23rd April 2017
Gallows Drop by Mari Hannah, crime thriller set in Northumberland (“a real hanging suspense”) ...
A Suitable Lie by Michael J Malone, domestic noir set in Ayr.
Tragedy goes in deep. And Andy Boyd has seen more than his fair share, leaving him more vulnerable, and perhaps blinkered when a controlling woman crosses his path. He lost his first wife as she was giving birth to their son Pat, and he lost his father at a young age, so he know what grief and heartache are.
Enter Anna who seems an absolutely perfect partner for him and he is soon in thrall to her. But the first sign of trouble occurs on their wedding night, when she injures him. It can all be explained away quite easily, he dismisses it and they soon settle into a family routine. On their short honeymoon he injures himself by falling over a misplaced suitcase, but once again he sees that as just a case of misfortune. And so continues their life together until Andy begins to see a pattern in Anna’s behaviour. But still he doesn’t consciously clock what is going on, he loves her. Love is generous and kind and caring. He is a man, she is a smaller woman, the power balance is skewed. That is truly shaming as there is so much societal pressure to man-up, be the hunter gatherer, and essentially the stronger person physically in the relationship.
Michael J Malone depicts the insidious creep of control that Anna wields over Andy, how his life disintegrates and he comes to walk on the proverbial eggshells. He has to sort out an accounting error in the bank where he works, he needs to travel away, and in order to deflect the potential abuse his absence will cause, he sidesteps sharing information that would be perfectly usual in an adult intimate relationship where respect is present. But of course this comes back to haunt him later, when of course Anna discovers information he has withheld.
The whittling away of Andy’s character, his submission and his isolation within the relationship is all well told. Anna is seemingly loving towards the children around her but they soon pick up both consciously and unconsciously the derision and anger with which she relates to Andy. Children experiencing domestic abuse from the adults around cannot but be affected by what they see and hear, they are like blotting paper. Even if they are shielded from abusive encounters, they are adept at picking up atmosphere and alarm.
Research shows that when the more vulnerable partner leaves, there is likely to a marked uplift in abusive behaviour. The reader roots for Andy to look after his own welfare, including that of the children, and the author brings about his conclusion with great aplomb.
This is a read that will share insights into the nature of domestic abuse, the narrative deals with it sensitively, yet it is also gripping and credible. Recommended.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
And over to Michael – we were curious to pose some questions about the tenet of his novel
TF: Hi Michael, it’s great to be able to talk to you a little more about the content of A Suitable Lie. At the heart of the novel is the issue of domestic violence and abuse (DVA). How did you go about researching the creeping and insidious nature of his dynamic? You depict it really well in that the power balance shifts ever so slightly with each onslaught until Andy doesn’t know whether he is coming or going….
MM: I read widely at first. Magazine articles, books, online forums, official statistics. Then once I felt had more of a handle on the issue, I sought out survivors of abuse, spoke with victims of both genders – and realised how similar their stories were.
Thankfully I’ve never been in that situation, but for me writing is an act of empathy. It’s all about getting under the character’s skin and having read so much, and spoken to a number of people who had been there, I was able to do that with – I hope – respect for all victims, regardless of gender, and without being exploitative.
TF: Interestingly, you have portrayed the more powerful person as a woman. DVA is not confined to women as being the target in a domestic situation. What alerted you to the fact that this is a real issue for men too, within an adult intimate relationship?
MM: I remember the moment vividly. It was 1998 and I was on a ferry going from Gourock to Dunoon and listening to the radio. I heard a man describe himself as a 6ft tall, rugby playing policeman and his wife as a five foot tall petite lady who regularly beat him. Pretty much all of the media I’d come across up to that point that covered this topic was from the perspective of a female as victim and I remember my astonishment. What? This can happen to a man? I did the research – and of course it does. Yes, women make up the majority of victims, but the numbers of men it happens to, as I found out, is not insignificant.
TF: Many people will find it hard to understand how a robust man can become quite so cowed and vulnerable when faced with such a controlling female, someone so much smaller in stature. Do you think the loss that Andy suffered – his first wife and his father when he was young – predisposed him to become perhaps more vulnerable in this situation?
MM: Good question. I haven’t thought about that before. Having lost his first love, it would take a lot for him to fall in love again. And having invested so much emotionally in that situation, and bearing in mind he was keen for his son to have a mother, that would have provided a good deal of motivation for him to try and find a solution rather than walking away. Good spot. (Wish I had been deliberately that clever.)
And one thing we hear people asking about ALL victims, is why don’t they just leave? It’s never that simple for anyone, for all kinds of complex reasons and I was keen that this was demonstrated in the novel. So yeah, the story focusses on a male victim, but I hope it helps highlight the situation for all victims.
The set up I gave Andy was a very deliberate attempt to get the reader on side from the off. Having researched male victims for some time, I was aware that people have a tendency to find that sort of situation a little bit comical. Sad, but true. So, being aware of this my worry was that the reader might quickly tire of his inability to seek a solution – I tried to play on their emotions and make their sense of him as robust as possible so they would “get it”.
TF: If a man is reading the book, together with this Q and A session, and some of what you have written feels familiar, what might you say to him, how can he garner more insight and support do you feel?
MM: The first thing for all victims of domestic abuse is to realise you are not alone. You are NOT the only person this is happening too. Speak to someone. The help is out there. Please try and seek it.
The Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (SCJS) of 2001 reported that 42% of abused men did not tell anyone (compared to 19% of abused women) and in only 9% of cases in the prior year which involved abused men did the police come to know of the abuse (compared to 24% for women). There is clearly a lot of nasty stuff going on out there that is not being reported and a lot of people are not getting the help they need. We are doing a better job of encouraging women to seek help than we did years ago, but we could do a lot better when it comes to men.
There are a number of online sites that offer advice. (One of them even offers advice on how to cover your online tracks, should you still be in that situation.) Perhaps that could be a first step?
TF: The book cover is very simple, but very striking. How much input did you have?
MM: My publisher got her designer on the job, describing the main theme of the book. Then he came back to us with a number of designs. Thankfully, both Karen and I instantly chose the same one. It is so elegant and effectively gets the message across.
TF: What is next for you in terms of writing, and will you set your next novel in Scotland?
MM: The next one is a thriller, continuing the Kenny O’Neill/ Ray McBain series – I left the last one on a massive cliffhanger – and it is set mostly in Glasgow, with a wee detour to Stirling.