One of the great things about the annual Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, at least until 2020’s forced hiatus, has always been the way authors and fans mix so freely, not least in the hotel bar. But Holly Watt’s first experience of it last year, when she was on Val McDermid’s vaunted New Blood panel on the strength of her award-winning debut novel To The Lions, wasn’t exactly like that.
“You’re right, I’d heard all these stories about everyone staying up all night and having a great time,” she says. “But I had my first baby with me, who was just three-weeks-old at the time, and we’d just had a six-hour train journey from the middle of nowhere in Dartmoor, where I now live. So it was straight to my hotel room and bed for me.”
Not that she’s completely unfamiliar with a bit of pressure. Before becoming a full-time novelist, Watt was an investigative journalist for many years, reporting from countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Libya, Jordan and Lebanon, remembering that often she “would start the day not knowing where I would be by the evening”.
She continues: “I would be ordered to Heathrow, and only be told where I was going when I was halfway there. There were several adventures along the way, and a few times when I thought ‘that was a bit close for comfort’ such as hunting for documents in a nuclear bunker in Libya or chasing Somali pirates round the Indian Ocean. I didn’t realise at the time, but it was this sense of never knowing what was coming next that created both the characters and the settings for To The Lions. I spent years of my life never knowing quite where the stories would take me and the book’s central character, Casey Benedict, has a similar existence.”
Watt started her career at The Sunday Times before moving to The Daily Telegraph, where for six years she was the Whitehall editor. She jointly ran the investigations team which uncovered the MPs’ expenses scandal, before moving to The Guardian‘s investigations team, winning another award for their ‘Panama Papers’ coverage.
Now she’s winning awards and glowing reviews left and right for her thrillers rather than her journalism. In her 2019 debut To The Lions, Casey, an investigative journalist for The Post, learns that a group of ultra-rich bankers and hedge-fund managers are going on safaris where people are the prey. That was the winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, and recently picked up the ‘eDunnit’ Award at CrimeFest 2020, while this year’s The Dead Line follows Casey’s further adventures around the world after the horrifying message ‘they take the girls’ is found hidden in clothes manufactured for the British high street. Like her debut, it’s a fast-paced, terrifyingly believable thriller, this time about the oppression of Bangladeshi garment workers, illegal surrogacy and corruption reaching from Harley Street to the House of Commons.
While Watt was writing To The Lions she was still working at The Guardian and insists it hadn’t occurred to her that Casey and her investigations into real-world concerns could lend themselves to a continuing series.
“Writing was definitely my first love. I spent years of my childhood writing little stories and making up endless adventures. I remember being quite surprised that not everyone did the same thing. But I have no idea how some of my crime-writing colleagues manage to plot seven books in a row,” she laughs. “I had a sense that the stories of Casey, her boss Miranda and their colleagues at The Post wouldn’t be finished after To The Lions but, at the same time, no clear idea what their long-term trajectory would be. Fairly early on, my agent pointed out that ‘you seem to have come up with a structure that could be a series. A couple of investigative journalists could plausibly have a series of investigations to go at, unlike having a murder every week in a picturesque village, like Midsomer Murders.’ Now I’m just really glad that I didn’t have to say goodbye to them at the end of the first one. I felt like they still had a long way to go, they interested me and I liked the format of a newsroom, where you’ve got all these different characters who can come to the fore at any point in a series.”
It was, she recalls, “quite a leap of faith” leaving The Guardian. “It happened partly because my partner lived down in Devon and something had to give. It just wasn’t possible to write books, have a full-time career in journalism and have a relationship with somebody in Devon.”
She adds: “I wrote To The Lions in 2016, in the immediate aftermath of working on the Panama Papers and I actually left The Guardian in the summer of 2018 by which time I had already started The Dead Line. I’m sure my publishers would have been flexible but I felt like ‘I want to crack on with this and give it a real shot’. I think that up to a certain point I always will miss that cut and thrust of a busy newsroom but I did it for almost 15 years. It was marvellous and fun and exciting in lots of ways but I was never someone who was going to go up the executive hierarchy route, and I don’t hugely miss having been jolted out of that path.”
Having very successfully dodged that “difficult second album” bullet with The Dead Line, the completion of her third Casey Benedict thriller has suddenly become unexpectedly problematic.
“It’s due to come out for summer next year and I’d written most of it before coronavirus really kicked off. So now the issue is working out what do we change, how do we change it, what will the world look like? The book is again quite international, partly set in Zimbabwe, partly in America, but would journalists be allowed to travel? Would the office be socially distant?
“Or do you just completely ignore it? I don’t think anyone’s going to want to read about coronavirus next summer, we’ll all be so fed up with it. But is coronavirus going to be the equivalent of the mobile phone in thriller films and change everything afterwards or is it going to be something that is horrible and grim but doesn’t run our lives in a few years’ time? Definitely the whole thing is quite weird.”
To The Lions and The Dead Line are published by Bloomsbury.