Criminal Enterprise: Helen Fitzgerald on her new novel The Exit

Helen Fitzgerald is no stranger to breaking taboos in her novels. She follows the infanticide of The Cry with equally sinister happenings in The Exit. She explains how these dark and provocative tales develop

Feature by Alan Bett | 30 Jan 2015
  • Helen Fitzgerald

“It was when I wrote Dead Love, the very first book,” Helen Fitzgerald opens by explaining her simple yet sinister journey into crime fiction.  “I started writing it almost as chick lit…and I just found myself killing someone.” She raises her eyes and chuckles. “I was writing what I wanted to write and it felt really good so I’ve just kept killing people ever since.”

It’s the type of quote to make an interviewer smile, but a simplistic and characteristically unpretentious view of her craft. Our afternoon with this bestselling author is littered with similar moments of smiling self deprecation. While crime novels fly off the shelves, it’s a criminally (no apologies) underappreciated genre, critically at least. Even MacIlvanney was seen to be lowering himself by writing the classic Laidlaw detective series. He thankfully had the background and depth to understand this was no genre slumming, as certain sections of literary society judged and believed. “I guess you don’t get reviews so much in The Times and The Telegraph,” Helen admits. “…but you know, literary writers… it’s a different world and I don’t particularly want to be a part of it. Some crime writers I know are brilliant and literary writers, and just because there’s some plot and they get a readership, it changes things. I’d go for the readership and the pay cheque rather than the Guardian review!”

We’re here to discuss The Exit, Helen’s dark and addictive new book, following on from her controversial bestseller The Cry. Her adopted Glasgow is today being whipped by wind and sleet, punctuated by moments of beautiful sunshine – Mother Nature’s black humour revealed, showing us what we could have won. It’s a far cry from Helen’s Antipodean home but she brushes off an apology for forcing her out on such a day, seemingly eager to discuss the new novel. Unlike The Cry, which in true Columbo style reveals the crime then watches as the perpetrators crumble, The Exit is pure suspense thriller and to reveal its plot is to make it redundant. To say it involves sinister goings on at a care home is enough, if anything a gross understatement. While the narrative moves into disturbing places and imagery, the more everyday yet primal fear below this topography is of death and ageing.

“I always end up on forums on the internet listening to what people are talking about,” Helen says, explaining her first steps of research into a central character with memories cruelly dissolved by dementia. “With The Exit I read a lot of forums with people who were talking about dementia and how it was affecting them. The title actually came from one of those where a woman said dementia is like a maze and the exit is death.” She paints a realistically gruesome picture, true to a second career in social work which obviously bleeds into her work. “The Cry starts out with a dead baby. When I wrote that I thought oh god, I’m 30 pages in and there’s a dead baby.” Despite this horrific fact, The Cry, like The Exit, elevates itself above standard genre tropes and is saturated in subtext, in its case spousal abuse. “It was about an abusive man basically… I don’t think that’s what I started out thinking, I started thinking that it was a good idea for a story, the parents making a mistake like that [an accidental overdose] and covering it up, but actually there’s always so many layers in a novel.” 

“Storytelling probably isn’t my natural ability,” Helen tells me, “…that’s the bit I’ve learned. I think the bit I had when I was 18 and probably still have is the voice of the characters and what I learned was the storytelling, which is technical and hard and sometimes quite boring.” It’s a surprising revelation. Helen’s books have a turbo charged narrative which bends characters to its will. “I think that’s from screenwriting,” she suggests. “I learned to do that from years of trying to write screenplays and doing courses and stuff, you know? The rules of screenplays are so stringent, and I’m so glad I did it, it’s been really useful.” And while this explains her technique, the origins of these twisted tales soon become equally apparent. The stories develop from those everyday moral conundrums which plague us all, yet in Helen’s case go rogue. “I like to explore and understand why people do things in extreme situations, how they respond. And I’m always thinking about me and how I would. I’m obsessed almost with thinking about, in a plane if it’s going to crash I always work out, OK I’m three doors down, if I’m on the floor…” She looks up sheepishly. “Do you do that, or is it just me?”

Hopefully she's reassured that it’s not just her, but only she moulds these dark daydreams into what could be termed a new sub-genre, “People are thinking she’s crime but not quite, it's femme noir, it's domestic noir. I don’t care.” What differentiates her from the pack relates as much to what her books are missing as to all that they contain. There are no grizzled alcoholic ex-cops, no doe eyed female companions. In fact cops in general are notable by their absence on her pages. The procedural makes way for the moral Mexican stand-off. “I’m not interested,” she admits, perhaps alluding again to a social work background, dealing in part with offenders. “I’m not interested in watching sport either but I love playing it. To me it’s kind of the same, why would you be interested in the person who’s watching and standing on the outside? I’m much more interested in who's involved in the actual incident, the perpetrator or the victim.”

Yet as stereotypical as those stock characters she avoids can be, they sell, they stretch into series, provide regular income for jobbing authors. “I try to do something different every time,” Helen counters “…because I would get bored, and the one I’ve just written, Viral, is different again, it’s much more character driven, not as heavily plotted. It’s my favourite but that might just be because I’ve just finished it.” It concerns a teenage girl in Magaluf she reveals later; multiple blowjobs caught on camera, social media, repercussions. The outline she sent to her publisher opened with just such a statement of intent. After the previous two they could hardly have been surprised.

Yet despite stretching genre and avoiding its trappings she is delighted to live under the crime banner. “Oh yeah! For The Donor I was taken off the crime list and I was just on the fiction shelf, and then I came back with The Cry and I was so glad because of Harrowgate Crime Writing Festival, Bloody Scotland…I’ve made the best friends, I absolutely love them, very supportive and they’re the ones who have just read my latest draft.”  It’s a community she describes as generous, although, “I’ll get jealous if I hear somebody gets a £500,000 advance.” Then completely deadpan, “I’ll like them a little less.”

Support comes from this community of writers but inspiration from wider places. “What I admire most is something I’ve never seen before and that I feel is brave… There are books that I read where I think, oh my god, you’ve taken a real risk. I try to take risks and the next one’s even riskier. The writers I like are similar risk takers – like Alissa Nutting’s Tampa which is really… wow blimey, gutsy. That’s what I admire, gutsy writing.” And the reason for her own journey down this path? “It’s probably because I’m 48, I’m married with two children, I live in the suburbs, my kids go to good schools and my life is so dull so I take the risks in the books.”

It’s not simply provocation for its own sake. These are challenging books to work the mind and test the morals. Which move with the velocity of the finest thriller but live in a far nastier neighbourhood. They make you question and feel – Helen’s true aim. “…a book which makes me feel anything, it doesn’t matter what it is, whether I cry, laugh, whether it’s completely uncomfortable and claustrophobic, as long as I’m feeling something, that’s all I wanted to achieve. Otherwise what’s the point? There are some people who really like to be numbed as they’re reading… I guess that’s not what I’m doing. I poke them with a stick.”

The Exit is out 5 Feb, published by Faber & Faber, RRP £7.99