The summer of 1976 was the hottest in living memory. In the Botanical Gardens at Kew, a lost little girl, dizzied by the heat, thought she saw a woman lying dead on the ground. But when she opened her eyes, the woman had gone.
Forty years later, Stella Darnell, the detective’s daughter, is investigating a chilling new case. What she uncovers will draw her into the obsessive world of botany, and towards an unsolved murder that has lain dormant for decades…
|Photograph credit: Emily Anderson|
Before giving m review of the novel, I’m delighted to be able to provide a short interview with the brilliant author, Lesley Thomson.
Hi Lesley, thank you for taking the time to do a little Q&A for our readers following the recent publication of your newest novel, The House With No Rooms.
- What did you find the most challenging about writing The House With No Rooms?
The greatest challenge was botanical. I read books on botany, listened to a programme on Radio 4 about how plants are essential to our survival. Armed with a basic understanding, I interviewed botanists and a botanical illustrator at Kew Gardens. The House with no Rooms is a murder mystery, not a botanical treatise, so I used only a fraction of the research. It was a challenge, but it was great fun.
- Who was your favourite character to write in the book and why?
I don’t have a favourite character. Writing a series allows me to develop my regular characters with each novel. I do enjoy writing scenes with Lucie May the investigative journalist with a flimsy grasp of ethics and an iron grip on a good story. She is as far removed from me as it’s possible to be so I enjoy inhabiting her persona and teasing out the nice bits in her nature. And I’d love to go round to Jackie’s for a meal and a chat.
- Where did the idea of botanical drawing come from and did you have to carry out a lot of research into that topic?
I was fascinated by a skill that hasn’t changed for two hundred years. It hasn’t been superseded by photography. Botanists still need the ‘character’ of a species to identify it, a photograph shows a plant in context and lacks detail. A pen and ink illustration depicts all the elements of a plant in minute detail. A botanical illustrator must have formidable powers of observation and a steady hand. While writing I worked with artist, Lucy Smith – her illustrations are in the novel – Lucy is an interesting and warm woman, but supposing a botanical illustrator, armed with a sharp pen and an even sharper scalpel, wasn’t so nice? And so the story began to form…
- The story is set in London, particularly around Kew Gardens. Is this an area that you know well?
Yes, I grew up in Hammersmith and as a child used to go to Kew Gardens. In those days it cost a penny to get in. It was one of my favourite places, I wandered around the humid glasshouses and along winding paths and wide vistas. I still do. While some people might be admiring the colours of flowers or the horticultural design of the Broad Walk leading to the Palm House, I was plotting a gruesome murder story. Even in the brightest and most beautiful places we crime writers see the potential for malice and venality.
- When looking back over your experiences regarding being a published author, what has been your favourite moment to date?
I have had many lovely experiences. I love meeting readers at events and in book groups and listening to their experience of reading my novels. It’s so special to hear others talk about characters I have developed as if they are real. I won a prize (The People’s Book Prize for Fiction) a few years ago and I guess nothing beats watching that envelope being ripped open and hearing my name read out.
- With regards to your writing process, do you plan/plot the story or just start writing and see where it takes you? If you plan the story in advance, does the book ever take a different path to what you initially intended?
I plan in advance, chapter by chapter. By then I’ve roughed out the shape and intention of the story. I do veer off my map: if I think something should happen sooner, or not at all, or that something else should happen instead. I write several drafts and the last draft (the published novel) bares only a passing resemblance to the first. However the storyline – the victim(s) and the murderer – remains the same.
- Are you ever tempted to try writing in a different genre that you haven’t ventured into before? If so, what genre would you choose?
I’ve never been tempted. Crime offers me all I need – it encompasses everything to do with life and of course death. Grief, bereavement, loss, love, parents and children, relationships, hopes and dreams and the darkness that’s not acceptable to express. Fabulous stuff! So why change?
- Do you get much time to read yourself? If so, which books/authors do you particularly enjoy?
I read all the time. I think reading is essential for any writer and I love nothing better than to be absorbed in a book. I read and reread Dickens, Wilkie Collins, the Brontes, Jane Austin and, Barbara Pym. In crime, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Michael Connolly and Elly Griffiths are firm favourites.
- What’s your favourite way to relax when you’re not busy writing?
My partner and I watch lots of series such as House of Cards, The Good Wife and Happy Valley. I live in Sussex and spend time in Gloucestershire. I love to stride along country lanes and across fields with my dog, Alfred. Walking helps me solve issues that have come up in the novel. I’ll sit for hours scribbling possible solutions in my notebook then go for a walk and within minutes I have the answer.
- Can you give your readers an idea of what’s coming next or is top secret for now?
I can. I’m writing the fifth book in the Detective’s Daughter series. It’s called The Dogwalker. It’s set in the dark winter of 2016 along a towpath that runs beside the River Thames where a woman went missing in 1987. Jack and Stella have been asked to find out what happened to her. I hope it will be very scary indeed…
And finally, a fun Quick Fire round:-
- Tea or coffee?
Coffee at 11am and tea any time before or after that .I never drink Earl Grey before lunch.
- Beach or sightseeing?
Beach in the shade with a very good book.
- Sun or snow?
