Skip to main content

Interview: October 1, 2015

Ben McPherson is a television producer, director and writer who worked for more than a decade at the BBC. His debut novel, A LINE OF BLOOD, is a thriller that also delves into the complexities of family life. When their neighbor is found dead in his apartment, Alex, his wife Millicent and their son Max are pulled into a maelstrom investigation that forces them to reexamine how they approach their relationships with each other. In this interview with The Book Report Network’s Sarah Rachel Egelman, McPherson discusses his inspiration for this crime thriller/family drama hybrid, explains the importance of the book’s setting, and reveals some of his favorite authors. What aspect of the story came to you first: the characters, the plot or the setting? What type of story did you set out to tell, and is the final result what you imagined it would be?

Ben McPherson: I always saw A LINE OF BLOOD as a book about love. It took me some time to understand that I was actually writing a crime thriller, though as Val McDermid said to me, “Didn’t the corpse in the bathtub give you a clue?”

I wrote the first few chapters shortly after becoming a father. I was struck by how easy it would be to drift into marriage and fatherhood, with no shortage of love or commitment, but still to get things very wrong indeed. That interested me. What would it take to trigger that alternative reality? And so I set out to tell the story of a family very much like mine, but where things do go very badly wrong.

I knew from the first moment how the novel had to end. I also knew that there had to be a corpse in the house next door, because I needed to put my characters under unbearable pressure! All the family members have a relationship with the dead man, whether they realize it or not.

You can’t really separate out plot from character or setting. I could say the plot came first, but as soon as you know what has happened, you have to ask yourself, “What kind of person would do that thing to that other person, and in which circumstances?”

I’m really proud of the novel. I hope people will see in it an exciting twisty thriller that has something to say about love.

BRC: Why did you place your story in Finsbury Park? Neither Alex nor Millicent are from London, though their son, Max, was born there. Is that important to the story?

BM: Yes, the setting is absolutely key. Alex is Scottish and Millicent is Californian. They’re both, in some way, trying to escape their past, and London welcomes people from everywhere. London is a clean slate. The city lets them live the life they want to live and doesn’t ask too many questions; the Londoners Alex and Millicent surround themselves with don’t care who they are or what they might have done.

Except that London these days is a tough city. Alex and Millicent are struggling to get by; they live in a small house in a rough neighborhood, and as the past begins to catch up with them, the neighborhood amplifies their sense of alienation and makes everything so much worse. The thin walls of their tiny house mean that they live in constant danger of being overheard. And how far can you trust your neighbors if they are strangers to you?

BRC: Eleven-year-old Max, whose actions set the novel in motion, is a fascinating character. What kind of boy is he, and what motivates him?

BM: Max is at that extraordinary age where he knows his life is about to be turned upside down by puberty, but can’t really know what that’s going to be like. Like most 11-year-olds, he studies the adult world and thinks he knows everything about it, but the judgments he makes about adult behavior are very harsh, especially when it comes to smoking, drinking and sex! Max can see very clearly his parents’ failings, and tries to step in and compensate for those failings. I’d say he’s an ordinary little boy in that respect --- almost --- though he has suffered two very intense periods of trauma.

BRC: What can you tell us about the connection or parallels between Alex's relationship with his father and his relationship with his son? Does something change in Max when he finds the graphic picture of his grandfather, or does that just add fuel to the fire that was already burning in him?

BM: This is very much a book about fathers and sons. Alex has been failed by his father, and he goes on to fail his own son --- most catastrophically when he does not prevent him from seeing the corpse in the next-door house, but in other, smaller ways too. What Alex must do in the course of the novel is to “man up” and become a better father to Max, but doing that means facing some frightening truths.

Max discovers a picture of his grandfather triumphantly displaying the bloodied corpse of a Korean soldier. He is intrigued by the violence in the photo; to him, it appears that his grandfather is a war hero. To Alex, it shows his father in a new and terrifying light.

BRC: A LINE OF BLOOD could be characterized as a crime novel or a thriller, but unlike most genre novels, the police investigation is not detailed. Why did you choose to have the investigation of the crime in the background?

BM: I wanted the key detective figure to be Alex, and not a police officer, because it personalizes the revelations, and makes them far more dramatic. If Alex doesn’t understand the crime, his marriage and his family are doomed.

But in some ways, Alex is a classic crime-fiction detective. He smokes too much, drinks too much and curses way too much! There’s a key scene early on where he talks about Millicent’s film noir smoking --- I wanted just a hint of Millicent as the classic femme fatale: it’s part of the reason Alex fell in love with her.

