If there’s one piece of advice British author Teresa Driscoll holds dearly, it is what bestselling novelist Stephen King offered her. “I used to write and then edit the following day,” she said, which slowed her down considerably. King suggested she focus on writing her book, and edit once she was done. It all appeared to click into place for Driscoll, who then released two psychological suspense novels in quick succession – I Am Watching You and her latest, The Friend – that have climbed to top spots on bestseller lists. She is ready with her third thriller, The Promise, about three schoolgirls sharing a deep, dark secret, to be released early in 2019.
The modern psychological thriller is a seductive marketing tool, pulling readers into its shadowy, repetitive rhythm, but Driscoll was never after a hit formula, she says. The former BBC news presenter and journalist, who has authored what is termed “women’s fiction” in the past, says turning to crime-writing felt like an organic progression. Her thrillers, however, are neither police procedurals, nor conventional whodunits or even domestic noir. They have shades of all.
In The Friend, a young mother, Sophie, is travelling back to Devon on the train from London when she receives an urgent phone call. Her five-year-old son Ben, whom she had entrusted to her new friend Emma, has landed in the hospital with serious injuries after an accident. Details about what exactly happened are blurry but one thing is clear: she should never have trusted Emma to take care of her son while she was away. In the hours it takes for Sophie to make it home to her son, through flashbacks, Driscoll takes us to when Emma and Sophie first met, their instant bond as young mothers and the events that followed in their village that led to the day of the accident.
Like The Friend, Driscoll’s previous novel, I Am Watching You, too, opens in a train. Florist Ella Longfield is on the way to London for a conference when she hears two young women from Cornwall flirting with two young men who, she discovers, have just been released from prison. When she overhears them making plans to meet again at night in the city, she is shaken enough to feel she should intervene to protect the girls from possible harm. Perhaps call the girls’ parents and tip them off? But then something makes Ella believe her parental instincts are in overdrive and she should mind her own business.
When one of the girls, Anna, is reported missing the next day, Ella is traumatised – she feels responsible. Unfolding through multiple voices – Ella’s (the witness), Henry’s (Anna’s father), Sarah’s (Anna’s friend who was with her when she disappeared), Matthew Hill’s (a policeman-turned-private detective), the narrative moves forward as certain secrets come tumbling out. A year later, Anna is still missing, Ella is still haunted by what she believes was her grave mistake, but Anna’s family and best friend know more than they are letting on.
In both novels, Driscoll uses the central mystery to wade through layers of everyday themes such as parenting, marital conflict, life in the big city versus the country as well as traumatic subjects like child abuse, post natal depression, infidelity, parental neglect and more. Both The Friend and I Am Watching You are intimate stories that explore what happens to a family and the larger community when certain incidents spark fear, anger, trauma, guilt, loss and grief.
“What I am fascinated by are character-led stories and stories which shine a light on bad things happening to good people,” said Driscoll. “I like to write about the courage and resilience of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary things.” She writes of danger and dangerous people, but she writes it all with a great degree of empathy.
In Sophie of The Friend, we have a highly likeable heroine who is in every way the woman next door. Her husband Mark and she have moved from London to a village, Tedbury, in the idyllic countryside of Devon to bring up a child in what they hope is a safer environment. But Mark is still “weekending”, keeping his company running in London during the week, and driving back to Devon to his family for the weekend. Even as Sophie hopes to restart her professional life, she is still haunted by the depression that followed the birth of her son. She is also desperate to have another baby before she returns to work. In the midst of this churn, arrives the charming, chic Emma.
“We met on a Thursday. Two boys. Two mothers. Much later, and especially on that train, I will torture myself for the curiosity and excitement I felt; the enthusiasm with which I so easily opened my door to it all. But at the time there was no clue to the future – the consequences. At the time I did not know that someone was going to die, and so I was lost in the humdrum of a day so very ordinary that at the critical point of our meeting I was distracted by the parsnips.”
