Lynda La Plante: The Matriarch of Murder

BAFTA award-winning screenwriter and bestselling author Lynda La Plante has returned to her most celebrated creation, Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, who first appeared in Lynda’s early books and was famously taken to screen by Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. In Lynda’s new series, a young Jane Tennison takes to the shady streets of Hackney to cut her teeth as an officer. Contending with cunning crims and male chauvinism, Jane has to prove herself as one the first women to join the London police force. Read on for our interview with Lynda about the first book in the series, Tennison, and click here to find out about her latest release, Hidden Killers.

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The Grand Dame of Crime is back. Lynda La Plante is returning to the franchise that catapulted her to international fame and made an icon of her lead character, DCI Jane Tennison.

Prime Suspect first aired in 1991 and immediately became a smash-hit in Britain and around the world, and six more series and an American spin-off followed. It was named by Time magazine as one of the best TV shows in history and is regarded as a cornerstone in the police procedural genre, and has garnered several BAFTA, Emmy and Golden Globe awards. The upcoming prequel to Prime Suspect, Tennison, sets out to show the world how the detective that Helen Mirren famously brought to screen came to be.

So, in the lead-up to releasing her highly anticipated book which will undoubtedly be snapped up by crime fans, and already immersed in adapting the novel into a blockbuster TV show, how has Lynda’s day been so far?

Dreadful.

Her dog has just decided to roll in fox poo, managing to stink out her entire office. I laugh tentatively and ask what kind of dog she owns.

‘He’s a cock-a-poo,’ she thunders in her an accent that sounds as if it should be echoing down the halls of Buckingham Palace, ‘You know with these breeds, they mix them and they go: “Oh, it’s wonderful, they won’t shed and they’ll have the intelligence of a poodle with the hunting instincts of a spaniel!” But what they’ve ended up with is a dog who’s incessantly sniffing like a spaniel, with the demented hysterics of a poodle, all in a very small bundle! Nightmare!’

Lynda-New-Photo-home-v2.jpgIt seems nothing is ever quite as easy as it should be for Lynda. Throughout her career, she’s clashed with doubtful television executives and weathered a tsunami of eye-rolling whenever she puts her foot down in an otherwise all-male editing suite. Workplace misogyny is a recurring issue in Lynda’s stories, and both the author and her famous character have had to contend with chauvinism repeatedly in their careers.

‘I learned to toughen up, not to shout or get tearful. I learned to stay cool. A policewoman once told me to never fold your arms. As soon as you get upset in an argument and fold your arms – that’s it! You’ve blown it!’

In Tennison, we see a young Jane Tennison at the start of her career. She’s a fledgling WPC (woman police constable) just out of training college, a bumbling newbie compared to the fully-fledged, tough DCI we first met in Prime Suspect, who was intent on shattering the glass ceiling with her razor-sharp instincts and intelligence.

What made the adult Jane Tennison so iconic?

‘Really, that’s what I’m intending to show,’ Lynda explains. ‘How did a 22-year-old girl come out of the police academy and, straight after training, get thrown into Hackney, one of the toughest areas of London? The reality is you’re taught a lot of rules and regulations in the training college, but you don’t handle a dead body, you don’t go to an autopsy, you don’t know what the underbelly of crime is all about. You look at the surface. So to be thrown into Hackney, which is where the Krays and the Richardson gang murders used to happen, was extremely tough. My intention is that you gradually get to see the development of that mature woman that came onto our screens in Prime Suspect.’

Lynda’s depiction of a woman as a high-ranking officer was groundbreaking, and she believes it had an impact on attitudes towards female police officers in the real world.

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‘I think people paid a lot of attention to the fact that in the original Prime Suspect, it was the very first time they’d seen a woman of high rank in control. If someone asked me what the best thing was that came out of Prime Suspect, I would say it’s the fact that if you had lost a child or been the victim of a crime and a woman police officer came in to help you, you’d accept her. Before that, there was very obvious disdain about female detectives. People would say, “I wanna talk to a man.” That change was terribly important to me, because it did establish a new kind of epoch for women in the police force.’

