Award-winning novelist Jo Spain on new crime thriller The Perfect Lie
Jenny Lee chats to hugely successful Dublin crime author Jo Spain about her latest thriller, working with Jane Seymour and politics with a small 'p'
SHE'S one of Ireland's most prolific crime writers and within the first 10 pages of her latest novel The Perfect Lie, Jo Spain raises readers' heartbeats as they follow the life of Irish émigré Erin Kennedy.
Having moved to New York five years ago following a family tragedy, Erin's fortune changed when she met her now husband, police detective Danny.
The pair live happily in the idyllic seaside town of Newport, Long Island. But when Erin answers the door to Danny's police colleagues one morning, she's astonished to turn around and see her husband jump to his death out the window of their fourth-floor apartment.
Flash forward 18 months and Erin is now in court, on trial for her husband's murder, as she discovers that the life she though was perfect was all built on the perfect lie.
So, how can you be accused of murdering somebody who's a victim of suicide?
"There were times when I thought I'd never figure it out," reveals the 40-year-old Dubliner.
"I always start my books with an idea for a hook. I let this stunning opening mull away in my mind for some time before piecing together all the secrets about her apparently 'perfect' husband.
"When I'm writing it's like preparing a crossword, putting the clues all out there so that when the reader reads it all comes together perfectly at the end. It's very satisfying."
Spain carefully researched the topic of suicide, insisting she wanted to "treat it as much more than a plot device".
"I wanted to deal with it in the most compassionate way. Sadly, whilst ending their own lives is solving a problem, it's creating a problem for everyone else and I wanted to capture the grief that Erin was experiencing."
She dedicated The Perfect Lie to 'the Irish diaspora, who were far from home when Covid entered our lives'.
"I thought how difficult it must be for an ex-pat when the proverbial hits the fan, you're far from family and friends and at the mercy of an unfamiliar justice system.
"The American system is very confrontational where they say to you 'we know you are guilty and now we are going to prove it'."
Spain admits that the other reason she set the book in New York is to "allow her brain to travel".
"I love reading books and watching TV shows set elsewhere – we just need a bit of escapism, especially post-Covid. I've been in New York a few times and have watched a lot of shows set in Long Island and thought 'that looks nice'. And if I can conquer the American market that would be a bonus," she laughs.
Spain's arrival in the world of publishing came as a result of being shortlisted from thousands of entrants in the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition.
With Our Blessing, a police procedural featuring Detective Inspector Tom Reynolds, was snapped up by Quercus in 2015. Ten best-selling novels have followed.
She previously worked as a journalist with An Phoblacht and as a Sinn Féin political advisor within the Dáil Éireann – both experiences which have helped her as an author.
"There's different ways to do politics," says Spain, who has explored Irish mother-and-baby homes, the post-Celtic Tiger crash and sex trafficking in her writing. She even featured Leinster House's secret tunnels as a setting in her second novel, Beneath The Surface.
"Analytical thinking skills have helped with character plotting and psychologies. And whilst I have explored Irish history, social and religious issues, it's politics with a small 'p' and people can probably absorb it better in a crime fiction novel."
What she loves most about writing the crime thriller genre is her ability to hold her fictional villains accountable for their crimes.
"You can rectify wrong and deliver justice in a way that doesn't happen in real life," she smiles.
Spain also has a burgeoning career as a scriptwriter. She made her screenwriting debut with the 2018 RTÉ Dublin crime drama Taken Down, which she co-wrote with Love/Hate's Stuart Carolan.
"RTÉ had been reading my Tom Reynolds series, and though they didn't want to adapt them, they asked if I wanted to write for TV.
"It opened the world for me. It's almost like the Freemasons; once you've got one show made, your name is out there. I'm now in the position now where I am battling away work."
When it came to making the transition to writing for television, Spain was undaunted.
"With crime fiction you already know that plot and pace are really important and that's what matters on screen."
She is currently on-set in Dublin for the filming of her new eight-part thriller, Harry Wild, starring Jane Seymour. The Grammy and Golden Globe-winning actress plays a recently retired English professor who cannot help but take an active interest in the criminal cases assigned to her police detective son.
"Meeting Jane Seymour in the flesh was absolutely amazing. She is just so beautiful, humble and full of life. Her character is going to be really loved. She's in her 70s and a retired professor who drinks booze, curses, drives fast and is just fantastic."
Seymour is also an executive producer on Harry Wild and Spain is picking up some valuable tips from her.
"It's fascinating to learn about that side of the business. It will help me write in the future as you can write anything, but if you don't have enough budget to film it you are in trouble."
Spain is juggling a number of other screen projects including adapting the novel The Source by Sarah Sultoon, a Scandinavian drama she describes as "a mix between Fargo and Killing Eve" and a show about the 1980s music scene in Sheffield.
She is also working on her 2022 novel: The Drowning is about "an Englishman who travels to Lapland where his sister has died in pretty horrific circumstances".
"It's a great setting for a crime mystery. I want people to feel the cold when they are reading this book so that it makes the tension unbearable."
And will she return to her Inspector Tom series?
"I hope so. He's on sabbatical but I reckon he's got life in him for another couple of books yet," adds Spain, who somehow also manages to juggle her career with bringing up four children, ranging in age from six to 15.
"Lockdown was tough. I'm used to working from home but I'm not used to working from home with four kids here all the time and home-schooling. It tested my patience," she laughs.
The Perfect Lie by Jo Spain is published by Quercus