Monday, 10 January 2011
Ghost of a Chance
It is very unlucky to sit down thirteen to dinner, particularly if you are the thirteenth diner, as Eva Chance is. But it is particularly unlucky not to have a place laid for you or any food served to you – because no-one can see you are there! So begins Ghost of a Chance, the new novel by Rhiannon Lassiter, published by Oxford University Press.
It’s not too much of a spoiler, given the book’s title and the cover tagline, “How do you solve your own murder?” to reveal that Eva spends a lot of the book trying to find out who is responsible for her death.
Rhiannon Lassiter got her first, two-book, contract when she was nineteen and I know this because it was just a year after we had delivered her to Oxford University. Rhiannon is my daughter and is just seeing her fourteenth book published. It is a tribute to her writing that I forget this fact after a paragraph or two and just read her books as if they were by someone I had never met.
Of course there is the odd detail that reminds me: a fascination with peacock feathers, which I share, and with extremely dilapidated houses, which I don’t. Bad Blood, her previous spooky novel, was inspired by a friend’s house we had stayed in up in the Lake District, but Rhiannon made it much shabbier than it really is, with a kind of creeping decrepitude that gave the novel its original title of “Blight.” The last time we stayed in the Lake District house it had been given quite a makeover and was really impressively smart.
It would take a lot of time and money to do that to where the Chances live – the building always referred to as the House, with a capital H. Eva’s ancient grandfather, who has brought her up after the suicide of her teenage mother sixteen years earlier, has lost what control he ever had over the fabric of his home. Not only is it subject to the normal ravages of time; the malevolent presence of several vengeful ghosts ensure additional difficulties: indelible bloodstains at the foot of the stairs, recurring grime and cobwebs in the Solar, nameless forces that make thorny branches wound the gardeners.
And Eva, who has always been able to see ghosts, knows several of them by name or appearance: pathetic lonely boy St John in the nursery, spiteful Maggie the chambermaid, the Stalker, who is heard but not seen, and the terrifying Witch in the cellar. (I remembered briefly that Rhiannon believed as a small child that a terrifying Witch haunted our cloakroom that had the high level flush). Perhaps the saddest ghost is that of Adeline, Eva’s mother, occasionally glimpsed rowing a wooden boat on the lake like Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott.
To the dinner party at the beginning of the book come the three aunts, Cora, Helen and Joyce, the last two with partners, Cora with her cat. The discussion is about how to make the House profitable again and someone suggests Ghost Walks. From then on the climax of the story is inevitable, with the hastily spruced up House invaded by unwary members of the public.
Peacocks scream, accidents happen - some serious, people go missing, murders are attempted or achieved and Eva is no nearer to solving the crime of her own death. Her grandfather and Cora are in hospital and her only allies are unlikely ones: the local twins, Kyra and Kyle and the spiteful ghost Maggie. They, with very little help from outside, are pitted against the evil of the Witch-ghost and of a very flesh and blood human murderer.
It is a fusion of several genres - ghost story, crime novel, psycho-horror – all satisfyingly woven together at the end. And although I had read it before as an emailed File, I still stayed up till after midnight to finish it.
I asked Rhiannon to comment for me in my capacity as Book Maven, about how this book came about.
For many years I've wanted to write a book set in a stately home but didn't have the right idea for it. Country houses are full of history but I prefer to write in modern (or futuristic) time periods. Towards the end of working on Bad Blood I started sketching out the very bare bones of a stately home story but in those first few chapters Eva was an ordinary girl with siblings, parents and friends.
I was thinking towards some sort of mystery or murder and somewhere during the first 10,000 words I had a sudden insight "what if she's the victim in this murder story?" Then I had to go back and rewrite (the first of many rewrites!) and reshape Eva's character and background. With one fell swoop siblings, parents and friends vanished – and so did Eva, becoming an invisible and ghostly denizen of her family home.
Ever since that crucial insight I thought of the book as half ghost story, half crime novel. After the more mystical mysterious magical happenings of Waking Dream and Bad Blood, I wanted to write a book where the supernatural elements ran in tandem with a physical action plot.
So in Ghost of a Chance, Eva and the ghost world exist on the other side of the looking glass to the Strattons and the murder investigation. The challenge for me was to have those two strands twining around each other while retaining certain points of mystery up until the very end.
I learnt a lot writing this book and it was tough work living up to the challenge I set myself. I think a lot of things about plot and action crystallized for me during the writing of this novel and I hope that readers will get the benefit of that. I'm excited to see what people think of the new book.