Hilary Davidson and the One-Book Stand

Blood Always Tells

Hilary Davidson's new novel, Blood Always Tells, is a gripping read that's packed with twists and turns, and the only thing you can predict about its stunning conclusion is that it will probably take your breath away. Blood Always Tells is Davidson's first stand-alone novel, after her successful Lily Moore trilogy, and in this guest-post she explains the complicated allure for an author of the one-book stand. 

*****

Crime-fiction fans around the world revere Sherlock Holmes, but when I think of his creator, I feel pangs of sympathy. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to detest his famous detective so much that he decided to kill Holmes off. This was in spite of the commercial success of the novels and short stories featuring the character; as Conan Doyle put it, in his autobiography, he was determined to do the deed, “even if I buried my bank account with him.”

Conan Doyle knocked off Holmes in a story called “The Final Problem.” His legions of readers were outraged. “I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defense, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me,” Conan Doyle said. But the outcry was so overwhelming that the author was eventually forced to resurrect Holmes and go on writing about him until the end of his days.

The author—and his immortal creation—was on my mind while I was writing my third novel, Evil in All Its Disguises. It was also the third book in a mystery series featuring travel-journalist-turned-amateur-sleuth Lily Moore. Initially, working on that book felt as cozy as easing my feet into a well-worn pair of slippers. I know Lily’s voice so well that there are echoes of it in my mind even when I’m not writing about the character. But that sense of ease vanished while I wrote the first draft. I found myself shooting down ideas because they didn’t fit with the cast of established characters, and I spent too much time looking up details that I’d already committed to the page in the earlier books. I felt chained to the past in the name of consistency.

In the world of mystery novels, it’s an accepted truth that readers love series. They enjoy diving into a familiar world that’s populated by people they’ve come to know intimately. But, from the writer’s point of view, that sense of comfort can turn into a trap that limits creativity. No matter how many dangerous situations I put my series character in, the reader knows that Lily’s not going to die. The novels are narrated from her point of view. More than that, there’s an unspoken contract the series author enters into with their readers. People don’t want the basic terms of that deal suddenly altered.

Writing my stand-alone novel, Blood Always Tells, which was released last month, was a thrilling contrast. Admittedly, at the beginning, it was terrifying. Who are these characters? Dominique Monaghan, Desmond Edgars, and Polly Brantov, the three characters whose point of view is represented in the book, sprung from my brain, but that didn’t mean I knew them inside out as the start. It’s like meeting a group of new people. They’re not going to spill their guts to you at first—all three of them have secrets they’re guarding. Discovering my characters’ true natures is a process of coaxing them out. I don’t outline my books, so I’m as surprised as anyone by what my characters do. Only, with a stand-alone, they’re not hamstrung by what came before. Their past is being created as their present is being written.

The freedom of writing the stand-alone was intoxicating. Who could tell what characters would still be standing by the end of the book? Because it’s narrated in the close third-person, the reader gets to see inside the heads of certain characters, only without the safety harness of knowing nothing really bad could befall them. There was no going back to check what I’d written a couple of years ago, just the white-hot rush of being in the moment with the characters in this story.

That bliss lasted until I got to the end of the book, when I realized I didn’t want to let these characters go. They’re alive in my mind, and I’d been living with them for so long that I didn’t want to part ways with them. It hit me then why some of my favourite writers—such as Walter Mosley, Peter Robinson and Laura Lippman—write both series and stand-alones. There’s nothing like the thrill of the stand alone, in spite of (or because of?) the fact it has a definite end. A door will close, and that will be that. But the series is always ready to take you back, even if your relationship is littered with love-hate moments.

Hilary Davidson

Hilary Davidson won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel for The Damage Done. That book also earned a Crimespree Award and was a finalist for the Arthur Ellis and Macavity awards. Davidson’s widely acclaimed short stories have been featured in publications from Ellery Queen to Thuglit and in many anthologies. A Toronto-born travel journalist and the author of eighteen nonfiction books, she has lived in New York City since October 2001.

May 12, 2014
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