In The Child Kate is leading the investigation, pursuing a scrap of news she spots in an evening paper about a buried baby and exposing the secrets of three women along the way.
I admit I was nervous when I first decided to put her front and centre – the reputation of reporters was at its nadir and we were classed alongside estate agents and bankers (but above politicians . . .) in terms of public trust.
What sort of response would I get from readers? Would they be turned off by a journalist trying to do her job? But the response to Kate and her work as a reporter has been fascinating – and heartening. Some see her as manipulative, some as being manipulated by other characters, and others think she’s a feisty investigator determined to find the truth. Everyone has a different opinion but at least it has started a conversation about the reality of a reporter’s life, beyond the stereotypes. And, most importantly for me, readers have wanted to know more about her, urging me to delve deeper into her as a character and to tell more about the world of journalism.
What Kate Waters gives me is the freedom to go in any direction – a freedom I loved when I was a reporter. One week I’d be interviewing a rescued sailor in Australia, the next, talking to the Mother of Martyrs in Gaza or in a Glasgow flat with a man accused of online child abuse.
While police officers are drowning in a sea of forms in triplicate, she can pick up her notebook and go.
Having a journalist as investigator gives it a different pace. As the former editor of Time magazine, Henry Anatole Grunwald put it: Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.
Sounds wonderful but, of course, Henry never stood in a telephone box/urinal with a cynical copy taker on the other end of the phone line sighing: ‘Is there much more of this?’
Anyway, his point is that journalism has to be fast – and a hundred times more so now than when I started. Police investigations take time to amass the whole picture to put before a jury, piecing together tiny pieces of evidence – a cigarette end here, a CCTV frame there to build their case that they have the guilty party. But the journalist is putting forward evidence, opinion, witnesses, minute by minute for the public to build its own picture and make up its own mind.
And, of course, the lack of official ‘procedure’ that frames police work, puts Kate out there, in vulnerable situations. From my self-interested POV, the difficult decisions she faces – ethically and even physically – are meat and drink to me as a thriller writer. They are lived experiences – mine and my former colleagues – when she gets too close to the story and the women at its heart or when she sees her story hijacked by the headline writers.
She also allows me to give an insight into a largely unknown world. Most of us only see the end products of journalism. Possibly the closest we get to the behind-the-scenes reality is the blurry scenes behind the BBC newsreader. I hope that walking the reader into the Post’s newsroom is a bit like taking the back off a watch or, perhaps more accurately, going through the swing doors of a restaurant and seeing the warts and all processes that produce that plate of food in front of you.
And there are fantastic characters to plunder there . . . every newsroom has its legends (no names, no pack drills) and I have helped myself to a few highlights in the books – yes, a reporter did bite his news editor on the ankle when he was too drunk to stand . . .
We live in interesting – and less drink-sodden – times as far as the media is concerned. Providing news has changed beyond recognition for journalists in the last few years (see telephone box reference above) and I have loved tackling the challenges head-on with Kate in The Child. I have played with her suspicions and fears about the leaps forward in technology, teasing her with the help of her ‘work experience child’, Joe Jackson, who, gallingly, gets it all.
Journalist heroines are a bit thin on the ground in literature. A quick trawl of the net produced Lois Lane, Superman’s reporter sidekick determined to unmask him; the appalling dragon lady, Miranda Priestly of The Devil Wears Prada; and the seriously compromised Mattie Storin in House of Cards, who sleeps with the source of her exclusive stories and pays a terrible price.
Happily, Kate Waters survives The Child, physically – if not emotionally – intact and lives to write another story. As they say in the business, more follows later . . .