Interview with Lin Anderson

Since the publication of her first novel, Driftnet, Lin Anderson has become a rising star in the Scottish crime fiction scene. Her success attracted the attention of London publisher Hodder Headline, and she has recently signed a three book deal. BooksfromScotland.com talked to Lin about her novels, featuring forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod.

Scotland is well known for its successful crime fiction. Why do you think so many writers in Scotland are drawn to crime fiction? Do you read a lot of crime fiction yourself?

I read all of Agatha Christie's books as a child and loved them. Also anything to do with mysteries, such as the Famous Five books.

Crime fiction is very popular because it has a strong narrative strand and allows the reader to interact with the story, i.e. try and work out who did it, or why it happened. It is ideal storytelling, because once hooked we have to keep going. As to why Scots do this well, I'm not sure. There is a strong story telling tradition in Scotland and being a northern country, we have more than our share of dark moments. As for myself, I love the puzzle of it, and the research and the challenge of fitting it all together so that readers can't put the story down.

Why did you choose to write about a Forensic Scientist, rather than police officer or private detective?

This was partly by chance. Driftnet came about because I imagined how terrible it would be to turn up at a murder scene and find that the victim was related to you. I also wondered what it must feel like to have an adopted child out there whom you've never met. These two ideas came together. I also had a former pupil who was a daughter of a good friend. She became a forensic scientist and now works for the Met. So I made Rhona a forensic scientist. I immediately found out how much fun that could be. I could take her wherever I wanted.

What research did you do into forensic science? There is quite a range of subjects in the 3 books - genetics in Deadly Code, fire damage in Torch, and so on. How do you choose how much detail, how much 'gore', to include?

I spoke to professionals and read a lot of textbooks. I also ask professionals to read the book to make sure I get it right. Lothian and Borders were hugely helpful in Torch as was Lothian's forensic chemistry department. I also took a forensic diploma course at Glasgow University, designed for professionals such as police, lawyers, doctors, mortuary people who might have to give evidence in court. That was great fun although gorey and gave me great contacts for further research.

The scientific detail must never dominate the story. Just enough to be clear for the reader. As to gore. Often less is more. A few vivid brushstrokes and leave the rest to the imagination. Although the Rhona books are not cosy crime, they are as honest as I can make them and never as awful as reality.

Driftnet is concerned with internet paedophilia and adoption; Torch is about arson, Deadly Code genetics and race. Where do your ideas come from?

The topics of the books come from random ideas or experiences that fire my imagination. It may be a small item in the newspaper or perhaps a scientific article or an overheard conversation. I always travel by bus in Edinburgh. You hear great conversations on mobile phones. Driftnet came from my teaching days when we had to do a course on child abuse. I was horrified to learn that at that time the police suspected there were three paedophile rings operating in Glasgow and access to the internet was giving them further opportunities. Torch came from a report I read into the sexual aspects of arson. Deadly Code sprang from a visit to California and an article in New Scientist on genetic bombs. The opening of Deadly Code comes from an experience I had on the London Underground, that stayed with me for a long time afterwards.

What lies ahead for Rhona MacLeod? Can you tell us a little about your next novel? In your first three novels, there are certain characters and threads which recur, such as Liam, Chrissy and Sean. Will we see more action from these characters? And do you think fire investigator Severino MacRae, from Torch, will return?

Dark Flight, the next novel will involve African juju (voodoo). I spent five years working in the Nigeria bush, so have lots of material. The incident some years ago of the torso in the Thames sparked my imagination and reminded me of how entrenched the issue of witchcraft is in many Africans (even educated ones). Chrissy will play a large part in Dark Flight.

Sean's a bit of a favourite with the ladies (and with me).

So many people want to see the return of Severino, many women and and not a few firemen. I get the impression Severino will demand a return sometime. As to Liam: he's very special. And if you remember he's currently in Nigeria on a GAP year so who knows?

You have a very fast-paced, visual style of writing - I could easily imagine Rhona MacLeod appearing on film or TV. You have also written a short film, "Small Love". How did writing your first novel compare to writing "Small Love"?

Small Love came from a very early draft of Deadly Code. I loved the characters of Esther and Spike so much, I gave them their own separate drama. In either form of writing, character is everything. The story rises from the character's wants and needs. The only difference between drama and crime is that the crime itself is the inciting incident which propels the character into action. For me each chapter in a novel is like a scene or sequence of scenes and every scene must have an active question. Of course in a novel you have the luxury of being inside your characters' heads. In writing for screen everything must be visual. Perhaps that visual style carries over into the novels.

A fourth book featuring Rhona MacLeod, Blood Red Roses, was published by Sandstone Press' Vista imprint. How did that come about, and how did you find writing for the Vista series?

I was attending an author event in Inverness along with Suhayl Saadi and Anne Donovan. The first set of Vistas were introduced. Suhayl had written one. I was impressed that Sandstone Press was publishing books to draw reluctant readers. Being a teacher for many years (though not of English), I realised how important that was. SS approached me and asked if I would be interested in doing a crime novella for them and I said yes. It was a great challenge to write a 90 page book, in adult language, with enough twists and turns to keep a reluctant reader hooked. Here, scriptwriting helped. A 90 min script for TV would be 90 pages long and would have to be a complex story. As to the idea for the book - it came from seeing a hen party on Princes Street in Edinburgh, dressed as devils.

Driftnet has been translated into French, Swedish and Russian - it must be exciting to know that Rhona MacLeod will be known to readers across Europe.

Yes. I have copies of each translation now and it's fascinating the different covers, titles and blurbs for the same story.

  • Cover scan of Deadly Code
    Deadly Code
    Lin Anderson - Paperback - Hodder
    This is the third novel in the crime series featuring Dr Rhona MacLeod, Glasgow-based forensic detective. 'Deadly Code' sees MacLeod drawn north to investigate the grisly discovery of a foot floating serenely in the waters off the Isle of Skye. But where is the rest of the body?
  • Cover scan of Driftnet
    Driftnet
    Lin Anderson - Paperback - Hodder
    A teenage boy is found mutilated and murdered in a Glasgow flat. Forensic scientist Rhona Macleod is called to the scene, but her grim task is made even more unsettling than normal by the boy's remarkable resemblance to her - and by the fact that she gave up a baby boy for adoption 17 years ago.
  • Cover scan of Torch
    Torch
    Lin Anderson - Paperback - Hodder
    An arsonist on the loose in Edinburgh during Hogmanay is not great news for Severino MacRae of the fire brigade. In their quest to find him, Rhona and Severino trawl the sewers of the city, looking for clues. Can they find the firestarter before midnight? And can Rhona resist the charms of Severino?
Lin Anderson