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Thriller set in small town America (keep The Faith…)

22nd May 2015

The Killing of Bobbi Lomax by Cal Moriarty – thriller set in small town America.

Features in Crime – The Financial Times Best Books of 2015!

IMG_0644The Killing of Bobbi Lomax is a brilliant debut novel by Cal Moriarty – an author of whom we will surely hear a great deal more. It is set in the fictional town of Abraham City in the Bible Belt of small town America. Great in TripFiction terms in that it really captures the atmosphere of such a place. The book is a very cleverly put together thriller with many layers. It is set in 1982 and 1983 – a time before mobile phones and the Internet… and that, in itself, is intriguing. We are taken back to the mysterious world of pay phones and pagers. It is a reminder of the great technological progress of the past 40 years.

There are two murders within a day – those of beauty queen and new bride (to a man 40 years her senior…) Bobbi Lomax, and of Peter Gudsen, a property developer. Each is killed by a bomb. And there is a third attempted bombing – this time of Clark Houseman, a rare books and coin dealer. But the bomb didn’t quite kill him – and his witness account is detectives Marty Sinclair and Al Alvarez’s best chance of solving the case. The detectives quickly find themselves clashing with those who control the town and its people. The Faith is an all pervasive religious cult desperate to protect its image and power. Its leaders are sinister and prone to secret dealings – anxious to preserve the mystique surrounding their founder, Robert Bright. Documents come to light which shed doubt on his propriety – he is said to have been a bigamist with three teenage wives. Did Robert leave a Will, and which son did he select to succeed him as leader of The Faith? These matters cannot get out into the public domain.

The Killing of Bobbi Lomax is a story not just of murder, but also of trickery and of fraudulent property dealings. These, of course, all come together as the denouement approaches – and it is a surprising and well conceived denouement. It is a story that is written in a very well observed – and slightly quirky – manner. It feels real and possible – even down to the tramp who lives in a shelter insulated with books banned by The Faith, and the somewhat weird twin brothers – Rod and Ron Rook – who are coin collectors and dealers.

I have just two possible criticisms. First, I found the characters a little confusing and hard to identify – some of them seemed to blend into each other in my mind. And I just wonder whether this is why the author / the publisher included a list of characters at the beginning of the book? A device I found very useful, but one that I would have thought would not be necessary. It is not as if this was a Russian novel with three different names for everyone! Second, it took me a little while to work out how the timeline worked… The title for each chapter is a date and time – but that didn’t initially register. The murders occurred at Halloween 1983, but the story leading up to them starts in July 1982. So there are two parallel timelines – from Halloween 1983 as the detectives investigate, and from July 1982 as prior events build up. Pretty much alternate chapters chart the progress of each… Works well when one understands what is happening.

But these are just very minor niggles. Overall the book is a great success and puts Cal Moriarty very firmly on the map as a thriller writer to note. I look forward very much to her next work.

Tony for the TripFiction team

Cal very kindly agreed to answer some questions we put to her:

Cal Moriarty

Cal Moriarty

TF: You are English, and yet Abraham City (the location for The Killing of Bobbi Lomax) is so quintessentially small town, Bible belt America. You write with authenticity and authority about the place and its people. Is it (or its real life self) somewhere you have spent time – or does it come entirely from your imagination and your research? I was genuinely surprised to read that you were not American.

CM: I’m very pleased you thought me an American writer. I’m not sure I could have pulled off a narrative set in Croatia, but I lived in the States for a number of years and visit regularly. So, that was an obvious shortcut to the people and its language and the general hum of the place. The place I’m writing about does in fact exist, or a place just like it. But a lot of it comes not just from my impression as a visitor and research, but where fiction is stranger and more convenient than reality, then imagination thankfully provides the back-up.

TF: The story is set in 1982/83 before mobile phones and the internet. To that extent it has a curiously slightly dated feel…which works really well. What made you set the book in this time? Is it a period that fascinates you?

