Nikki Crutchley's fifth novel, In Her Blood, was released on 30 November. Although it has a bloodthirsty title, this book is more of a thriller: the story of not one, but two disappearances in a spooky hotel that takes on a persona of its own. I had the pleasure of asking the author about the inspiration for her book.
In Her Blood has such a great angle. The main characters are women: male characters hover on the periphery, variously portrayed as alcoholic, ineffective or violent.
Jac returns from Australia to her tiny hometown of Everly, in response to her father's plea to help find her sister Charlie. She takes a job in the old, decrepit hotel on the hill - run by an old, decrepit woman who has ruled it with bullying and violence.
The pivotal character, matriarch Iris, appears to be pure evil. Crutchley portrayed a domineering parent with finesse in her last book, (longlisted in 2022 for a Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel), To The Sea.
To The Sea was based on a domineering patriarch, whereas In Her Blood revolves around a dominating matriarch. Are these recurring themes in your work?
I never thought too much about it until I was developing Iris (the matriarch in In Her Blood) and realised I had just written a book about a patriarch much the same. So, yes, it is a recurring theme, but more than just abusive/domineering parents, I think I focus a lot on families as a whole – and what violent crime or abuse, either inside the family or from outside, does to a family unit. Families are so interesting. Ostensibly you are one and the same – in it together; you are there for each other; you are a unit bound by blood. But we all know there’s a lot more to families than that. And one of the questions I wanted to explore in In Her Blood was are you who your parents or grandparents are?
In Her Blood tells the parallel stories of two seventeen-year-old girls, disturbingly similar in appearance, who have disappeared; one twenty years after the other. What is their connection? What has happened to them? Readers are in on the story of the second lost girl - Charlie - as her sister Jac desperately searches for her. She is waiting out her abduction, incarcerated in a dark room who knows where.
A feature of crime novelists is to portray the police as missing vital details; the crime being solved by a character who is implicated, or a determined relative of the victim. Why would you say writers adopt this approach? Is this a comment on under-staffing in rural areas?
I feel this has less to do with any police staffing issues and more to do with writers deliberately choosing the amateur sleuth character to tell their story and give a completely new and different perspective on it compared to a detective. Amateur sleuths tend to have a lot more leeway when it comes to solving any kind of crime (think journalist or even PI) compared to a cop who has to stay within the bounds of the law. For me, personally, I like how the events of In Her Blood panned out. That the police were involved – Jac and her father spoke to the police about Charlie missing – but certain circumstances (small town prejudices and rumour being the main ones in this instance) meant that Jac felt like, for at least the time being, she was on her own.
The descriptions of the Gilmore Hotel imbue it with a persona of its own. It began to seep into my consciousness, reminding me of the Overlook Hotel immortalised by Stephen King. It has its own ghosts and mysteries, including a 'secret wing', cordoned off for soldiers' recuperation during the Second World War.
The dark, cold rooms in the Soldiers' wing have been a place for madness and punishment:'A place to think' for Iris' younger, unloved daughter, Lisa. The descriptions of Lisa's experience, parallel to Charlie's situation, make the reader wonder: is Charlie in the hotel somewhere? Who put her there? Why? And what happened to Iris' favourite, beautiful, accomplished daughter, Paige, all those years ago?
Which came first, the story or the hotel?
I would say there was a collection of very fractured ideas first: two sisters, a fire, abduction, the idea of obsession from a female/female point of view (as opposed to the more common male/female idea of obsession). The idea of setting the book at a hotel anchored everything in place and made all my ideas around character and plot a lot more solid. For me, setting in my books is just as important as plot or character. I like how a setting or landscape can help or hinder characters in a book, and how, for me, it’s more than just a backdrop to the events going on in the characters’ lives at that time; the setting for me is front and centre, contributing to the telling of the story.
The hotel, and perhaps the surrounding area, contains spectres from the past. How does this tie in with historic and cultural stories and superstitions in New Zealand?
When I settled on the hundred year old hotel for the setting, which is based on the old Waitomo Hotel, I was very much heading in the direction of the setting playing a major part in the story (as you mentioned, like The Overlook hotel in The Shining, or Manderley in Rebecca).
When I read more about the Waitomo Hotel and the fact many thought it was haunted, I started looking at it in a different way. I looked at how I could make up my own ghosts taken from history. And the made up ghosts to scare the local children in the book would compete with the ghosts of Lisa and Iris’s past. With regard to NZ history I took things like the Second World War and recuperating soldiers and inserted them into the fictional history of the hotel. I guess blending a small bit of our country’s history with fiction.
Simmering beneath this story is a history of soldiers recuperating from horrific experiences during the Second World War; perhaps little known in New Zealand.
Is the discussion of mental health a primary theme of this book?
I didn’t intend it to be when I was writing the book, but, as often happens after, on inspecting the book closer, I can see the issue of mental health is broached. The book to me is about love but also loss, grief and obsession – three aspects that most definitely tie in with mental health, how those things are handled (or not) at the time, and how over time, if not dealt with, can turn into something far worse than what it was in the beginning.
Lastly, do you have any plans to visit Christchurch in the near future? What's your favourite thing to do when you are here?
I’m always keen for a trip back to Christchurch! I was last there in April 2021 with my family. My girls loved the Margaret Mahy playground. I loved the hop on hop off tram ride around the city. New Regent Street was stunning with its pastel coloured buildings and boutique shops. I came across a cute little second hand bookshop called The Custard Square outside the Arts Centre. And I could spend days in the Riverside Market eating breakfast, lunch and dinner there!
Nikki Crutchley is skilled at muddying the waters. Like J. P. Pomare and Paul Cleave, she lets the reader think they have 'whodunnit' figured out, then turns the spotlight on an often surprising conclusion. In In Her Blood the secrets behind both plots are cleverly revealed in consecutive chapters.
Is the perp who you think it is? Is it the one you least suspected? Or does everyone have a motive, a la Hercule Poirot? Grab this book for Christmas and find out.