As the novel progresses through chapters alternately titled “Today” and “Before”, the village of Tedbury is shaken violently out of its quaint calm. It is a curious chemistry between these two leading women which holds your attention. You know it to be toxic as a distant observer, but it feels wholly real, strangely comforting and vaguely familiar.
“I remember when I was first a mother, suddenly this common experience of all these new challenges of a baby, a toddler and then a school going child, gave a common ground,” said Driscoll. “I thought it would be interesting to explore two very different women. When you are facing these challenges, you can be quite vulnerable and when someone else comes along who understands what you are going through and it’s difficult to judge whether that connection is negative or positive.”
A metropolis like London, where Driscoll worked for five years, seemed like a terrific place to dive into the shadows for her fiction, but it is the beauty of the countryside that finally became the setting for her thrillers. It is an effective choice. Having lived in Devon in the South West of England for over 25 years, Driscoll is able to create a vivid, lived-in feel that comes from knowing the intricacies of the landscape and village life. “I think it makes an interesting contrast with the city. I have got light and shade in my novels and it feels right to have city and country in there too,” she said.
In the two novels, which speed up sometimes and slow down in other places, the core mystery is always cleverly left out of reach till the very last line. “One of the things I learnt as a journalist was that our instinct to judge people was strong,” said Driscoll about creating character twists. “I realised the instinct was not right, it’s hard to judge people. I tried to make my characters credible and convincing. But I learned from the real world that they do not always behave the way you expect them to and they are not always what you think they are. I didn’t want my stories to be fantastic or incredible so people can’t believe them to be convincing as fiction but I do want to surprise people because real world does surprise me, all the time.”
Driscoll’s voice is strongest when she explores strands of motherhood in both the thrillers, which lifts them above your average crime drama. In The Friend, Sophie and Emma, both young mothers, have very different experiences of what it means to be a caregiver to a young one. In I Am Watching You, Ella’s son is in his late teens and her parenting perspective is more gently reflective, having been there, done that, and one that dictates sharply how the novel turns.
Driscoll’s stories are also keenly interested in experiences of fatherhood, and how each character deals with it differently. One of only two recurring characters in her books, detective Mathew Hill is instrumental is tackling the central mystery while learning to be a hands-on father to an infant. “When I moved into writing psychological suspense, I didn’t realise I would be doing this, which is constantly dealing with parenthood and motherhood intentionally,” said Driscoll. “I very much use the landscape of life [in my writing] and I am very interested in motherhood as a theme.” She lost her mother to cancer when she was 17. “I would have loved dearly for my mother to have met my two sons and I often explore loss in my books. As a journalist, I was particularly drawn to stories where loss was involved.” The loss of a child – and the fear of losing your child – deeply informs both these novels. But there is also loss of many different hues that fill the pages.
While it is sensitively written characters and their deeply personal arcs that drive Driscoll’s stories, she is, all the same, conscious of the expectations from the psychological thriller genre in terms of suspense. “I think a lot about timelines and voices,” said Driscoll. “But I like the excitement of not knowing everything that is going to happen and how the book is going to evolve and that excites me to sit down and work every day.” Driscoll likes experimenting and surprising readers by employing different narrative structures in each novel to build to the point where you really begin to understand what is happening.
While I Am Watching You is more on the lines of a whodunit – though it isn’t clear what exactly happened to Anna till the last few pages – Driscoll wants to present a moral question that doesn’t have a quick and easy answer and is likely to unsettle the reader. The Friend doesn’t close on a predictable note either, even though you’re given a fair idea of which way the story is hurtling, which is a pleasing dynamic to achieve in a novel that does not rely on gimmicks.
“I always have in my mind how the book will end,” Driscoll said. “I knew it would be uncomfortable. I didn’t want to deliberately do a twist or shock people. But the book was very much about not knowing whether we can judge people…I have lots of feedback from people who have been surprised by the ending but have liked the book because of it. I wanted you to think about it, of not knowing, I wanted the reader to walk away and think about it.”