In Tennison, the police team at Hackney station are embroiled in a baffling homicide. The body of a teenage girl has been found at a children’s playground. The victim has ostensibly been strangled to death with her own bra. With the discovery that the girl was a heroin user who’d been prostituting herself so she could feed her addiction, the search for the truth becomes increasingly muddied as the detectives navigate a web of shady characters with a burning wariness towards anyone in a police uniform.

Tennison, like all Lynda’s books, has been meticulously researched. The crime queen is an expert in the radius and direction of blood-splatters, can tell by the subtle shades of colour of a bruise on a cadaver whether it was administered at the time of death or not, and could tell you exactly how long a toxicology report will take after blood and urine samples have been extracted from a recently murdered body. Her writing is so forensically precise that in 2013 she was the first non-scientist to be inducted into the Forensic Science Society with an honorary fellowship.

Lynda seeks out interviews with the most despicable criminals to help her create realistic villains.”

‘That was a great honour for me,’ says Lynda. ‘If I write about forensics in my books, I’ll go to forensic specialists and they’ll look at it and give me notes that I incorporate into my work. In Tennison there was a huge amount of forensic evidence used, and you see a young Jane learning about forensics too. She’s me really; what I learned, she learns.’

In addition to regular visits to her forensic fact-checkers, Lynda also puts a lot of effort into researching her settings and characters. Once in Los Angeles while interviewing prostitutes in brothel, she stripped down to her underwear to make her interviewees feel more at ease. She also seeks out interviews with the most despicable criminals to help her create realistic villains. It’s here her acting training at RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) aided her writing the most, she explains.

‘Acting is an incredible help when I’m in prisons interviewing inmates. I’ve learned to be very controlled and not show disgust while I’m sitting and listening to a rapist gloat about what he’s done. Also, being an actor and having to memorise lines very quickly, I also learned not to take notes. As soon as your pen goes down on a page, they stop. Even with a tape recorder, they’ll look at it and be guarded in what they tell me. So I have to memorise everything they say. That’s when the old acting comes back in use for me.’

Despite the appalling atrocities that some criminals commit, there’s no denying our obsession with the dark side of human nature. Many criminal personalities take on a glamorous, charismatic allure. Lynda is a particular fan of the Kray twins, a pair of murderous brothers who ran a feared organised crime gang in London in the 1950s and 1960s. They were the embodiment of the tantalising intersection between glamour and delinquency; they were murderers, but they were often in the company of stars such as Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. They were criminal celebrities.

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The Kray Twins

‘One of the Kray twins looked very normal, the other was out to lunch!’ Lynda tells me. ‘There was a time when one of them was accused of murder, deemed insane, and put away in prison. His brother went in to visit him wearing a very outrageous jacket, and they managed to switch clothes without being noticed. The insane one walked straight out! He escaped! The incidents in their lives were so shocking, and they were still famous today.’

Why do people who commit awful crimes garner such fame? Why are we so intrigued by human behaviour at its worst? Lynda believes that reading about crime is a sort of escapism; it’s a world so far from our own that we can lurk into it and be swept away by the suspense, the charisma, the horror, without feeling threatened by it ourselves – the perfect entertainment.

Just as Lynda is about to give me more revealing insights into her upcoming novel and the darker realms of the human psyche, our interview is cut short.

‘I’m going to have to shoot,’ she says apologetically. ‘My dog has returned. Caked in fox poo again! Smelling out my office! I’ll write your closing line for you: ‘I’m very sorry but we’ll have to finish the article with Lynda La Plante,’ she cordially announces. ‘Her dog has rolled in fox shit!’

Tennison by Lynda La Plante is published by Simon & Schuster, rrp $32.99. Buy it for $14.75 at Good Reading’s website. Find out more about Hidden Killers here

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