Q&A: Lesley Thomson

Fans of Lesley Thomson’s The Detective’s Daughter series have another reason to celebrate. Thomson’s new novel, Death of a Mermaid, her third standalone, hits the bookstores May 7. Here we’re introduced to Freddy Power, a young woman forced to face a past and life she’d walked away from decades ago. Thomson, the author of seven “Detective’s Daughter” novels, now takes us from the enormity of London to a small fishing village, where secrets and lies can be just as big–and deadly.

Currents: Let’s address the elephant in the room for fans. Will Stella and Jack be back restoring cleanliness and order, and what’s ahead for them?

Lesley: Jack and Stella are returning in 2021 with a brand-new case – as well as a very cold case indeed. I’m writing it now.

Currents: Many people walk away from family or lives for a myriad of reasons, determined to never look back–much less return. Thomas Wolfe famously wrote that one can never go home again. What emotional toll does going home take on your character Freddy Power?

Lesley: I’m not sure which is worse: returning to where you grew up after your parents have died and your friends have moved away and you feel like a stranger, or as for Freddy, meeting her childhood friends again and discovering they are strangers to each other. On her return to Newhaven, the fishing port where she was born, Freddy has to face her mother’s death, she learns that the reason for the estrangement from her parents that caused her to leave in the first place, now applies to her brothers. She has been cut out of the Will and does not inherit any part of the family fishery. She is rootless and friendless. Were that me, I’d be distraught, but Freddy is a gutsy woman, she rolls up her sleeves…. and becomes a mobile fishmonger.

Currents: Although she has no intention of staying, when one of her friends disappears, Freddy must find out what’s happened. Is it curiosity, obligation, fear or old guilt–and why?

Lesley: It’s not apparent what role Freddy has played in her friend’s disappearance, so her motive for staying is also unclear. At the convent school, Freddy fell in love with Mags and developed a strong bond with Toni. The three girls called themselves the Mermaids. They hung out at Freddy’s house watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid, dreaming of life under the sea and later as cool teenagers they swigged illicit alcohol and drowned out the film with a less wholesome commentary.

Currents: Most women can relate to young Freddy and her friends–that childhood innocent love of best friends and mermaids or unicorns. In adulthood, when youthful fantasies are stripped bare, that time can be a powerful tether. How do you have friends who’ve not seen each other in more than 20 years, reconnect as adults?

Lesley: I’m lucky to have several friends from school days. The four of us are scattered across the world so rarely meet and now not at all. However recently we had a Zoom chat so were in the same ‘room’ for the first time in ten years. Our past definitely binds us, but whenever we have met over the decades, we haven’t reminisced. We’re too busy chewing over our lives now, our experiences and our families.

How different to the Mermaids. In this murder mystery set in a town by the sea, people know each other and have long memories. Toni, as a police detective, is aware of grudges and acts of revenge. She misses being a stranger in London’s Met police. When Freddy returns it’s soon obvious that new alliances have been forged from which she is alienated. To reconnect as adults–unlike my friends–the Mermaids must reach into their past and recover what still matters to each of them.

Currents: You chose to tell the story in Death of a Mermaid from each of the friends’ point of view. You use this technique to some degree in “The Detective’s Daughter” series, enabling readers to see cases from Stella’s late father’s perspective, which adds a different dimension to the investigations. Would you have been able to tell the same story if it were simply from Freddy’s point of view?

Lesley: A voracious reader, I love novels with more than one point of view, such as both Elly Griffiths and William Shaw’s crime series.

I live near the sea. I love the tumult of crashing waves, the tang of salt in the air, the unpredictability of the elements. In my novels, location is key. To make the most of the unforgiving landscape, and to crank up the suspense, I describe if from all the viewpoint of all the Mermaids. Had I told it from Freddy’s viewpoint, the reader might wonder how reliable a narrator she is. Instead, we have no idea who to trust.

Currents: Death of a Mermaid tackles complex emotional issues. What was the most challenging part of writing this story?

Lesley: I’m interested in how we all see the world. How our perspectives and responses are affected by who we are and what we do. Death of a Mermaid is about a powerful tight-knit family who own a fishery. Close families are meant to be a good thing. But what if one member doesn’t toe the line? When Freddy tells her father she’s gay he disowns her.

Writing about the pain and anguish this caused was less of a challenge than creating a new fictional world with new characters. However, I quickly became involved in the story. Toni, Freddy and Mags remain with me now.

Currents: And, finally, tell us what you’re writing now?

Lesley: As I mentioned, I’m writing number eight in the “Detective’s Daughter” series. It’s set in Tewkesbury, not far from Stratford-on-Avon. Tewkesbury Abbey was saved from Henry VIII’s dissolution by the townspeople. It dominates the town, which sits at the confluence of the rivers Severn and Shakespeare’s Avon. As readers of Jack and Stella books might guess, I’m keen on rivers. I grew up by the Thames in London. The River Ouse runs through Lewes where I now live in Sussex. The Ouse features in Death of a Mermaid. A river is timeless, silent witness to lives and death that rarely gives up its secrets. I’m very influenced by Charles Dicken’s London of glistening gaslit cobbles beside the Thames’ sluggish treacherous waters. You’re probably getting the idea…

I’ve been asked by readers and in online interviews if I plan to write about Corvid-19. I don’t. It’s too soon for me to understand the shape of this terrible virus and express it in fiction. However, in this novel is partially set during the bombing raids in London in the second World War. I began it before Coronavirus, but I’m finding parallels between now and the 1940s. In privations, some rationing and above all in our collective anxiety.