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The Cliff House: Chris Brookmyre to take audience inside his locked-room mystery at Fife festival

The Scottish author will talk about his new book at The East Neuk Literary Festival.

Image shows author Chris Brookmyre standing outdoors. Chris is standing with his hands in his pockets with a serious expression on his face.
Chris Brookmyre is looking forward to his visit to the East Neuk of Fife.

Chris Brookmyre is a prolific author of crime fiction and one half of the highly successful Ambrose Parry writing partnership along with his wife Marisa Haetzman.

He spoke to Nora McElhone about his latest novel The Cliff House ahead of his appearance at The East Neuk Literary Festival on November 8.

Take a hen party made up of friends and family from the bride’s past and present, send them all to an luxury escape on an isolated island and you have the perfect recipe for a new locked-room thriller from Chris Brookmyre.

The Cliff House stems from an idea that Brookmyre originally had several years ago.

He was originally planning on sending his bride and her guests to New York before deciding that they should have a more isolated party venue.

Who can you trust in The Cliff House?

“The Cliff House takes places on a remote Scottish island on a hen weekend and it’s really about the fact that we have different levels of friendship,” he explains.

“You might have known someone for ten years and you don’t really know anything intimate about them and equally there are people you have known your own life can be more of a threat to you because they know all your secrets.

“Being isolated from friends during the pandemic that led to me thinking about the family of friendship and different levels of friendship.

“Which ones can you trust when things get hairy?”

The author describes the setting for his story as “an amalgam of places I have been. It’s a fictional small private island because I wanted to create my own environment”

Locked room location

The great Scottish outdoors is where Chris does a lot of his plotting for his novels. “I like being outdoors I like walking,” he says.

“I just walk and talk into my phone, or actually a wee lapel mic these days. I feel the ideas flow when I’m outdoors,” continues the writer.

“You are often inspired by locations – sometimes it is imagining what might take place in that location or sometimes it is something about the atmosphere that suggests something.

“It is not always direct and obvious, sometimes it’s just a mood about a place.

“Somewhere isolated might seem quite sinister while at other times it might seem paradoxically secure because you are away from what you are afraid of.”

The Cliff House and ‘the toy box’

Thinking about The Cliff House in particular, he says: “It’s very much about, if you put a whole lot of people on a small island and they realise somebody dangerous is on the loose and you’ve got this contained environment, the reader can be sure that all the components are already there.

“It’s like a toy box and you are going to let them root through it and you are not going to have some new character arrive three quarters of the way in.”

I do plot things out quite carefully but you always need room to allow the characters to breathe – it’s always a kind a balancing act.”

Chris Brookmyre

Developing the characters for the story was straightforward for Brookmyre.

“I started with the bride, it’s her hen party so I thought about who would be in her life.”

The next step, he says, was to think about who would be problematic.

In theory a hen party should be the chance for the bride to celebrate with all the people she loves around her, but the reality can be different. “Once I put them all in a room together I began to get to know how they would behave.

“As a writer I do plot things out quite carefully but you always need room to allow the characters to breathe – it’s always a kind a balancing act.

East Neuk Literary Festival

As we talk on the phone, he is preparing for an event in Edinburgh with his appearance at Conversations on the Coast coming up next week.

Brookmyre loves these opportunities to connect with his readers and to meet fellow authors.

“Marissa and I did an Ambrose Parry event at Conversations on The Coast about this time last year and we were really quite taken by it – it was a full house and we had a really warm response.”

He was also delighted to have the opportunity to explore a part of Scotland that he doesn’t know well, even if the weather wasn’t terribly welcoming:

“We have been to St Andrews a lot but the Elie is one of these wee areas of Fife that you tend to bypass.

Cosy Conversations on the Coast

“It felt like we were in a wind tunnel the entire 24hrs that we were there,” he laughs.

“But it helped me to visualise the climax of Doug Johnstone’s third Skelfs novel, as it takes place on the beach there.”

Conversations on the Coast has a slightly different format to other literary festivals. with one author talk a week, spread out over a month rather than a cluster of events.

“I think that the fact that it is discreet events maybe adds to the turnout.”

“When it is the winter months coming in, having somewhere for people to gather and in a cosy environment for a cosy discussion certainly seemed to create a conducive atmosphere to talk about books,” he enthuses.

Chris Brookmyre on books – what’s he reading?

“I do read a lot of crime fiction,” he says, “a lot of it written by my friends because you do end up becoming friends with writers.

These days, Mick Herron, author of the Slough House series, and Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi and historical fiction are top of Brookmyre’s list, although, like many authors, he doesn’t feel that he has time to read as much as he would like.

When he thinks back to his teenage years, he says, “I was constantly reading. I would often be sat on a bean bag next to a radiator with a book in my hand.”

He read adult fiction and devoured Tolkien, Douglas Adams and Ian Fleming’s books – “young adult fiction hadn’t been invented yet,” he points out.

He is also very excited about his next book, The Cracked Mirror, which he describes as a very unusual novel where a Miss Marple type has to team up with a hard-boiled LA cop. “I think it might be my best so far!” he enthuses.

  • The Cliff House by Chris Brookmyre is available now £9.99, Hachette.
  • Catch Chris at The East Neuk Literary Festival: Conversations on the Coast on November 9. He will lead a discussion on Friends, Family and Other Mortal Threats at Earlsferry Town Hall at 7pm.