Walking The Blood Strand with Chris Ould | Titan Books

The past has a way of rushing back in like the sea, as British police detective Jan Reyna discovers in Chris Ould’s absorbing new mystery, The Blood Strand. Reyna has returned to his birthplace after learning that his father was found unconscious in a deserted spot, a shotgun by ouldphoto3his side and blood that’s not his on the car’s upholstery. Though Reyna hasn’t been back since his mother spirited him away when he was three, family relations loom large and complicated, with one half-brother icily keeping him at bay and another possibly involved in blackmail. With the gusty winds, lapping waters, and sense of isolated community, the setting is decidedly Scandinavian—after all, these are the Faroe Islands, those starkly beautiful bits of rock flung far into the North Atlantic. But the crisp language and jigsaw-tight plotting are clearly British.

“I see this book as having a British sensibility inflicted on the Scandinavians,” says Ould, whose background as a BAFTA Award–winning screenwriter is evident in the telling dialog that underscores the narrative. For Ould, that sensibility, and the British predilection for crime fiction as well, are tied up with a love of hearing good stories, solving puzzles, and making sure that finally everything is right with the world. Why, then, set his novel in an isolated archipelago where the Vikings reputedly went to die?

“I’ve always liked islands; they seem so exotic,” explains Ould, hastening to add that for him, as for most of his compatriots, Great Britain is the mainland. Kicking around an idea for a novel and looking for a fresh, new setting that would distinguish his work from the mass of other crime fiction, he chanced to visit the Faroes, something long on his to-do list. On the first day there, finding the islands striking “in a primal sort of way,” he walked straight into a gale on a northernmost beach and knew immediately that this was the spot where a body would be found in his novel.

Returning to fiction

Ould’s writing career, which he describes as having no rhyme or reason, began when he penned two modest novels in the 1980s “because it seemed like a good thing to do at the time. I was young and didn’t know any better,” he confides. Script writing proved to be considerably more lucrative, and it was not until his son was 12 that he returned to fiction, spurred on by an idea for a YA crime novel. “I just followed my interests, falling in love with novels again,” he says, slightly chagrined at how that might sound yet clearly happy with his lot. From YA fiction, it was an easy leap to adult fiction—admittedly, he was wisely nudged by his wife—and Ould landed squarely in the Faroes.

He could have written, say, a family drama, but crime writing certainly made sense. “It’s second blood4nature as I’ve been doing it for so long, and it’s where I feel most confident,” he says. But Ould offers other, more telling reasons for favoring mayhem and mystery: “Crime fiction immediately gives you an inciting incident and people in crisis, creating its own drive and momentum and a kind of dramatic immediacy. The crime gives the spine from which you can hang whatever you want.”

Good as he is at characterization, Ould does not espouse the notion that the characters take on a life of their own, sweetly whispering directions into the author’s ear. “Plot is a mechanistic, mathematical, logical process, and you keep to it. If you say the characters are taking over, you’ve lost control,” he argues urgently. “The characters must serve the plot instead of the other way round, so you don’t run up a blind alley, ending with one resolution when you wanted another.”

Considering what that sea-swept corpse needed allowed Ould to flesh out Reyna and his family. A murder in the Faroes, where there have been two such incidents in the last 30 years? (Ould told the police officer who gave him pointers, “I am going to raise your murder rate 800 percent.”) Clearly, the central character needed a connection to the islands, both a good reason for going there and a good reason for having been away for so long. From that evolved both Reyna’s sturdy, loner character and the splintered family situation that could lead to crime.

Reyna also needed to be British so that he could reflect Ould’s own perceptions of the island; as his creator says, “I didn’t feel comfortable pretending to be Scandinavian.” And Reyna needed to be a police officer so that he could help investigate what his father was doing in that dark and lonely spot and who killed the man on the beach. Ould gets impatient with novels that have ordinary people investigating, and Reyna’s family connections would have taken him only so far. “Beyond a certain point, the motivation isn’t strong enough,” he argues. “That’s the policeman’s job, the only motivation you need.”

Isolation as opportunity

As a setting, the Faroe Islands present a distinct opportunity for the crime writer. An isolated community of 50,000 speaking a little-known language based on Old Norse, the archipelago is connected by tunnels and ferries but is cut off from the rest of the world by hundreds of miles of cold, cold water. “It’s like a closed-room mystery,” enthuses Ould. “So often in crime fiction the criminal has left the area, but he can’t leave the Faroes, and how do I as the writer get out of that?”

Complicating matters, the tight-knit Faroese find criminal behavior so socially unacceptable that they’re unlikely to call in the police or even a lawyer if the occasion arises; the shame would be too great. Where in such a setting would a criminal hide? Thus could Ould set a high bar for his crime solving while creating a microcosm of a closed community that parallels Reyna’s closed and secretive family.

Writing as an outsider was a challenge that Ould turned to advantage; he could highlight all sorts of details that natives would pass over, for instance, that every petrol station on the islands sells hot dogs. “It’s from my personal experience as a writer, and it adds a lot of texture,” comments Ould. Writing fiction rather than screenplays has its advantages, too. “It’s the freedom, isn’t it?” he says. “You can experiment and look at areas that interest you rather than face budget constraints or the demands of a particular actor. And on an egotistical note, it’s your interpretation, not the actor’s, the producer’s, or the director’s.”

Fiction also allows Ould to move beyond dialog and write narrative, so that he can play with language and describe whatever strikes him. One thing you won’t find in his writing, though, is bloodiness for its own sake. “I don’t like the pornography of violence,” he says. “I think it’s disturbing, it’s unnecessary, it’s a cheap thrill, and it gets old very quickly. You can get a more powerful reaction from what you don’t see than what you do.” As corroboration, he points to a TV episode he wrote involving a child’s hands being bound with barbed wire. It elicited protests, but in fact the scene was never shown, only described. The rest was the viewers’ imagination.

Once Ould completed the manuscript for The Blood Strand, his agent received several offers, but Titan Books was particularly enthusiastic, and Ould was pleased that the editors there welcomed the idea of a trilogy. “I didn’t want to have one or two books published and then have the publisher not want the third, with no resolution,” he explains. In the forthcoming titles, The Killing Bay (2017) and The Fire Pit (2018), Reyna will learn more about his family as he follow up connected crimes; The Blood Strand leaves readers satisfied but with that edgy sense of more to come. For anyone who’s visited the Faroes with Ould, it’s a beautiful feeling.

 

Prepub Spotlight is a sponsored supplement to Prepub Alert, featuring profiles of publishers, their selected authors, and upcoming titles. For more information on sponsorship, contact Roy Futterman.
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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.