Down the Rabbit Hole – the Story Behind Splinter in the Blood by Ashley Dyer
Splinter in the Blood began with an image: a woman with a gun standing over a shooting victim. My earliest jottings on the story date back to April 2014. I wrote, ‘She looks down at him and feels anger and contempt, but also regret.’
I was mystified. Even more so when the woman began systematically to destroy and then recreate evidence at the scene. This had the feeling of a story that had started without me; I had come in too late to prevent the shooting, and had no clue why it had happened.
Now, I’m a plotter: I outline my novels in detail, and usually know a lot about the protagonists before I even embark on chapter one. The central character’s family background, likes and loves, joys and sorrows – the tick-tock of their inner workings are noted and filed away for future reference. So it was disconcerting to be faced with a mystery I would have to solve as I wrote the outline.
At every turn I was beset by unanswered questions, and I approached them as a detective might approach victims and possible suspects. This wasn’t a story about the shooting victim, Detective Chief Inspector Greg Carver, it seemed. The crime at the centre of the story had started without me, had begun a year before the opening chapter of the book, with the first murder in what developed into a series of bizarre, ritualistic killings. Why were the victims tattooed? And why did the killer use such an unusual method – a thorn – to prepare his victims for inking? Where did that notion come from?
Well, it might have been a visit I made to the ‘Skin’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London during the autumn of 2010. The ‘Skin’ exhibition told the story of ritual skin-marking – its symbolic, shamanistic, and even medicinal significance for cultures worldwide and throughout history – in pictures, etchings, and even on samples of human skin. I found that particular aspect of the exhibition both repugnant and compelling; it haunted me – so I suppose it was inevitable that something with that kind of power would find its way into a story.
I strive for scientific accuracy in my writing, consulting with forensics expert, Helen Pepper, on aspects of policing and crime scene analysis. But Greg Carver’s head trauma was outside her remit, so I read texts and papers on the subject, including Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations. Disorientating distortions of perception are common post-trauma, I discovered, and some seemed strangely familiar.
In my early to mid thirties, I’d suffered several TIAs – mini-strokes – as a result of poorly controlled Lupus, after which I’d experienced, among other things, a strong and oft-repeated sense of déjà vu.
On another occasion I stepped out of a car and, looking down at my feet, they seemed an astonishingly long way off, as if I were looking down the wrong end of a telescope. There is speculation that Lewis Carroll’s migraine auras and hallucinations inspired Alice’s weird growing and shrinking bouts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – in fact, Alice describes herself as ‘opening out like the largest telescope that ever was!’ And, looking down at her feet, she declares that ‘they seemed to be almost out of sight.’
Again and again, as I wrote Splinter in the Blood, the story seemed to have an existence I could only guess at. Again and again, I stumbled upon ideas and concepts that resonated with me, inviting me to pursue the story; facts that challenged me to tumble with them, down the rabbit hole.
Of course, the story was there all along, in my interests and preoccupations and memories, so it’s set in my home town of Liverpool, and there are elements of its history and culture that are bound up in my own experience. But stories, like memories, may be assembled in a thousand different ways. Splinter in the Blood is the story that just happened to show itself at that moment, tolerated pursuit and capture, and held still long enough to be written.
Ashley Dyer is the penname of novelist, Margaret Murphy, working in consultation with forensics expert and Vera and Shetland adviser, Helen Pepper. Splinter in the Blood is their debut novel as a writing duo. Find out more about Ashley here.