Italy was my way into writing: I’d always wanted to do it but never felt brave enough—or felt I had anything to write about. Until returning from a year in Florence, with nothing you could call a career under my belt (ten years in publishing followed by children and bits and pieces of freelance copy-writing) and the prospect of returning to an office for full-time work pretty remote (these were years in which offices had been revolutionised by technology and I simply hadn’t kept up), I finally thought I did. I found a way of starting to write something substantial.
I’d write about Italy: I knew it, or so I believed—now that seems presumptuous in the extreme—better than most English people, and it was, has always been, the object of fascination for the northern European races: warm, exquisitely lovely, with open-hearted people and cultural riches. At the very least, I thought, I could describe it on the outside. Beauty isn’t a bad place to start, where art is concerned.
The further I pushed on with my little project, the more I understood, about Italy and about art: you can’t just have beauty. Where there is humankind there is dark and there’s light; there are mistakes, there’s sadness, pain and violence as well as goodwill, love, Titian and ravishing architecture. So I ended by writing a thriller, about a murdered Nigerian girl beside the road in Siena and eventually, over the course of subsequent novels my interest firmed into a detective series set in Florence.
I chose my detective by instinct and chance: he was the husband of one of the female principals of my last non-detective novel. He was Sandro Cellini, sixtyish, something of a pessimist, a realist with a romantic streak a mile wide, in love with his wife of more than thirty years, tender-hearted, gruff, hapless on occasion—and a dogged, shrewd detective. It didn’t take long for me to realise that, being sixtyish (the secret of his precise age is as closely guarded as that of Gloria Swanson’s, but a close reader could probably work it out: I still don’t care to), his lifespan as a man, never mind as a detective, would not allow this series to run and run.
It really isn’t goodbye: I still have one novel left to write under my contract and, aside from a niggling prostate, Sandro is in good health. As long as his wife’s cancer doesn’t come back—and I firmly believe she’s cured—I think he’ll make very old bones. Whether I go on writing about him or not, he will still be visiting me, even when the sixth in the series is done. I will not be killing him off: I’m not that kind of girl. My parents both died young, and if there’s any advantage in fiction it’s that you can keep your characters alive for as long as you want to.
Nor is my love affair with Italy over. It’s been dented over the years, what with Berlusconi and despotic traffic wardens and the kind of blithe irresponsibility that will have a garage attendant enjoying a cigarette at his pump—but there’s a case to be made that all the best love affairs have. You get knocked about a bit and a scale or two falls from your eyes, but your heart softens all over again. A story is a story though, even if it is carried over several novels it needs a shape, and I have a sense that six books will give Sandro’s narrative just the right substance. His wife found she had a lump in her breast in the first novel, he opened his detective agency and took on his loose cannon of a sidekick, Giuli, an ex-prostitute and drug addict. Over the course of the five novels written so far, Sandro has rescued an abducted art student, comforted a grieving widow, questioned the accidental death of a despotic arts administrator, tracked down a missing father-to-be and solved the mystery of a young mother’s suicide. In the latest, The Killing Room, Sandro tries to get to the bottom of the brutal murder of a fellow investigator, house detective at a luxury apartment building on the costa San Giorgio.
He has also had to confront the mortality of those he loves for the first time in a long career in law reinforcement. Luisa has had chemotherapy and a mastectomy; Giuli has fallen in love, irrevocably and against the odds. In the sixth, there are still things I want to my characters to feel and see, and places I want to visit myself: I might still feel that when the sixth is written and delivered. It’s hard to say goodbye. I might even write some more: there’s no law against it. But, for me, it’s also like having babies: when my fourth child was born (I’m one of four, as is my husband, and I thought four would be my lot) I cried all night at the thought that I’d never have another. But when the fifth was born six years later, I didn’t cry. Sometimes you just know the time is right: sometimes less is more, and more would only be chaos. I don’t want Sandro’s story to get over-extended, stretched out of shape, and maybe he could do with a rest, too.
