Claire Askew on All the Hidden Truths

Claire Askew's debut novel tackles the tinderbox of masculinity, the uneasiness of our relationship with information, and our collective desire for the reasons behind horrific crimes

Feature by Heather McDaid | 30 Jul 2018

People want answers. It’s human nature. When the most horrific events happen, when unimaginable acts occur – people need to have a reason, they need to push everything into a defined box. This is what Claire Askew wanted to explore.

All The Hidden Truths has a simple concept: Ryan Summers walked into Three Rivers College and killed thirteen women, then himself. No one can say why.

“I’m really interested in how humans try and logic-bomb things,” explains Askew. “When massive events happen that unsettle us, we try and find meaning in them and sometimes there is none. I wanted to explore a crime where there is no logic and there is no meaning. It comes from a place of random catalysts coming together in a really tragic horrendous way. Throughout the book there are loads of people, from the mother of the gunman through to conspiracy theorists, that just want to find some answer that means they can feel okay again. I’m really interested in that urge in us as human beings to do that even when something is really senseless.”

There were two catalysts in Askew’s own life that, when they came together, formed the foundation of this book. She previously worked at a further education college with a lot of young men who were disengaged with learning – they were lovely guys on a one-to-one basis, but she noticed slight shifts when they were in big groups. “If there was the slightest provocation, they would suddenly resort to violent behaviour, whether that was threatening each other or trying to climb over the desks to get to each other. The group dynamic was this toxic masculinity that none of them really bought into as individuals but it was there in the group. Toxic masculinity is such a tinderbox and you just need the right kind of catalyst to set it off. That was where the thought started: I began to ruminate, ‘What if the right, or rather the wrong, circumstances came together and something like this happened?’”

The second is close to the heart of the story, and Scotland: the Dunblane Massacre in 1996, the last school shooting on UK soil. It occurred a few days after Askew’s 10th birthday; she was also in a small Scottish primary school at this time. “It had a seismic effect on Scotland and especially parents in Scotland,” she recalls. “I guess I never really forgot about that, then it all came back and eventually all of that melting pot created the book.”

The book is one of discomfort. Using crime as a jumping off point for bigger questions, Claire situates Ryan Summers and Three Rivers College in a world that feels all too real. “What I really wanted to do was reflect reality as much as possible. The news doesn’t break on a BBC-type outlet, it breaks on the internet. I wanted to tell the ins and outs of what happened on that day through Wikipedia because that’s where a lot of people go, to almost remind themselves of what it was that happened. And yet Wikipedia is so interesting because it’s notoriously an unreliable text, and it can be edited at any time and changed – it’s this shifting thing. I was really interested in showing that in a way we absorb information about crimes and tragedies, in that we have all the details at our fingertips but we can never entirely trust them. That sense of trying to find ease but always being kept uneasy.”

The unease is palpable. The reaction to the shooting is explored widely: the Detective Inspector tasked with the case, Ryan Summers’ mother, the families of victims; we hear of wretched journalists, conspiracy theorists and more. The breadth is stark and emotive, as are the knee-jerk reaction queries: What did his mother know? What did she do? What about the girls? Surely there was a reason? The questions feel wrongly placed in the story when in response to someone who clearly committed a crime on their own, but put down the book and look around and these uncomfortable questions are everywhere, in the real world.

“Again, I think it’s that wanting to find an answer, then we can all go, ‘Well that explains that’. It’s the same reason why we go, ‘This person must have mental health problems’, which is obviously a massively problematic way to look at it because that has a knock-on effect for people who have mental health problems who would never kill other people.”

Through the hounding of Summers' mother, to the guilt of those recounting their last interactions with victims, to the manipulation by reporters desperate for the scoop, Askew keeps it grounded in the real world. The one distinct shift in the narrative is the Edinburgh setting. “I think that we’re a bit complacent in saying, ‘It could never happen here’. I think we’re very lucky to have the gun laws in this country because I actually think we’re not in any way superior or better people, we just don’t have easy access to weapons of large-scale destruction. I suspect that if we did, we’d have the same culture of toxic masculinity and representations of masculinity that are violent. We’re not dealing with those, so I did want to start a conversation about that.

“We do have issues of young men getting involved in violent crime and seeing it as a normal thing and they’re not bad people, they’re normal teenage boys; they’re just acting out like the rules that have been kind of given to them and that’s something – however that eventually manifests itself, whatever kind of tragedy or difficulty – I think we all need to be talking about.”

All The Hidden Truths is a marvel. It begins a casual read and before you know it the pages are turning in quick succession – a need to know why when you know there simply can’t be an answer. Absorbing and suspenseful, it’s a thought-provoking debut novel. But what does Askew hope people take from the read?

“I’d quite like people to think about how there are no easy answers, and you can’t pigeonhole anybody. I didn’t want to rehabilitate Ryan Summers because he did a horrendous thing, but I wanted to make it difficult for people to make easy judgements about him. I wanted it to be difficult for people to go, ‘He’s obviously just an outlier, we don’t really have to worry about this sort of thing because it happens so rarely, the people who do it are different to us’.

“I wanted people to be troubled by the idea that Ryan was actually quite normal. I want people to read it and hopefully in future think twice about making easy judgements when they see tragedies happen and the media presenting a depiction of a victim, or a family member, or a perpetrator and they want to take that at face value, I’d like people to question that more and realise there’s no straightforward answer.”

Claire Askew & Alan Parks: Crime Debuts to Die For, Charlotte Square (Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre), 19 Aug, 8.30pm, £6-8
All the Hidden Truths, 9 Aug, Hodder & Stoughton