CM: I worked as a private eye in the early 80’s, and visited the States, as a young footballer, in 1980, so I drew on those experiences when I was writing Killing Bobbi. When I was a private eye, we had a mobile phone, but it was basically the prototype and had to be carried around in a small suitcase and used very sparingly as it was prohibitively expensive, not just to buy but the cost of the calls. It’s so much more interesting for the reader if the cops have to leave the office and speak to people instead of finding the killer on Facebook or CSI style in the partial DNA database!

TF: The Faith has a sinister presence throughout the book. It pervades every aspect of living in and governing Abraham City. You, again, write about it with knowledge and authority. Is The Faith based on a similar cult of which you have knowledge or experience?

CM: The Faith could, essentially, be any of the world’s leading religions — many of which have a major accepted version and are constantly battling the threat from spin-offs and other cults which have developed from them.

TF: There are a couple of light touches in the characters in the book. For example the tramp, Ziggy, who uses books banned by The Faith to insulate his hovel – and Rod and Ron Rooks, somewhat strange identical twins and antique book/coin dealers. Is their character and inclusion to draw a contrast with the unsavoury and slightly scary people that surround them?

CM: Yes, it is. It’s also to show the town in all its glory, to give the place light and shade, just like every other town we know there are many levels of society and many, many characters.

TF: You worked as a private detective for a while. Was this in the UK or the States? And how does having worked as a private detective influence your writing? Are any of the characters in The Killing of Bobbi Lomax based on real people that you encountered through this work?

CM: I was a private eye in London. It gave me a great gift, which I didn’t see at the time, and that’s I now have the very good fortune not to have to imagine how an investigation (PI or Police) works, I’ve been involved in them from the banal to the very dangerous. I think all writers draw on people they’ve met, to some degree, whether they realise it or not. I used to volunteer in the homeless shelter whilst at Cambridge (with Alex Masters who wrote Stuart: A life lived backwards from his experience there) and I often saw / still see homeless people engrossed in novels. I can’t imagine many other situations where a total escape from your reality might be more important. So, Ziggy, is my ode to the homeless, most of whom don’t want to be housed in official shelters, but seek their own shelter and are often content with their own company.

TF: The Killing of Bobbi Lomax is your first novel – and part, I believe, of a two novel deal with Faber. I understand that the second novel will be a prequel. Can you tell us a little more about it? For example, will it feature Marty Sinclair and Al Alvarez as the crime investigators? Will it be set in Abraham City?

CM: Yes, indeed, Book 2 is a prequel and features Marty and Al (and other characters from Book 1) as they pursue a killer in a case that has parallels to the Ted Bundy serial killings and like that case has a handsome charismatic killer at its very dark heart. This will also be set in Abraham City and L.A.

TF: You are also a playwright, a screenwriter, a director, and a producer. You were, as I understand it, somewhat catapulted into being a novelist by the acclaim your work received when taking part in the Faber Academy. Do you think that being a novelist is where you will now focus?

CM: Yes, it was an almost instant catapult! I am currently writing Book 2 (the prequel) of the four book Wonderland Series for Faber. But I’m also developing a couple of TV series (including the TV adaptation of Killing Bobbi) and hoping to direct my first feature next year. Making creativity your living you have to learn to juggle projects otherwise when one is done you are left staring into a chasm instead of just cracking on with the next idea.

TF: What learning can you bring to being a novelist from your other activities? Does being a playwright or a screenwriter, for example, involve disciplines that are of use to you as a novelist?

CM: Loads, thankfully, as it’s been many years of practice! Many people have commented on the high quality of the dialogue in Killing Bobbi. Well, that’s a skill I don’t take for granted and one I painstakingly honed since a kid, writing plays and getting my cousins to star in them in my parent’s living room, via the Royal Court Young Writer’s Workshop, through my MA in Playwriting tutored by April de Angelis and Mark Ravenhill where I read a play a day for an entire year; and, producing plays in London and writing film scripts that have been optioned (but, thus far, not made) by Hollywood producers. The other skill writing a lot teaches you is that you have to keep going. And you hope every day to be better than the previous day. Which you sometimes might feel may be a case of hope over adversity!

A big thank you to Cal for answering our questions so comprehensively…

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