Both. Bright sunlight sparkling on a tract of untrammelled snow is an uplifting sight.
- Chocolate – in the fridge or not?
Ideally not as I think it mutes the flavour.
- Sweet or savoury?
On balance savoury, although right now I’d like a cup of tea and a packet of Munchies.
- Reading – eBook or physical book?
Again both. I love that I can finish a book by an author, go online and order the next one and continue ton reading. Equally I love to browse in a bookshop, find what I want and clasp it full of anticipation. A book doesn’t run out of battery at a crucial point. Then again, I can read my ebook in a room without a light. I don’t mind what form a book comes in as long as I can read it.
Thanks so much for visiting Curious Ginger Cat – it’s been brilliant to find out more about you and The House With No Rooms!
It’s been a pleasure, Kirsty. Thanks for inviting me.
Thank you to House of Zeus and Lesley Thomson for providing me with a copy of The House With No Rooms in return for an honest review.
The House With No Roomsis the fourth offering in Lesley Thomson’s ‘Detective’s Daughter’ series and the first of her books that I have read.
The book begins with 3 different plotlines – a murder in the 1950’s at a demolition site, a young girl witnessing a terrible crime during the heatwave of 1976 and 2014 when those mysteries start to unravel.
The book gets off to a slow start as the first few chapters contain a lot of detailed scene setting. However, I quickly became gripped by the story and upon conclusion, I realised how important those first few chapters are to solving the crimes. This is not a fast–paced, edge-of-your-seat thriller, but rather an intricate tale woven over decades of secrets and lies. This is a story which deserves the reader’s attention and which encourages the reader’s mind to really think about the interwoven strands of the tale.
Set in London and largely in the scenic Kew Gardens, it is a memorable location for the story. I have only recently visited Kew Gardens for the first time and this allowed me to clearly recall the gardens and building, particularly the iconic Palm House.
I found the characters in this book to be very interesting. I get the impression, whether rightly or wrongly, that the author has not written the characters for the reader to like or dislike and that it is more a case of learning and accepting their strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities. Stella Darnell is the main protagonist of the story and central to the investigation. A cleaner and the daughter of a former police detective, Stella is clever, strong and determined, yet she has an inability to relate to other people and struggles to develop meaningful relationships of any kind. One of her only true friends is Jack Harmon, a most intriguing character. A train driver by day, he loves his warm milk and spends his evenings stalking ‘True Hosts’ (his name for psychopaths containing the capacity for great evil). This gives the story an extra layer of spookiness and an element of the supernatural which greatly adds to the sinister air of the story. I get the impression that Stella and Jack’s relationship is largely based on their understanding and acceptance of each other’s oddities, along with an element of respect and affection that they struggle to find in others.
The story contains a rich and varied cast of supporting characters including: Jackie, Senior Detective Martin Cashman, reporter Lucie May, George Watson, Tina Banks and Tina’s father, Cliff. All characters are central to the plot and their actions help to move the story along to its ultimate conclusion.
The main case in question has links to Stella’s past and it is upon the request of her friend Tina that she begins to look into this decades old crime. As such uncovers secrets and skeletons so long hidden away, it is up to Stella and Jack to finally bring a murderer to justice before it’s too late.
The story cleverly swings back and forth between past and present in order to keep the reader guessing as the layers of mystery are slowly peeled back to reveal the evil inside. Each trip to the past reveals a bit more information which allows the current day investigation to progress further.
The crime is set around the world of botany and botanical art. I can honestly say that I have not previously read a crime/thriller based in the world of botanical drawing – a unique idea from Thomson and an interesting area which I enjoyed learning more about throughout the story.
The House With No Roomsis undoubtedly a gritty, dark and sinister story. One of the crimes is told from a child’s perspective which was particularly interesting to read, especially the description of how her young mind made sense of the crime. I also liked the way Thomson takes the time to explore in detail the reasons why the crime was committed and the long reaching after-effects of that crime. This helps to lead to a solid and rewarding conclusion in which all loose ends are satisfactorily tied up and the perpetrator(s) of the crimes and the reasons behind those crimes were revealed. As in all good crime stories, there are a few red herrings along the way and I am happy to say that I did not guess the outcome of the crimes until the very end of the book.
The House With No Roomscan be read as a standalone novel, as I did, however the story is relatively slow-paced in the first instance and I think the book would grab the reader’s attention earlier if they had read the earlier books and already had a good understanding of the background story between Stella and Jack. I would therefore probably advise you to start the series from the beginning, as I now intend to do.
An atmospheric and sinister crime thriller with an agreeably complex tale of murder in an iconic London setting.
About the Author
Lesley Thomson grew up in London. Her first crime novel A Kind of Vanishing won The People’s Book Prize in 2010. The Detective’s Daughter is a number one bestseller and Sainsbury’s ebook for 2014. Ghost Girl, the second in the The Detective’s Daughter series (2014) went to number one in Sainsbury’s e-chart and is another bestseller. The Detective’s Secret was published in 2015. The Runaway, an ebook short about Stella Darnell (the detective’s daughter) came out in July 2015 and the fourth in the series, The House with No Rooms in 2016.
Lesley lives in Sussex with her partner and is working on the fifth in the series featuring Stella Darnell.