High suspense meets the legal thriller
Apple Tree Yard is a psychological thriller about one woman's adultery and an insightful examination of the values we live by and the choices we make, from an acclaimed writer at the height of her powers.'
The novel is written in the first person, present tense, which I find always adds a certain punch to the prose. Doughty presents the story through an internal conversation between Yvonne and her unknown lover, who she believes to be a government spook unable to reveal details of his work. Although an intelligent woman, a respected scientist and married, she’s naive around this man, believing herself in love. The thrill of this illicit relationship, combined with risky sex, whisks her away from a life that’s become predictable and dull towards events that almost destroy her.
Excellent courtroom drama
Genetics versus gender issues...
Here comes the science bit! Louise Doughty weaves elements of genetics into the novel, playing on the fact that her protagonist is a geneticist. Yvonne refers to her unnamed lover as X, focusing on how they've reversed roles, he being an X and she a Y. Furthermore, her family have names or nicknames that begin with the letters A T G & C, another nod towards the field of genetics in which she works.
Doughty also examines issues of women's place in society. Yvonne has struggled to balance her career with motherhood, reflecting with some resentment how her husband's role in child-rearing appears to be an opt-in one, whereas hers has defaulted to an opt-out one. Although her marriage is good, the cracks exist, fissures that eventually lead to her susceptibility to a passionate affair with a stranger.
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong man
Louise Doughty also touches on the vulnerability of women. Yvonne is a woman who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong man, and the results are catastrophic for all concerned. Women can have careers, children, successful marriages, and yet they are ultimately vulnerable to overheated testosterone, and it can be the seemingly nice guy next door who poses the danger.
Moving on from this, Doughty looks at how the legal system can be skewed against women, illustrating her point by citing the case of a fifteen-year-old girl, not very bright, who suffers a gang rape by five men. She then has to face not one but five defence lawyers, all insinuating she was a drunken slut who asked for what she got. If a highly intelligent woman like Yvonne Carmichael can be broken in the witness box, what chance do any of us have?
Self-preservation versus a loved one...
Doughty examines the question of how far each of us would go to protect a loved one, or whether self-preservation will always win out in the end. She cites some distinctly unpleasant animal experiments that demonstrate that even maternal love can't compete with the innate urge in all of us to save our own skins if push comes to shove. Altruism will only stretch so far, a principle that will eventually lead to Yvonne's meltdown on the witness stand.
George Orwell examines the same topic in his novel '1984'. The way Yvonne's lover behaves is no different to the way Winston Smith eventually breaks down in front of his tormentor O'Brien. In screaming the words 'Do it to Julia! Do it to her, not me!', he cements his own brainwashing. The ultimate betrayal. So too with Yvonne's mystery lover, as he turns traitor on her in court, leaving her vulnerable to a sharp defence lawyer as the truth about Apple Tree Yard is revealed.
More about Louise Doughty
Louise Doughty is the author of eight novels, including Apple Tree Yard. Her novels have been shortlisted for various awards and she has also won awards for her radio drama and short stories. She is a critic and cultural commentator for UK and international newspapers and broadcasts regularly for the BBC.
In 2007, she published her first work of non-fiction, A Novel in a Year, based on her newspaper column of the same name. She has written major features, columns and cover articles for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday. Her broadcasting career includes presenting radio series such as BBC R4′s A Good Read and Writers’ Workshop. She is a regular guest on the radio arts programme Saturday Review.
Doughty was born in the East Midlands and grew up in Rutland, in a rural area that later provided the setting for her third novel, 'Honey-Dew'. She now lives in London.
You can find out more about Louise and her books at www.louisedoughty.com. To view Apple Tree Yard on Amazon, click or tap the book cover image at the start of this post (affiliate link).
Have you read Apple Tree Yard?
If so, what did you think? Leave a comment and let me know!
Warning - plot spoilers!
Warning - by its nature, this blog post contains plot spoilers! It's impossible for me to reveal how these five novelists created their fictional murders without giving away essential elements of the plot. If you're OK with that, then read on...
An incredible (and edible!) murder weapon
As part of my 'Five' series, in today's post I'll examine five unusual fictional murder methods. Crime writers often endeavour to come up with ever more creative ways to murder their characters, despite the fact that more orthodox methods such as guns and knives tend to be more convincing. Most people have heard of 'death by icicle' in both books and movies, and I'll share an example later.
One of the most famous murder methods employed by fictional writers is the one used by Roald Dahl in his short story 'Lamb to the Slaughter'. The story tells of a wife who, after learning that her husband plans to leave her, decides to kill him. She bludgeons him with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the meat and serves it to the police officers who investigate her husband's death. Ingenious, huh? What a great way to dispose of a murder weapon! And yet another twist on the theme of death by ice.
