, the fifth in The Detective’s Daughter series, by Lesley Thomson and to come up with some questions for Lesley afterwards, and she willingly obliged…
With a huge cast of characters and a thirty year old mystery this is intricate and very precisely written crime fiction. It is set in a small row of cottages along the banks of the Thames. The atmosphere is dark and gloomy with no street lighting and the towpath only a few feet from the dark waters of the Thames. The glamorous Holly Honeysett, a new resident in the cottages, walked her dog along the towpath in 1987 and has not been seen since. The original enquiry closed when one of the suspects apparently threw himself into the river. Now thirty years on Holly’s husband, Adam, wants answers. Stella runs Clean Slate, a cleaning business, but also dabbles in detective work. She is intrigued by the case and with talks of ghosts and hauntings brings her friend, Jack, in to assist her. Jack appears to have the ‘sight’ feeling and hearing ghosts including his late mother’s presence regularly. On the surface they are a feckless pair and despite a cavalier attitude to their own safety manage to uncover hitherto undiscovered clues. Indeed it appears that all the residents of Thames cottages past and present have secrets they are reluctant to reveal. Secrets that might well uncover the truth of what happened thirty years ago. They may appear to live their own private lives but paths cross and relationships fluctuate in an extremely subtle and cleverly constructed manner. It might have benefited from more cliffhangers but the dialogue is tight and often entertaining especially between Jack and Stella as they both hide their emotional connection and any fear they have for each other. This is such a cleverly constructed book, tightly written with a complex story flowing smoothly towards an unexpected finale.
Sheila A. Grant, April 2017
Author meets Reviewer
Sheila A. Grant: This is the first of your books that I have read and the precision of your writing is so impressive. The location on the banks of the Thames is so finely described I suspect it is a real place. Each house is described in detail. Do Thames cottages like this and their surroundings really exist?
Lesley Thomson: Many settings in my novels, including The Dog Walker, do exist, but not in the way that I describe. For instance, there are more than five cottages on a path leading to at Kew Towpath and none looks like those in ‘my terrace’. The dilapidated house on the towpath is vivid in my mind, but doesn’t exist. So vivid that when I revisited the river before starting the final draft I was surprised not to find the dilapidated house. My fictional world takes over, sometimes the ‘real’ world can feel strangely wrong!
SG: Was the location your starting point? Or was it this group of characters?
LT: My starting point is an idea. The Dog Walker arose from walking one early dark winter morning alone in a park near my house. Picking my way through shadows, I heard rustling in bushes and the swish of branches overhead. I’d assumed anyone I met would be a dog walker like myself, but that morning I thought, what if they weren’t? Moments later a man passed me – I assumed it was a man, there was no light – I said a cheery ‘Hello’. No reply. When I’d got over the horrible chill that crept through me and my heart was beating steadily again, The Dog Walker began to take shape.
SG: The many characters, and even the dogs, are sharply portrayed by clever language in that they are all unique with their own idiosyncrasies. Quite a challenge to keep all these balls in the air as it were especially since each and every one had a contribution to make. Did you intend to have such a huge number of characters or did they multiply as the plot grew?
LT: I deliberately kept the story to the residents of five cottages by the river and an eerie house on the towpath. Some o characters have appeared in previous novels so were familiar to me. One intention was to pay homage to the classic detective story. I’m a big fan of Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. There are specific suspects and indeed a restricted location. The cottages in Kew are my version of Miss Marple’s village!
SG: With such an intricate mystery how did you keep track of the book as it proceeded?
LT: The one personality trait that I share with Stella is a passion for spreadsheets. I map out a chapter plan in Excel, with colour-coded columns for time and place which I update as I write. When I’m redrafting, this helps me find specific chapters and scenes and to see the whole story. This method doesn’t come easily to me. I get baffled splitting the restaurant bill when out with a group of mates. It’s a shame Stella cant’ help me.
SG: Although this is a crime book I think it is safe to say that the reader does not encounter any crime taking place. Was it a conscious decision on your part to suggest rather than describe violent crime?
LT: Yes, I’m not keen on lurid violence in books or on tele. I write the kind of stories I like to read. Also while I’m interested in ‘who dunnit’ I’m also concerned in the aftermath of a crime. Decades later when life appears to have moved on, what scars remain?
SG: If that is true then I admire you greatly as there is a tendency for some excellent crime stories to border on graphic horror. Do you agree?
