Swedish Lapland, June 1717 (note, I virtually never read things set in the past): Finns Maija and Paavo take their children Frederika and Dorotea to Sweden, away from the fear that has beaten Paavo into a shadow of the man he once was. They settle in Lapland, beside the mountain Blackåsen, ill-equipped for living in an isolated and storm-racked area, and have been there only a short time when the two girls take their goats for a walk and stumble upon the body of a man. Wolves, or a bear, Maija tells them. But she knows it is not true. And so their new home becomes not one of hope, but one of fear renewed, atmospheric tension and a landscape as brutal to your home and body as it can be enchanting in a painting.
Maija is a female protagonist so organically heroic it seems not at all out of place in these long past times; things need to get done, and Maija is the one to do them in this land of endless days that in winter turn into eternal nights, and men too trapped by their land, their anxiety and their stoic manner to do anything but shake their heads at a torn-up body in a glade. And so she is the believable midwife turned farmer turned 1700s-era forensic investigator when no one else bothered to try. As those around her say, the mountain is bad, but is it the people on it who are bad, or is it the land itself? The sorcery trials of the past still have their grip on everyone’s lives, but the question is whether Maija’s staunch faith in reality and God is the way, or if it is blocking her ability to see the truth. It doesn’t pass my informal wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-there-was-never-sexual-assault-in-crime-books test, but I was up until 3am reading this haunting thriller (partly for deadline reasons and partly using deadline reasons as an excuse to tear through it in a terrified way), and by then it was as dark as the book itself. My advice: read it in the sun.
When I started writing my crime novel, I had this ridiculous grand idea that I would circumvent every cliché known to criminal/literarykind. It’s the same mindset I had when I was pregnant: I am going to be very special and different and everything will be perfect. Turns out, to get to where you need to be, you do need to sometimes feed a kid junk food just to keep your sanity; you do need to sometimes stick in a bloodthirsty prologue just to keep things sufficiently violent.
Prologues, those dastardly things that have you seeing the crime from the criminal’s point of view, or from decades earlier when something deadly and vaguely-to-desperately relevant happened, or from the end of the book as someone clings for life and regrets the turn of events that brought them here—we’ve all read them. They aren’t the measure of whether a book is good or not, but I usually found them frustrating. Just get into it! I don’t want the killer’s italicised thoughts all over the first three pages. Stop giving me spoilers! I hate spoilers.
Then without even realising, I’d written a prologue that had a sinister lead-up to the crime in my book—a murder—that was not entirely relevant and set months before the core events. Good work, brain! I’ll high-five myself right in the forehead. So for my third draft I ditched it, thinking the book would be stronger for it. And perhaps it is, but there’s one thing missing: criminal tension. Instead, I’ve had to set up the circumstances leading to the death and how my protagonist gets there, and while things trip along there is not much in the immediate way of danger. And if, like me, your crime doesn’t happen smack at the start – if it needs a few wheels oiled, a few characters introduced or a few blissfully unaware days to pass – it can be worrying to an author that things aren’t, well, criminal enough. “Is this even crime?” a reader may lament as twelve pages are spent with bunnies leaping through dainty meadows. Of course, on page thirteen there’s a cyanide-laced rabbit trap in the grass or a sniper out for revenge on the bunny that killed his mother, but readers aren’t to know that. So how do you rope them in and tie them to a chair if the peaceful meadow is necessary? Well, there are a few options: make it unnecessary and cut out the first few pages that you wrote a year ago that were a masterpiece then but, possibly, a bit incoherent now; or put in a prologue. Make it violent or up the stakes. Threaten the person we’re going to officially meet on page one. Steal someone’s money. Travel through a creepy house. Kick a puppy. Make it known that this is a crime book and shit is going to get real. Do that, or do it early in chapter one.
So here’s my one piece of barely-professional advice: write a prologue if you must, but for the love of genre fiction, don’t do it in italics. I know, guys, I know. But don’t.