'Lamb to the Slaughter' is a wonderful short story, but novels are more my thing. So let's examine five examples in which the authors have given their characters ingenious methods for carrying out their murderous intentions. We'll start with P.M. Carlson's 'Murder in the Dog Days'.
1 - 'Murder in the Dog Days' - P.M. Carlson
'Murder in the Dog Days' by P. M. Carlson (1990) is a great example of what's known as 'the locked room mystery'. In a story of this genre, a crime, usually murder, is committed in circumstances that appear inexplicable. As the name suggests, a locked room is involved, one in which the murderer apparently could neither have entered nor left. Here's a brief plot synopsis of Carlson's novel.
On a sweltering summer day, (the temperature is highly significant) reporter Olivia Kerr and her husband Jerry invite Olivia's colleague Dale Colby to the beach. At the last minute, Dale decides to remain behind, and his dead body is discovered later on in his locked office. Already an ill man, Dale dies as a result of heatstroke when the temperature of his study reaches an intolerable level. His killer contrives the murder by manipulating the heat in the office via a thermostat, raising it during the day and then readjusting it before the body is discovered. As the office door is bolted on the inside, the crime scene appears to be a perfect locked room murder.
2 - 'Busman's Honeymoon' - Dorothy Sayers
'Busman's Honeymoon' (1937) is one of Dorothy Sayers's novels involving Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey is on honeymoon with his new wife, Harriet, at Talboys, an old farmhouse that Wimsey has bought for her. On the morning after their arrival, they discover the former owner, Noakes, dead in the cellar with head injuries. The house was locked and bolted when the newly-weds arrived, and medical evidence seems to rule out an accident, so it appears he was attacked in the house and died later, having somehow locked up after his attacker. Another locked room - or, for the pedantic, locked house - murder!
By all acounts, Noakes was a thoroughly dislikeable man, and as the police investigation continues, a number of people emerge as suspects. The killer turns out to be Crutchley, a local garage mechanic who also worked as Noakes's gardener. He planned to marry Noakes's niece and get his hands on the money she would inherit in her uncle's will. The ingenious method Crutchley used involved setting a booby trap with a weighted plant pot on a chain, triggered by Noakes opening the radio cabinet after locking up for the night.
3 - 'The Religious Body' - Catherine Aird
An interesting concept - convents aren't normally places one associates with violent murder. In 'The Religious Body', published in 1966, Inspector C.D Sloan has the task of solving the death of Sister Anne, who has been murdered, stashed in a broom closet, and then thrown down a flight of stairs into the cellar. A most unholy happening! But how was Sister Anne killed? There is no apparent murder weapon to explain the blunt force trauma wounds inflicted before her tumble down the cellar steps.
The answer is intriguing and, as the saying goes, hidden in plain sight. Catherine Aird's fictional murderer kills Sister Anne by delivering the fatal blows with one of the newel posts of a staircase. This unusual weapon is rendered more deadly by the heavy wooden ball atop its shaft. After the murder, the post is returned to its original position, to remain right under Inspector Sloan's nose as he investigates the death.
4 - 'A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away' - Christopher Brookmyre
Christopher Brookmyre introduces not one but two ingenious murder methods in his novel 'A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away' (2001). As a student, the novel's character Simon Darcourt swaps dreams with his friend Ray Ash about the two of them becoming future rock stars. Fifteen years later, older and soured by life, they're struggling with the disappointments that have come their way. Whilst Ray seeks refuge from his parental responsibilities in online games, Simon chooses a much darker coping mechanism. For him, relief comes through serial killing, mass slaughter and professional assassination.
Simon's first murder in the novel is with a mercury-laden icicle, which melts away before the body is discovered. This fictional murder device, sometimes transmuted into an ice bullet, has been used many times, starting with Anna Katharine Green's novel 'Initials Only' (1911), in which a young woman is killed by an icicle shot from a pistol.
Simon's second murder is that of a drug dealer. Darcourt mixes a lethal amount of heroin into a takeaway curry and knocks on the man's door, claiming the food is a pre-paid order from that address. Too greedy to resist, the dealer dies, makes it appear as though his death was from the drugs he supplied. A great example of an unhealthy appetite!
5 - 'Matricide at St Martha's' - Ruth Dudley Edwards
Perhaps the most contrived murder we'll examine today occurs in Ruth Dudley Edwards's 1995 novel 'Matricide at St Martha's'. St. Martha’s College, Cambridge, has been operating on a shoestring for decades, before being left a huge sum of money in a former student's will. The result? Large-scale infighting amongst the various college factions. Before long, one of these, the Virgins, led by Dame Maud Theodosia Buckbarrow, is taking the lead, its members believing the money should be spent on scholarships. Then Dame Maud is murdered...
