Please be warned that this post contains information on real criminal cases so some may find it upsetting.
Death and Beauty: the story behind the story of standalone crime thriller, Dancing On The Grave
By Zoë Sharp
I came up with the idea behind my latest standalone crime thriller, Dancing On The Grave, around sixteen years ago, when John Allen Muhammad and his seventeen-year-old accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, shot 27 people with a Bushmaster sniper rifle, killing 17 of them. This became known as the Washington Sniper incident, although the killings took place in Maryland, Virginia and Arizona, as well as Washington DC.
I wanted to explore the motivations for a similar sniper but set on UK soil, where most types of firearms have been banned since the shootings at Hungerford and Dunblane. Also, I didn’t know what truly motivated Muhammad and Malvo, but I wanted to see if I could find a reason that my characters felt they could live with.
The sniper in my book is not a mystery man in that we meet him early on, but working out who he really is, and what really drives him, is not an easy task. I’ve always thought that defining good guys and bad guys is very much a grey area. Good guys are rarely all good, and bad guys so often have significant redeeming features. There was loyalty and a twisted honour involved here, as well as a sense of betrayal and guilt. By the end of it, I felt I could understand my sniper, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with him.
Not so easy are the driving forces behind the disturbed teenage girl who becomes his spotter. Edith is a fantasist and underachiever who is trapped in a dead-end existence and is desperate to be somebody—anybody. For her, almost anything is better than being invisible and forgotten.
The motivations of my police characters were in some ways simpler, and in other ways more complicated to work out. Grace, my CSI, is recently divorced from a wealthy husband who still loves her. She is determined to escape his smothering embrace and make her own way, but her background means few of her colleagues take her seriously, or realise the guilt she carries with her into the job.
And the young Detective Constable she ends up working with, Nick Weston, is an outsider. He came into a new area following the mother of his baby daughter, who promptly split up with him. He’s prickly in the face of resentment from his fellow officers, not to mention hiding the fact that his disastrous last undercover job cost him his nerve.
In 2010, just as I finished the first incarnation of the story that would become Dancing On The Grave, Derrick Bird went on the rampage in west Cumbria, killing twelve people and injuring a further eleven before killing himself. It made me put the novel aside for a long time and it was only recently, with the distance provided by time, that I was able to get it out and work on it again. Even so, there are aspects of the story that stay with me. It’s one of those that gets its teeth into you and doesn’t seem to want to let go.
Zoë Sharp was born in Nottinghamshire, but spent her childhood living aboard a catamaran on the northwest coast of England. She co-built a house in the Eden Valley area of the Lake District, where ‘Dancing On The Grave‘ is set. She now lives a peripatetic lifestyle, based around writing, sailing, house renovation, and looking after other people’s pets.