Of course Alex isn’t a great detective because his feelings about his wife --- love, desire, jealousy, fury --- keep getting in the way. That’s where Max steps in: he seems to have access to information that Alex doesn’t have.

BRC: The book could also be characterized as a family drama. What sorts of family dynamics do you examine in this novel, and why were they interesting to you? And what do they tell us about these characters?

BM: I wanted to look at love between parent and child, and love between a married couple. These forms of love are extremely powerful, and extremely complex. Often they’re bound up with highly conflicting feelings. Max idolizes his father but also views him as weak; his love for his mother is very intense, but he also views her as fallen. Like many children, he’s very conservative: he wants to maintain the status quo. But then again, what child wouldn’t?

Alex and Millicent have drifted into marriage and appear at one level to be very compatible --- they have an active sex life, they both care deeply what the other thinks, they love their son and want to do what’s best for him --- but neither of them really understands what it is about the other that makes their marriage work. That may never have mattered before, but it matters now. Are they going to fight for what they have, or will they let their marriage slip between their fingers?

BRC: There are things about Millicent that we still dont know at the end of the story. Do you have in mind details about her that you didn't put in the novel?

BM: Yes, absolutely. I want to come back to Millicent. I have plans for her!

Millicent has drifted through life, always knowing that she has an escape route. She’s smart and self-aware enough to know that her first response to trouble is to want to run. She also knows that she can’t do that anymore, that she can’t easily abandon Max and Alex. But her response to stress is to close off and go “out, thinking,” which means Alex only realizes very late how much trouble his marriage is in.

BRC: All three members of the Mercer family are suffering to some degree, and each responds to the pain in different ways. Do you relate to one character more than the other two? Do you sympathize with any of them more than the others?

BM: First and foremost my sympathies lie with Max, because it’s his parents’ duty to protect him, and they haven’t managed to do this. But Alex and Millicent are both trying hard to be good people, and to be better parents than their own mother and father, even if they fail in this. I like all of them, even if each of them behaves unsympathetically at times. Their love for each other is genuine; the question is, is love on its own enough?

BRC: The novel deals with loss in a variety of forms. Is that one of the primary aspects of life you wanted to explore, or did the theme rise to the surface as you wrote?

BM: Loss or trauma are kind of shorthand in fiction. You know the kind of thing: a person is abused in childhood, and years later that person emerges as a murderous psychopath. I don’t believe things are ever as clear-cut as that. There are no psychopaths in this novel, just people who are trying very hard to be good but getting it disastrously wrong.

Alex and Millicent have lost a child, and that loss affects Max very deeply as well, but it isn’t a straightforward cause; it doesn’t lead inevitably to the awful things that happen.

But there’s another kind of loss that Alex and Millicent have to come to terms with, and that’s the loss of the idea of who they were in their 20s. If they don’t give up on the idea of themselves as rebel drifters, their family will be destroyed.

BRC: Are you a fan of thrillers and mysteries yourself? Do you have any favorites? What were you reading as you wrote A LINE OF BLOOD?

BM: Where do I start? I’ve always loved thrillers. Alistair MacLean, Agatha Christie and Graham Greene as a child, Patricia Cornwell, Ian Fleming and Scott Turow in my 20s and 30s --- it’s a long list. I still remember reading THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and feeling almost sullied by the closeness you feel to Lecter. And then, of course, there’s Stephen King.

While I was writing A LINE OF BLOOD, I finally read THE SHINING. It’s such an amazing, sustained piece of writing about another small family, trapped in a terrible situation; although it’s very different, it was hugely inspiring to me. But it’s not just books. While I was writing the novel’s third act, I had the film Alien almost on a loop, along with the soundtrack to Hitchcock’s Psycho. I think you have to creep yourself out a little sometimes if you write thrillers.

BRC: Tell us a bit about your writing process with this novel. How different was it than other types of writing work you have done?

BM: It was a much longer process, for a start. I’ve always written a bit (I have two feature film scripts sitting on a hard drive somewhere), but I never really found my “voice” as a writer. Six years ago, I wrote the first four chapters of this novel, before putting them to one side for a couple of years. Then I covered the trial of spree killer Anders Behring Breivik for a small Norwegian Internet newspaper, and that got me into the habit of writing every day. My wife suggested I take some time off and finish my novel, and I did. It’s been six years and eight drafts, but I’m very happy with it now!