“What parts of yourself do you have to sacrifice to earn a killer’s trust?”
That’s the question Cal Lovett, the protagonist of Heather Critchlow’s blockbuster debut, UNSOLVED, asks himself. A true crime podcaster, Cal’s driven to find the truth on many levels for cold cases. I invited Heather to speak to Miss Demeanor’s readers and tell us about her journey. Welcome, Heather!
Marni Graff: Let’s start with a bit of your history. You had a full decade’s work as a business journalist before turning to a life of crime. What prompted that change?
Heather Critchlow: Thanks for inviting me, Marni!
I was a childhood bookworm and had always dreamed of being an author. I started writing fiction in my teens and completed various writing courses in my twenties but never really felt confident enough to tell people what I was doing. Then career and children took over and I buried the dream for a while. Five years ago, I decided it was time to give it a proper go. I joined a course designed to help polish a full-length manuscript, met a lovely set of writers and managed to get a novel ready for submission. That book got me my agent, though it was ultimately unsuccessful on submission to publishers. I wrote another that also didn’t get picked up before coming up with UNSOLVED. However, I haven’t totally given up the corporate writing. I still have a day job writing copy for businesses – working on a self-employed basis allows me to mix the two and exercise different parts of my writing brain.
MG: Unsolved was shortlisted for the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize. So many readers, myself included, loved this book. Were you surprised by the outpouring of attention for it?
HC: I’ve been blown away by the reception from readers and booksellers. After years of writing and getting knockbacks, having people actually read something I’ve written and connect with the characters is magical. I didn’t know that my publisher, Canelo, had put me forward for the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize, so getting the call from them about the shortlisting was an incredible surprise. Bloody Scotland then did so much to help promote all of us who were shortlisted and Scottish bookshops gave the novels lots of support – it has been a very special experience. I’m extremely grateful to the readers and reviewers who have taken Cal to their hearts.
MG: Cal is a modern protagonist, a true crime podcaster. The book opens with Cal given access to a serial killer, to the chagrin of his wife, until that ends badly and he escapes to a investigate the case of a missing young woman in Aberdeenshire. The impact of his work is tough on his personal life, and add into that his own hauntings, and you have a recipe for relationship disaster. As Cal’s marriage teeters on the brink of collapse, it’s clear his job affects not only his wife but his teen daughter, who reminds him of his missing sister, Margo. What made you start the series with this man in need of a relationship makeover?
HC: I am a big fan of true crime podcasts, particularly those in which a reporter goes back to look at a cold case and tries to find justice for victims and their families years later – such as Canadian podcaster David Ridgen’s Someone Knows Something or US podcast Up and Vanished. Some podcasters investigate cases over many years and give a lot of themselves to the work. I wanted to explore what could motivate someone to do this and the personal sacrifices they might have to make along the way.
At the start of Unsolved, years of being on the road investigating such cases has taken its toll on Cal’s marriage. He is driven by the trauma of his own sister going missing when he was a child and, though he loves his wife and daughter, he is compelled to leave them to help others who are suffering. His interview with a notorious serial killer sparks a series of events that uproot his life. His relationships with the women around him are central to who he is and the decisions he makes.
MG: The Aberdeenshire descriptions are so vivid, you must have spent time in that area, especially those of that pivotal waterfall. Am I correct?
HC: Yes, I grew up in rural Aberdeenshire and my memories definitely inspired Unsolved. The landscape is wild and beautiful, sometimes bleak and hostile, so it was the perfect place for missing woman Layla Mackie to ride her horse into the woods. As a teenager, I rode horses on those hills and worked in a country house hotel as a waitress, as Layla does in the book. The waterfall is loosely based on the ‘secret waterfall of Bennachie’ – a distinctive hill that we lived beside. The waterfall is hard to find, especially as recent storms have brought down the trees around it, but it is possible if you know where to look…
MG: You’ve been compared to Jane Casey, Helen Fields, and Claire Douglas. Who would you deem an influence on your writing?
HC: I’m influenced by beautiful writing and haunting stories. It’s always hard to choose favourites, but recently Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka, The Stranding by Kate Sawyer and All the Colours of the Dark by Chris Whitaker (coming out soon) have immersed me in incredible, moving stories that are so well written they inspire me to work harder on my own.
