'Women know fear and menace' says new Belfast crime writer Sharon Dempsey

Belfast writer Sharon Demspey's debut novel introduces forensic psychologist Declan Wells to Belfast's dark crime world. She tells Joanne Sweeney why women's understanding of fear helps make female crime writers

Sharon Dempsey's debut crime novel Little Bird is set in Belfast Picture: Hugh Russell
Sharon Dempsey's debut crime novel Little Bird is set in Belfast Picture: Hugh Russell

SHARON Dempsey's 'secret' is well and truly out now as the south Belfast woman prepares for next Thursday's launch of her debut novel, Little Bird, a gritty crime thriller set in her home city.

The book tells of forensic psychologist's Declan Wells's obsessive need to find the serial killer who murdered his daughter before his killing spirals goes out of control. Little Bird portrays the grimier underbelly of life here, much as Allan Cubitt's hit TV drama series The Fall did with killer Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan.

Dempsey, a softly-spoken former health journalist, normally teaches creative writing to young children or therapeutic writing to cancer victims and their relatives and does not immediately strike you as someone who thrives on crime.

However, she admits that she's had a fascination with crime thrillers for quite some time.

"It's quite funny, I kept it [getting a book deal] very secret as my friends and family would know me for writing health books and journalism," Dempsey tells me. "It was almost like it was a little secret hobby that I was embarrassed to admit. I didn’t tell my closest friends until I had the publishing deal. They were not surprised as I think they all thought that I would write a novel at some stage. But some were shocked that it was crime."

Her writing career began in journalism in London, then Cardiff; latterly she has been based in Belfast. She has written for a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and published four non-fiction health books, including Extreme Parenting: Parenting Your Child with a Chronic Illness (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2008).

In Little Bird protagonist Declan Wells, Dempsey has created a multi-faceted character who is still marred by an incident from the Troubles which left him wheelchair-bound. As part of the investigation, he forms a close relationship with Welsh detective Anna Cole, who’s on secondment to the PSNI and, in reality, running away from a dead-end relationship and guilt over her mother's death.

"Declan is very damaged, physically and emotionally. He was left paralysed by a car bomb 10 years earlier due to his association with the police when the novel opens," Dempsey explains.

"His daughter is a bridesmaid at a wedding and is murdered and he finds himself thrown into this new hell. He can't really process the grief or deal with any of it until he gets some kind of justice for his daughter and has to discover who has done this.

"Declan is dealing with so much that he hasn’t really faced before. His marriage is also an issue; it looks right from the outside but nothing is going on under the surface and so he’s very much on his own. He finds himself drawn to the Welsh detective and he initially sees her as a way to get a foothold into the crime."

Crime fiction is increasingly attracting women writers today – but why, I ask Dempsey, since the majority of victims are women?

“One of the main things that most people say about why many women write crime is that women understand fear. There’s that sense that we understand menace quite well," she says. "I suppose the crimes are very shocking but I don’t go into any detail about the violence as it doesn’t interest me.

“It’s not about the shock thing for me. It’s the idea that someone can do something so heinous and how it affects the people around in the aftermath. Even the victims themselves are quite shadowy as I hate the idea of young girls being murdered as gratuitous in any way.”

Interestingly, her inspiration for the initial murder scene of Wells's daughter was inspired by her time at an enjoyable family wedding.

"I was leaving the event and it was a beautiful balmy summer's night, about 11.30pm, on the outskirts of Belfast," she says, "I could hear music and everybody was shouting and laughing and it just struck me that it was a really good place to set a murder as the juxtaposition of it all intrigued me."

She wrote the murder scene a week later and left it aside but the idea of the serial killer kept nagging at her until she realised that she would finally have to do something about it.

The married mother-of-three applied through the Arts Council NI’s Support for the Individual Artist Programme (SIAP), and was awarded funding in 2015, which she used to acquire mentoring from best-selling Dublin crime writer Louise Phillips, (Red Ribbons, 2012, Last Kiss, 2014, The Game Changer, 2016, all from Hachette Books).

“I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to finish the novel if it hadn’t been for the support from the Arts Council's Damian Smyth and Louise,” Dempsey admits.

“When you embark on writing a novel, it can feel daunting. You are writing in a vacuum with no readers and no certainty of publication. The Arts Council Support for the Individual Artist Programme gave me a sense of validation. I figured if they like what I have written so far, then it must be worth finishing. I approached Louise Phillips to provide me with mentoring because I love her work and hoped that she would be able to give me feedback. She has been a great support and source of publishing advice.”

She adds: “My interest in politics, social issues and literature are all intrinsic to the genre. In writing about crime, we are really examining society, and figuring out what motivates a person to do something so vile and violent. It is never about the deed itself, but the aftermath, how people are affected by the crime or what has driven someone to commit a crime in the first place.

"Crime writing is all about character and motive and that is why it appeals to me as both a reader and a writer."

:: Little Bird by Sharon Dempsey (Bloodhound Books) will be launched at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast next Thursday at 7pm. It costs £8.99 in paperback and will be available at No Alibis in Belfast and online at Amazon.