So how is this dastardly deed accomplished? Well, our victim climbs a ladder in the college library, the ladder being one of those that slide across the front of the bookcases via grooves in the wall. Normally, there are brakes at the end to stop the motion; however, in this case, the murderer has removed them. Following Dame Maud's own vigorous push to the ladder, she hurtles to her death as it gathers speed, eventually catapulting its hapless occupant from the library window.
Give me some more examples!
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post! I'd be delighted to hear from you. Can you add any more examples to this catalogue of dastardly deaths? Have you read any novels where the murder method has struck you as unusually clever? Or maybe one that has made you throw the book aside and shout 'No way, Jose! That would never happen!' Leave a comment and let me know!
Keeping the creative juices flowing...
'I'd love to write a novel,' many people have told me. 'How exactly do you go about it, though?' Good question! In this blog post, I'll attempt to provide an answer. I'll be covering in later posts the details of how I plot, write, edit and publish my books, but today I'll concentrate on how a typical day shapes up for me.
Despite the fact I'm a night owl, I write better in the mornings. I don't pretend to understand why, given that I'm far more energetic in the evenings, but hey ho! That's the way it is for me, and I've learned to adapt, forcing myself out of bed at what seems to me an unnaturally early hour. During the summer months, I'm up at six a.m., so I can be at my desk by 8.30 a.m., showered, dressed and ready for work, the same as if I were back in my former employment. The work is a lot more fun, too! Not being a fan of dark mornings, I usually get up later in the winter months, and start work at 9 a.m.
So how do I structure my time? Well, I split my day into two parts. I work until I'm ready for lunch, and then from two until five or six p.m. As I'm more creative in the mornings, that's when I focus on my writing. If I'm crafting a novel, I aim to do at least 2,000 words per session, using Scrivener as my writing software. Plotting stage? Then I'll draft the content for a number of scenes or maybe a whole chapter. If I'm revising, I usually edit a chapter a day (although I managed three this morning - yay!) I set targets and dates for almost all areas of my writing. I find this motivates me as well as keeping me accountable and on track. My targets and deadlines are never too rigid, though - I'd hate to shackle myself to a tightly defined schedule. Staying flexible is good and allows the creative juices to flow!
Tweet and pin, rinse and repeat...
So once I've had lunch, what then? Well, in the afternoons, I work on my marketing, as well as any sundry tasks I need to do. I'm active on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and to a smaller extent Pinterest, LinkedIn and Goodreads. Pinterest is fun, and I intend to make more use of it in the future, maybe to showcase my novels' locations, which so far have all been set in Bristol.
Marketing isn't restricted to using social media, of course. For example, if I'm planning a Kindle promotion for any of my novels, I need to spend time contacting the major free and discounted book websites and newsletters. And there are always things I need to do besides marketing, such as maintaining this blog. I aim to update it regularly, so I use my afternoon time to prepare my posts, as well as ensuring my website content is up to date.
How a glass of Merlot keeps me on track...
I'm very aware that, although writing novels is great fun, I'm also running a business. That's why, in future, I intend to spend almost as much time marketing my books as I do writing them. I keep on track with what needs doing and when by using task management software (yes, I can be geeky, I admit it!). I also have weekly review sessions, in which I check how my writing career is going. I'll look at my sales figures, blog statistics, my to-do list - anything that needs my attention.
Curiously enough, these sessions often take place in local cafes and bars on a Friday afternoon over a glass or two of red wine. Not a bad way to wind down the working week! Unless I have an editing deadline or if I'm participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month - a mad but fun competition in which entrants aim to write 50,000 words of a novel during November), I usually give myself the weekend off. Not at the moment, though - I have a novel to edit!
More to come in future posts about my writing process
Well, that's a typical writing day for me! As I mentioned, I'll post more about the writing process in the future, starting with how I plot a novel. I'm always being asked where I get my inspiration from! Subsequent posts will also examine the writing process itself, and how I go from zero to an eighty-thousand-plus word novel in about two months.
In addition, I'll talk about what follows the first draft - the revision and editing process. I'm atypical amongst writers in enjoying that part! I love polishing my rough first draft, tweaking it until I'm satisfied it's as good as I can get it. I'll blog more in the future about how I do this, along with what's involved in publishing a novel in both Kindle and paperback formats.
There's no right or wrong way of working
Every novelist treats the process differently, of course, and the above is simply what works for me at present. There are many writers who are happy with Microsoft Word or who write their novels longhand, rather than use Scrivener. Furthermore, not everyone likes to organise themselves to the extent I do; many people prefer a more relaxed approach. We novelists call it being a 'pantser' (someone who writes by the seat of their pants!) whereas I'm definitely a planner. Horses for courses, as they say. Either way, we achieve the same result - the delight of writing a novel!
I hope that this blog post has given you an insight into the daily life of a writer. If you're a novelist yourself, leave me a comment about how you do things. I'm always open to learning new tricks! Or if you're a reader curious about a particular aspect of the writing process, post a question in the comments section.