LT: As a reader – and as a writer – I do question the need for graphic descriptions of mutilation. I wouldn’t do it for shock value. I would have to show justification in the story for any violent detail. If a graphic scene fits the story, I’ll write it, but not otherwise.
SG: The police are not involved in the story at all – it is all Clean Slate, a company that combines cleaning houses and solving crimes. What an original idea. Did you choose to avoid police procedure, which would be open to challenge?
LT: No, there is only a brief appearance of a police officer in this story. As readers of the whole series will know, they play a bigger part in previous novels. When I started the series, I wanted to explore the life of a woman whose father was a police detective. Stella familiar with life in the Met and in her late teens she’s determined not to follow her father’s footsteps. She will strike out on a different career. However, like many of us, (My mum was a teacher, I vowed I’d never teach, but I love teaching now) she is drawn to detection. Firstly by accident, she finds papers for an unsolved case in her late father’s attic, then, as the series progresses, people bring her cases to solve.
Throughout this series, I’ve worked with a Detective Superintendent at the Met (recently retired). He and his colleagues have given me a vivid sense of the reality of the job along with key facts. I wanted my detective to be a cleaner because, while Stella thinks she’s doing something different to her dad, their jobs have much in common. A cleaner enters a chaotic space and restores order as does a detective. Stella, a detective’s daughter, has a forensic eye for detail and misses little. She approaches a job, be it cleaning or detection, stain by stain.
SG: Clean Slate has connotations. A new beginning, starting afresh, wiping the past out. Was that in your mind?
LT: Well spotted! As well as restoring people’s homes and offices to hygienic order, Jack and Stella help their Detective Agency clients find closure and a way to continue their lives anew.
SG: As I said this is an intricate story. Did you have the finale and denouement in mind before you started writing? In other words was the book planned in detail before you started writing?
LT: I have the final scene in my mind before I start any book although the setting might change. In other words I know the entire story’s shape. For example, and this isn’t plot spoiling, aside from, of the murder mystery in The Detective’s Daughter, its ultimately about a woman coming to terms with the sudden death of a dad she saw little of as an adult. She has to get to know him posthumously. The Dog Walker shows Jack struggling to find himself and escape his mother’s ghost.
SG: Do you use a story board?
LT: I do rough storyboarding in my notebook and then of course there’s my spreadsheet…
SG: You mention relevant newsworthy stories which make the reader aware of the times. Was any of the story based on facts?
LT: Only the fact that at six on a winter morning, it’s a pretty creepy walking your dog alone. Otherwise my novels are a product of my perhaps worrying imagination.
SG: Who is your favourite character? Most of them lack charm although there are some endearing eccentrics. But few arouse the reader’s sympathy.
LT: I don’t have a favourite, I think that would be rather like having a favourite child. They all have equal weight in my mind. Stella and Jack are a bit like Marmite, they each have their reader fans (few readers like them both equally). I am interested in writing about ‘outsiders’, those who don’t fit into the supposed norm. A detective (and indeed a cleaner) looks at the evidence of everyday life, and is not part of it. A necessary quality for a detective who must make objective deductions free of assumptions and prejudice.
SG: Unusual lead parts, a detective’s daughter and a former railway employee. And not in the first flush of youth. Why that choice?
LT: Stella’s age chose itself. I wanted her born on the day three London detectives were murdered in 1966. Her dad is on his way to see his newly born daughter in hospital when he’s called away to search for the killers. I like that Stella is an older woman with experience, yet with more to learn. In earlier stories I show Jack’s obsession with bridges and tunnels and with the darkness. Given this, it was a ‘no-brainer’ that he’d be an Underground Train driver. Not least as I’d have loved to have been one myself (although for the sake of travelers on the District Line, given my propensity to daydream, it’s lucky I’m not…) Again, given the plot of The Detective’s Daughter, his age was ‘fixed’. Jack still drives for the London Underground, his job means he has witnessed more than one crime.
SG: I know Jack and Stella have appeared in earlier books in the series. Do you intend to continue with that team?
LT: I do. Against all odds, they are proving a successful duo, Stella’s calm logic and methodical approach matches Jack’s whimsical, intuitive mind. He’s fanciful where she’s rational. He reaches conclusions from signs read in the shape of chewing gum on the pavements and number plates, she has her spreadsheet and ‘stain by stain’ notes. Together they find the killer. Meanwhile neither of them gives up the day job.
About the author
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 #1 bestseller and sold over 500,000 copies.
The Dog Walker by Lesley Thomson, published on 6 April, 2017 by Head of Zeus, in hardback