My publisher though—and I’m told it’s a sign of their faith in me (they would say that, wouldn’t they?)—began a year or so ago tentatively to suggest that I branch out and flex other muscles, and write a one-off novel set in England: so I had a go.
I had tried before, prior to beginning my detective series. I set it in Cambridge, where I spend most of the year, and it didn’t work. It was all too close, I knew too much: there’s so much incidental detail in a place like Cambridge—there’s history, there are punts and tourists and college quads, and if you’re not careful it can all become too twee and safe. I never had that problem with Florence, because it’s always going to be alien for me, however many tourists and chain stores occupy its narrow streets it will never be a tame, safe place.
So my heart did sink at the thought of coming home to do my duty, but I think I’ve always felt, since the first time I lived in Italy in my twenties, for a year, that however much I loved it and thought it (still do) the perfect place, the most beautiful country in the world, a place where you could go out at midnight without a cardigan, where a nightclub in the Apennines would have a swimming pool and you could buy an espresso on the beach, full of life, sea and mountains and great people and food and coffee—you have to come home some time. I came home then, in 1987, to the man who would become my husband and the father of my children: that was my payoff. I could never have married an Italian (I’d have made an exception for Marcello Mastroianni, but he wasn’t available), ergo if I’d stayed in Italy I wouldn’t have had the life I wanted. There are bargains to be made all through life. And this is the bargain at the moment, and the challenge: see if you’ve grown up enough as a writer to tackle somewhere quieter, duller, greyer than big bright beautiful Italy and make it fascinating—and terrifying.
Only the readers will judge if I’ve managed it, but the book—The Crooked House—is finished, edited, proofread, on the presses and due out in January. It is set somewhere I know very intimately because I spent some of the most significant years of my life there: the grey edge of the island kingdom, the muddy estuaries north of the Thames, one of the most mysterious and secret parts of a crowded and busy country. After my mother died and my father remarried—ominously quickly, within the year—we moved from a big house my parents couldn’t afford, to a Thames barge on the coast, a sailing coastal barge with big red sails, more than a hundred feet long. Two warring adults and eight children. There were four of us and my stepmother, the standard issue wicked variety, had four of her own. It was a disaster, predictably enough; it was squalid and painful, it descended into a nasty variety of chaos that ended with separation, divorce, homelessness and mental illness: I don’t go back often. My brother lives there still, after years of living on boats with his family they now have a happy house on the edge of a quiet little Essex village that sits on the edge of marshes. It’s a beautiful place, it’s my idea of the most English part of England because no foreigner knows it, its beauty is subtle and understated, an acquired taste like eels and samphire: it’s Eric Ravilious to Italy’s Titian. (It’s also where the wonderful thriller writer Margery Allingham set the ending to her Tiger in the Smoke: she lived just inland in a beautiful Georgian house.)
But I don’t go back often, because there’s too much there, somehow. Too much confused emotion, too much dark magic: it was one of the unhappiest and most marvellous times of my life. So it has stayed in a little box, very precious, quite dangerous, a little box that if you opened it would release a smell of diesel and mud, tatters of posters from the bands I used to hitchhike to with my big brother, the echoes of the vicious rows of a family in total meltdown, sea-fog and a wide horizon: now seems about the right time to bring it out.
A teenage girl, alone in her attic bedroom on the edge of marshes on the Essex coast one midsummer night, listens to sounds from the house below her, trying to make sense of them: the more she listens, the more ominous the sounds become. And when at last the dawn comes and she ventures downstairs, her life has changed forever. Something terrible has come into the house: her family is destroyed, and she is the sole survivor and only witness to a massacre.
My publishers seem to think I’ve pulled it off, which is a relief. Sometimes what I feel is better than relief, it’s more like euphoria. It’s a risk to leave the territory you’ve camped out on for a long time, a place you love, where you’ve made friends and been happy, a place that has enriched and matured you, and taught you all sorts of things. But home is always home, and falling in love all over again with something you’ve spent a lifetime taking for granted—whether it’s your back garden, your family or a grey forgotten landscape—feels like the essential next stage. It’s growing up, at last.