MG: You’ve also written short stories for crime fiction anthologies for charity. Tell us about the recipients. How do you feel writing in a short form versus book-length?
HC: During the first Covid-19 lockdown, a group of crime writers got together to create an anthology, Afraid of the Light. We followed it with two more in the series, based around Christmas and Halloween themes. We chose a different charity for each of the collections – The Samaritans, ESDAS and Rights of Women. Each of these charities helps people who have been the victims of crime or who are struggling to cope. Given the subject matter of our books, it was important to us to acknowledge the long-term effects of violence on victims and their loved ones.
I haven’t had a lot of experience writing short stories and would love to do more of them in future. I find short form more intimidating and challenging than full-length novels. The best short story writers are so incredibly talented when it comes to making every word count and shocking or surprising the reader in just a few pages, making characters come alive instantly. It’s a fascinating discipline.
MG: I grew with you on short stories. It’s no secret I find the form more challenging than a novel! The second Cal Lovett Files is slated to be in print soon. Can you share a bit of that storyline and what you have in store for Cal in UNBURIED?
HC: In Unburied, Cal’s much-needed holiday to the west coast of Scotland is interrupted when he is asked to look into the unsolved case of a shooting in a remote farmhouse. The crime rocked the community and left devastating scars in a family, but not everyone welcomes Cal’s involvement. Meanwhile, police looking for his own sister start digging in a scrapyard…
MG: Research and revision are my favorite parts of a writer’s life. What are yours?
HC: Definitely editing! I find drafting much harder than rewriting and editing. I really look forward to the point at which I have an imperfect full draft that I can take to pieces and rebuild. I overwrite, so enjoy the paring back that needs to be done. My first job as a journalist was a sub-editor and it was a great foundation for editing my own work. I’m not a huge fan of research, always impatient to get down to writing the story, so I tend to fill gaps in later on.
MG: Constructive critiques (vs criticism) are something every writer needs to learn to give and receive. I’d be lost without my writing group. Are you involved in a writing group, or rely on beta readers for feedback?
HC: Yes, I met a brilliant set of writers on the course I did five years ago and we still meet every month to critique extracts of our works in progress. I’m also lucky to have made some amazing crime author friends along the path to publication – several of them have read my manuscripts and contributed invaluable advice. It’s so rewarding to be able to swap manuscripts with writers whose work I love and admire, especially if you get to read them before anyone else!
MG: How do you balance your family life with your writing life? Any tricks or tips?
HC: With difficulty! I love having a busy life, but juggling day job, writing, children (and dog) can be a challenge at times. Writing is always being squeezed in around the edges. Often when we’re on holiday I get up early and do an hour before the rest of the family get going. At home, as I’m self-employed I’m lucky to be able to mix the two and manage my own time. I can write pretty quickly so when drafting I do 1,000 words a day, sometimes late in the evening if there hasn’t been a moment until then. I find the most important thing is to do a little every day so I’m in the flow of the story – if you keep building the words every day, they do add up to a book in the end. My children and my husband are also amazing supporters of my writing – I couldn’t do it without their understanding and patience with long conversations about plot.
MG: Finally, whose books on your nightstand waiting to be read?
HC: I have a proof copy of Harriet Tyce’s next novel – A Lesson in Cruelty – which I expect to be a big hit when it’s published next year. Also, Metronome by Tom Watson and Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty. The pile is a bit bigger than that, if I’m honest. It has spilled off the nightstand and is now an entire bookshelf and several floor piles…
MG: You can find Heather’s books at:
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us today!
HC: Thank you!
Heather Critchlow grew up in rural Aberdeenshire and trained as a business journalist after studying history and social science at Cambridge university. Her debut novel Unsolved is the first in a series about true crime podcaster Cal Lovett, and was shortlisted for the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize. The second Cal Lovett book, Unburied, will be published in January 2024. Heather’s short stories have appeared in crime fiction anthologies Afraid of the Light, Afraid of the Christmas Lights and Afraid of the Shadows.