The Crime Readers' Association

Writing About a Dying Heroine by J F Kirwan

27th November 2017

88° North has an unusual premise, since the heroine, Nadia, has radiation sickness from her last encounter with her nemesis, Salamander. She’s been given weeks to live. She could go to an exotic island with her partner Jake, from MI6, and live out her last functional days diving with him in crystal waters before her illness takes hold. But Salamander is still out there, and she knows he is planning one final attack. He has said he will make the sky bleed. She doesn’t know what that means, but it can’t be good.

As a writer, you occasionally kill off your protagonist, and it’s never easy. But this book has proven a particular challenge. On the technical side, there is the aspect of radiation sickness itself, but I used to work in the nuclear industry, and I know a lot about cancer (don’t ask, please), and I don’t dwell too much on the specifics. The real challenge is how she handles it, both on the surface when interacting with Jake and others, and in her internal monologues and how she behaves and thinks when alone.

Initially she thinks she has hidden it from Jake, but hey, he’s MI6, right? So, early on, in a scene that was hard to write, located at the Peak restaurant in Hong Kong, she confronts Jake, and tells him, and of course he already knows. But telling your partner you’re going to die is tough. The scene is a page. It took me a long time to write. For once my fingers were reluctant to dance on the keyboard.

Various doctors want to try and save her, or at least prolong her life. But Nadia knows how Salamander works, squeezing dry any leverage he has on his enemies. She decides the only way to take him down is by knowing that she has nothing to lose. How does she handle it when alone? She has dark moments, one scene when she is in a shower, she screams, rages, breaks the tiles with her fist, turns the shower to cold and shivers in the rain. But she goes back to the job afterwards.

I injected some humour into the book, which is how Nadia handles it most of the time. She doesn’t want sympathy, because it will slow her down, distract her. And when Salamander kidnaps Jake, she has no time to worry about her deteriorating condition, except to tell the doctors to keep her on her feet and able to aim straight.

There is one thing she tries to put right. It’s not on her agenda, but her sister was forced into prostitution in the first book. Her sister isn’t around any more, courtesy of Salamander, and Nadia decides to free one young woman from a life of misery in Hong Kong’s Tonnochy Road ‘kitty-kat’ dens. I put this in because I think if you know you are dying, you want to fix certain things if you can. It doesn’t quite work out the way Nadia intends.

Does Nadia die at the end? Does she kill her nemesis? Well, of course, you have to read it to find out. At its core, 88 North is a thriller, and as with such thrillers there is plenty of action, betrayals, a few exotic locations, some diving because that’s my other passion, but also loss, because when the stakes are this high, people do get killed. But the epilogue, at least, ends on an upswing. Maybe that was more for me, as the author, because I needed it. I’m not sure I’m as strong as Nadia.

J F Kirwan


Release date 14 December, HarperCollins (HQDigital)


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