Remaking a murderer: true-life double killer inspires novel
As a writer there are two ways of dealing with an astonishing true life story: you can simply dramatise it or you can make it into something completely different. When it came to the story of the Belfast double murderer Colin Howell and his accomplice Hazel Stewart, the makers of last year’s James Nesbitt drama The Secret went one way and I went the other.
There’s a kind of grief involved in finishing a book. A time of mourning as the writer faces the question of what he or she does next. Each novel is like wrestling with a tireless opponent, one that is also a monstrous kind of shapeshifter: one moment it’s a bull, now a leopard, now a ghost.
Sometimes it’s all these things at once, so you need to know that the characters and ideas you spend the next few years with are worth the effort.
After the last novel I did at least know what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about a book about the creeping numbness of middle age, how, without noticing, you go from being “promising” to being that tired guy who somehow sees his Da’s face staring back from the mirror?
There were also the two subjects I always come back to: the emotional turmoil of adolescence, and the everyday conflicts of family life. Male novelists often do the first, but they avoid the latter. I don’t know why. More fool them. The secrets, the betrayals, the power struggles: family life is natural territory for a novelist. Every ordinary family has enough drama for a dozen novels.
So I had subjects but I didn’t actually have a story and I like a novel to have propulsion as well as themes. Shouldn’t all novels be page-turners?
I tried not to worry about not having the story, however. I think if you keep trying to write your novel, your unconscious will lead you to the things that you need. As Picasso said: “inspiration exists, but it’s got to find you working”.
So I kept working and yes, the unconscious led me to pick up a paper I don’t normally read. And there I found the Colin Howell story. Howell, as the world knows, killed his wife and the husband of his lover in what appeared to be a suicide pact between two jilted spouses. The bodies were found in a fume-filled car in Castlerock, Co Derry, in 1991.
Howell remarried after his wife’s death and continued to practice as a dentist for nearly 20 years before confessing. He was convicted in 2010 and is now serving a minimum of 21 years for the double murder. His former lover, Hazel Stewart was found guilty of murder in 2011 and was also sentenced to life imprisonment.
To be honest, for me, unlike for the makers of The Secret, it wasn’t the murderers themselves that fired my imagination. I wasn’t particularly interested in them as people. The real Howell and the real Stewart seem to be so unlikeable. There’s the hypocrisy of the supposed religious faith and in Howell’s case there was also a history of indecent assault too. But I was interested in how you get away with a crime so extreme, how you keep it a secret and, having managed this, what motivates one person to confess.
All decent writers take extreme liberties with their source material. And so, soon after stumbling across Colin Howell’s crime, I was playing What If? What if the co-accused was a decent person who had been drawn into something terrible when young. What if they had spent a lifetime trying to make up for it? What if they have a young family? What if when the police come round they go on the run, trying to evade justice while also trying to find and persuade their one-time lover to retract the confession?
Out of these conversations with myself came Stronger Than Skin. (The title comes from the idea that scar tissue is tougher than undamaged skin. That the damage life deals out makes you more robust.)
The book has two strands. There is the story of Mark, a working-class kid trying to adjust to life at Cambridge University in 1990, when he meets an enigmatic, sophisticated member of the upper classes who turns his life upside down. As they embark on a passionate affair Mark gets sucked into events he can barely understand, never mind control. Revelations about this time are drip-fed through the narrative which is also concerned with his efforts to stay ahead of the police.
Balancing these two stories was a high-wire act and, like any circus performer, I broke quite a few bones while learning how to manage it, but in the end I hope the book achieves what I set out to do – that it grips readers as a good thriller should, while also giving them plenty to think about.
Published in The Irish Times, 25th May 2017