Stuart Neville: The Accidental Origins of DCI Serena Flanagan

Stuart Neville: The Accidental Origins of DCI Serena Flanagan

To make matters worse, my wonderful literary agents Nat Sobel and Caspian Dennis had already sold the book to my publisher, plus moving house and a second baby had taken a hefty bite out of the advance. I had to make a terrifying call to my agents and editors, telling them I wasn’t going to deliver the book I’d been contracted for. To my surprise and gratitude, everyone was kind and supportive. ‘Never mind,’ they all said. ‘You’ll come up with something else.’

Of course I will, I thought. I’ll come up with something else. I’ll come up with something else. I’ll come up with something else…

About a year and one missed deadline later, I did at last come up with something else: The Final Silence, about a woman who inherits a house from her estranged uncle only to find within it a journal of all the people he’d killed. It came to me at the breakfast table one morning, and to my eternal gratitude, the idea was well received by everybody.

As the story unfolds, my curmudgeonly cop DI Jack Lennon comes under suspicion for a gruesome murder. I therefore needed another cop to investigate and interrogate him. To make this minor character more interesting, I decided to make her a woman one rank above Lennon, but in every other respect his mirror image. Thing is, Jack Lennon is not a nice man. By the time The Final Silence starts, he’s addicted to painkillers, is drinking too much, his relationship with his girlfriend is floundering, and he’s in danger of losing his daughter. In other words, he very much follows the template of the lone wolf cop, the hard-bitten detective with whom every crime reader is intimately familiar.

In the first draft of the story, DCI Serena Flanagan was every bit as hard and bitter as Lennon was. In her earliest incarnation, she was a single, forty-something, red-haired, cold, ruthless career cop. Great, I thought. Let her go head-to-head with Lennon for a few scenes so he can look himself in the eye.

That was fine until the BBC aired a serial killer thriller set in Belfast called The Fall.

I sat down to enjoy the first episode of that show, but I felt a creeping horror as Gillian Anderson’s character, DSI Stella Gibson, emerged as a single, forty-something, red-haired, cold, ruthless career cop.

In other words, just like my first incarnation of DCI Serena Flanagan. Uh-oh, I thought. Back to the drawing board.

As it turned out, what seemed like a disaster for my story wound up being a tremendous boon. I was forced to look at Serena Flanagan anew. So instead of making her a female version of Lennon, what if I went in entirely the other direction? Rather than her being a jaded singleton, what if she was happily married? Where Lennon can barely cope with being a father, what if Flanagan is a devoted mother? If Lennon is lacking in feeling for his fellow human beings, what if Flanagan is empathetic to a fault?

Suddenly, Serena Flanagan became a lot more interesting to me. More interesting, in fact, than Lennon was. Flanagan presented an opportunity to move away from the tropes of the fictional detective. It seemed she gave me a fresh perspective on everything. As a consequence, her role in The Final Silence expanded from that of a functional character, simply there to kick the plot in a particular direction, into an integral part of the story. While Lennon was still the protagonist, it became as much Serena’s book as it was his.

As I was developing this new version of Serena, I spent some time thinking about what could set her apart from other cop characters. Every fictional detective needs some distinctive trait, whether it’s an idiosyncratic taste in music, a fondness for real ale, or a shadowy past. Looking back at how she first appears in that story, I noted how before she ever shows up on stage, there is much discussion among the male characters of how tough she is. A sergeant under her command goes so far as to admit to finding her terrifying.

How, I wondered, can I play against that? It occurred to me that when we first meet Serena face-to-face, it should be in a desperately vulnerable state. I thought of experiences within my own family, and something my mother had been battling with for years. So DCI Serena Flanagan’s first appearance on the page is as she’s being diagnosed with breast cancer. Not least because it’s a uniquely female problem, that gave me a way to hone in on her character, find out who she really is behind the job, get to the essence of her.

When the book went to my agents and publishers, everybody was – to my relief – happy with the result. And one note seemed to come back from everyone: We really like Serena; can we see more from her? This resonated with my own feelings on the matter; over the course of the writing and rewriting of The Final Silence – perhaps because certain aspects of her are influenced by my wife – I had fallen a little bit in love with her. And I really wanted to see her again.

Around that time, I started talking to my editors about the next book. The question was raised: What about the story of the two brothers? We still like that idea. Truth is, so did I. But that book had died a death almost two years before, so how could I revive it now? Then I wondered, what if Serena Flanagan was the cop instead of Lennon? What could she bring to the story that Lennon couldn’t?

The answer was: everything.

When I sat down to retry Those We Left Behind with DCI Serena Flanagan as the protagonist, I was amazed to find the story opening up, blossoming in a way I couldn’t have foreseen. The dynamics between the characters changed in such a fundamental way that the novel took on a whole new life. In particular, the relationship between Serena and the vulnerably child-like Ciaran Devine became the spine of the story. There’s a multi-layered and complex relationship there that is both maternal and sexual, further complicated by Serena’s own self-image in the wake of her breast cancer treatment. This is the sort of stuff a writer can really dig into, depths of character and plot that just wouldn’t have been possible without Serena.

For me, the most significant difference between Serena Flanagan and my previous leading man, Jack Lennon, is this: I like Serena. As much fun as I had with Lennon as a writer – and many of my readers love him, going by the emails I get – he’s not someone I’d want to know in real life. Conversely, I’d happily go for a drink with Serena. In fact, I’d like to keep her around for some time to come. I don’t know how many books she has in her, but as long as she has stories to give me, I’ll keep writing them.

In Serena’s next outing, called So Say the Fallen, I delve deeper into what makes her tick not just as a police officer, but as a wife and mother. I am interested in her as a whole, complete person. In this next story, I follow her as she is forced to question the very fundamentals of her existence. And I think that’s what will sustain me through more novels with Serena Flanagan: I feel like I’ve barely scratched the skin of her. There’s a mile-long list of questions about her I’ve yet to answer for myself, let alone for readers: Where is she from? Why did she become a cop? What were her first cases? Where will she go from here?

I hope to get to know Serena Flanagan better over the next few years. I hope readers will too.