Flight of fancy
Edinburgh crime writer Lin Anderson tells Allan Radcliffe that living in Nigeria and feasting on the news have both influenced her latest novel
Lin Anderson has tended to get lumped in with the Tartan Noir squad of Scottish crime writers and her work is regularly compared to that of Ian Rankin, her neighbour in the capital’s leafy Merchiston area. Anderson scored a bestseller with her 2003 debut, Driftnet, introducing readers to Rhona MacLeod, the sexy forensic scientist whose investigations have provided the through-line to Anderson’s four novels to date.
Yet, as Anderson points out, she intentionally went out of her way to create a protagonist that would be unfamiliar to fans of Scottish crime fiction. ‘When I wrote the opening scene of Driftnet, I decided I didn’t want to have an ageing man with a drink problem as my main character. I had taught a friend’s daughter who went off to work as a forensics officer in London, and she became the inspiration for Rhona. She gave me a lot of material and talked to me about her work and I found it completely fascinating.’
Anderson, who only retired from her job as head of technology at George Watson’s College last year and started out writing in the evenings for relaxation between bouts of marking (‘instead of playing golf’), also finds parallels between her own working life and that of her protagonist. ‘Rhona is a police officer working in a male world. When I started out working as a computing teacher and maths teacher there were very few women in the same field.’
Despite Anderson’s novel approach to the genre, the comparisons to Rankin are unlikely to dissipate soon, not least as both have shown a propensity for taking their inspiration from real-life events. Indeed, Anderson’s work has been characterised by its topical subject matter, from internet paedophilia in Driftnet, to genetics in Deadly Code. For her latest novel, Dark Flight, she was inspired by the unsolved murder of the child whose decapitated body was discovered floating in the Thames in 2001. She applied her fertile imagination to the story of the boy, who came to be known in the popular press as ‘Adam’.
‘I got to thinking, “You can’t save Adam’s life, but you can fictionalise that life, try to understand it and make it more meaningful through fiction”.’ Dark Flight, which opens with the discovery of a sinister African talisman at the scene of a double murder, and the disappearance of a six-year-old African boy, also draws on the five years Anderson spent living and working in Nigeria. ‘If you live in Nigeria you’re very much aware that Juju and witchcraft are part of the culture; you see adverts for witch doctors and I kept those and used them for research.’
While meticulous research is an important part of what makes Rhona MacLeod’s investigations so convincing, Anderson puts the success of her books down to those good, old-fashioned fundamentals: plot and characters.
‘Forensics is interesting but you can’t drown your readers in it,’ she says. ‘That would be boring. I start with the opening scene and I have to write something that frightens me. But I have to be inspired by the characters more than anything. I write the kinds of books I like to read and I love that feeling when I’m reading a book that I can’t stop.’
Dark Flight is published on Thu 26 Jul by Hodder & Stoughton