A.D. Garrett - who is Margaret Murphy, Dagger-winning author of psychological mysteries and short stories, assisted by forensic scientist Dave Barclay - hit it out of the park with EVERYONE LIES, the first thriller featuring DCI Kate Simms and forensics expert Prof. Nick Fennimore. Booklist compared Garrett's writing to Ken Bruen and Val McDermid, and Publisher's Weekly gave it 5 stars.
But how to follow up a dark thriller set on the gritty streets of Manchester? Send your Inspector and expert to Oklahoma, of course. Here's A.D. Garrett to tell us why BELIEVE NO ONE is set in the American west...and how researching language differences is as necessary as researching bloodstains
Your answer probably depends on whether you’re American or British. I’ve had an obsession with words since I was a kid – well, you would expect of a writer – but I am also fascinated by the differences between British and American English. When I started reading American thrillers as a young teen, I was soon hooked on the sharp dialogue of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct, and my early attempts at writing dialogue owe much to film adaptations of Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler.
I’d always had a hankering to set a novel in the United States, and when the opportunity arose with the second in the Fennimore & Simms series, I couldn’t wait to plant my feet on American soil. It’s often said that we are “two nations separated by a common language”, and the word “pond” was the first to illustrate the point. Oklahoma created more ponds, post-Dust Bowl than any other state, and I decided that was where the killer would dump the bodies of his victims. “You couldn’t hide a body in a pond,” my forensic advisor said. “It’d be too small.” Which was understandable because, like me, he’s a Brit, and what Brits call a pond, an American might call a puddle.
An American farm pond, on the other hand, could be up to an acre across. But this novel was already commissioned by UK and American publishers, and there’s bond of trust between writer and reader. Break that bond with what seems to be a jarring error and you risk losing them; so clearly I had to satisfy readers on both sides of the, um... Pond. I tackled that linguistic anomaly on the first page of Believe No One.
I work closely with a forensic scientist to ensure that the Fennimore & Simms thrillers are forensically accurate, and having gone to that trouble, I would surely be selling my readers short if I didn’t do justice to the colour and energy of American expression. Which is why, during our research trip, I filled three notebooks, not only with procedural details, but with snatches of dialogue, too.
The use of job titles is a much stronger tradition in the US than in the UK, but I was surprised to hear our guide, Detective Mike Nance, address Judge Tom Gillert respectfully as “Judge”. In Britain, that would be considered disrespectful. Instead, we would use “your honour’ or the positively feudal, “My lord”, which, as every Rumpole fan will know, is usually contracted to “M’lud”. At sharp end of law enforcement, the term “Billy-Bob from the backwoods” was frequently used to disparage clueless sheriffs’ deputies. In the UK, the equivalent phrase would be “PC plod” or the more culturally rich, “Woodentop”.
On the fourth day of our trip, we met District Attorney Kuester in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. The courthouse had airport-style security checks, including an X-ray gizmo, and as my handbag slid through the scanner, the security guard said, “Woah! Do you have a skeleton key in your purse, ma’am?”
I couldn’t think what she meant, but as I stammered a reply, it came to me. ‘It could be the mortise key to our back door at home.’
‘I don’t know what that is. You need to show me,’ she said. (I never heard an American apologise for not knowing something – not once – which was great when I sat down to think about characters, but was no help at all at that precise moment . . .)
I rummaged in my handbag apologising like a Brit for holding up the queue. Finally I handed the offending item it to her, and thankfully, she was satisfied.
“That’s all right.” She waved me through, laughing. “But you weren’t gettin’ in there with a skeleton key in your purse.” Then she stopped me again. ‘Can you do me a favour?’ she said, lowering her voice. “Will you say bloody? I love the way you Brits say ‘bloody’.”
“I bloody well won’t,” I said, with false indignation.
She laughed uproariously. “You made my day!”
That in itself was a lesson in linguistic difference: British construction would be, “You’ve just made my day!”
Typically, a Brit would make a suggestion by saying, “Perhaps we should...” – or, more forcefully: “We really should...” which translated in the US to a far more decisive, “We need to” – as in, “We need to outlaw hand dug wells.” As my ear became attuned, I found more examples of this brevity and directness in American speech. Our hosts might ask, “Did you eat?” In British English that would be, “Have you eaten yet?” Eaten is a lovely Old English word, like chosen, or sudden, and the –en ending is still widely used, though not so commonly in the US as in the UK. Where a Brit might say, ‘She’s fallen over,’ an American is more likely to say, “She fell.” It’s a surprise, then, that Brits get so hot under the collar about the American word: “gotten” – perhaps they have forgotten, it originates from Middle English and was common usage in Britain for 600 years...?
Local dialect and geographically specific words provide crucial clues to the identity of the serial killer in Believe No One, and there’s a whole branch of forensic linguistics called “Language Pattern Analysis”. In real life, as in fiction, LPA is great at catching bad guys. In 2013 Dr Jack Grieve and Dr Tim Grant examined the emails of Jamie and Debbie Starbuck. They were purportedly on a round-the-world trip together but Jamie was suspected of having murdered his wife and of sending emails home in her name. Their analysis identified a date on which emails from Debbie Starbuck's account shifted to be consistent with Jamie's written style and Jamie Starbuck was later convicted of Debbie's murder.
Back in Blighty, I listened to Oklahoma radio stations and watched a lot of US TV series to “keep my ear in”; I even started talking with a distinct “twang”. But I still had to grapple with a British proofreader over a single word – “if”. I had a homicide detective say, “I’d put every one of them on CODIS, I had my way.” In British English the correct form would be: “I’d put every one of them on CODIS, if I had my way.” That “if” was indispensible, she argued; I insisted that the American idiom should stand. I won that one. Well, sometimes you just have to stand up for the little things in life.
Do you have a favourite Britishism – or one that you hate?
Have you been confused by British or American English usage?
I will give away a copy of BELIEVE NO ONE for my favourite comment of the day!
A.D.Garrett is the pseudonym used by novelist and Dagger Award-winning short story writer, Margaret Murphy when writing her forensic thrillers. Forensic and technical guidance for the first two novels in the series is provided by forensic scientist, Prof. Dave Barclay.
You can discover more about A.D. Garrett and read her blog at her website. You can friend her and read a day-by-day account of the "Team Garrett" US research trip on Facebook; follow her on Twitter as @adgarrett1 and check out her book trailers and interviews on her YouTube channel.
Detective Chief Inspector Kate Simms is on assignment in the United States with St Louis PD, reviewing cold cases, sharing expertise. Forensic expert Professor Nick Fennimore follows her, keen to pick up where they left off after their last case – but the last thing Simms needs is Fennimore complicating her life...
A call for help from a rural sheriff’s deputy takes Fennimore to Oklahoma; a welcome distraction, until he discovers the circumstances – a mother is dead, her child gone – and they’re not the only ones. How many more young mothers have been killed, how many children are unaccounted for?
Meanwhile, nine-year-old Red, adventuring in Oklahoma’s backwoods, has no clue that he and his mom are in the killer’s sights – but soon the race is on to find a serial killer and save the boy.