Introducing Helen Fields, an award-winning crime writer who has been twice shortlisted for the McIllvanney Scottish Crime Book of the Year. Inspired by her background as a criminal and family barrister, Helen has written various crime novels taking place across Scotland. Her latest book, The Last Girl to Die, entails every parent’s worst night: a teenage girl goes missing from home to be found brutally murdered by an ancient pagan ritual. The story takes place on the Isle of Mull, and Helen extensively researched the island’s myths and legends. The story includes the island’s most feared witch, Doideag, the Lochbuie Stone Circle and the famous sea grotto, Mackinnon’s cave.
We were lucky enough to get the chance to ask Helen more about her The Last Girl to Die and about how Scotland specifically inspires her writings. Read on for the full interview.
The hardiness and the toughness required of its people throughout history undoubtedly created tougher fights, while Scotland’s beauty shaped extraordinary poets and storytellers. Scotland’s geography seems to be ingrained in every aspect of life. It’s a place of extremes.
The Last Girl To Die begins with a missing teenager. An American family have moved to the Isle of Mull and now their 17-year-old daughter, Adriana, has disappeared. Frustrated by the efforts of local police, the family calls in Canadian private investigator Sadie Levesque. But when Sadie finds Adriana’s body, wearing a seaweed crown with her mouth stuffed full of sand, her death drags up the island’s painful past and starts rumours of witchcraft. The book is about how rural communities can sometimes limit young women’s ambitions, and about how you never know where danger lies, even in your own home town.
It was the history of Mull that made it stand out as the perfect setting for The Last Girl To Die, specifically that all the island myths are built around the ascertainable, real past of the place. There’s something fascinating about the fact that these aren’t just fairytales about witches or making offerings to the sea gods. Everything the islanders did had a purpose. All the rituals were steeped in the reality of their lives. The clan chief relied on the so-called “witch” for wisdom and guidance.
The Spanish galleon in Mull’s harbour was the source of my inspiration for the book. I couldn’t have set it anywhere else. I love the closed circle of an island. It’s both literal and metaphorical. As a writer, it means you set yourself a problem that you have only limited ways of solving.
And I think island communities work differently, communicate differently. They change less over the years because they’re subject to fewer external changes. I love the self-sufficiency of islanders. They have to make their own fun, settle their own disputes and band together to make it through rough times. That makes writing island-based books both claustrophobic and eye-opening. The fact that Mull has the most amazing geography and natural features was the icing on the cake.
I’m fascinated by how much of Scotland’s personality and history has been shaped by its landscape. The hardiness and the toughness required of its people throughout history undoubtedly created tougher fights, while Scotland’s beauty shaped extraordinary poets and storytellers. Scotland’s geography seems to be ingrained in every aspect of life. It’s a place of extremes. That’s what inspires my books. The sense that the Scottish people are constantly waging a war against the elements, at the same time as appreciating that very wildness.
Scotland is a place where parallel universes meet. Every decade from its past is carried on its shoulders. It seems to me that the Scottish soil holds memories. Nothing is ever forgotten, the lessons of the past aren’t wasted. And it feels like a place where anything can happen – mystical and gothic, romantic and comedic – all at once. For me, Scotland is the place where I can stop thinking for a while and just allow myself to experience and feel. Isn’t that just the perfect place to set a fictional book?
Scotland is always a character in my books. Setting isn’t just about place. It dictates mood and tone. Geography and history are always intertwined. Scotland’s geography also gives its inhabitants their unique temperament – hardy but humorous, proud and fierce. I hope my words are infused with the nature of the place. I always think that if I can add a fraction of the intense feeling Scotland gives me into my books, then I’ve done well.
For me, the setting is the same thing as the characters. You can’t separate the two. What I love, is taking outsiders and throwing them into a Scottish environment. You can’t help but fall in love with Scotland, but at the same time, it can be hard to adjust to a new way of life. The Scots have their own sense of humour, their own way of communicating. I love seeing how this affects my characters’ behaviour. But unavoidably, my characters always fall in love with Scotland. My Scottish readers know this is exactly what happens in real life, and my readers from other parts of the world end up longing to visit. People contact me all the time saying they’re planning to visit after reading my books. It’s all because Scotland is so iconic. There are few countries in the world with as strong a personality.
My favourite place on Mull is Calgary Bay and I’ve been fortunate enough to visit during periods of bright sunshine and sparkling seas, when you can sunbathe and swim. Scotland is a land of contradictions – often within a single day. Perhaps sadly, it’s the brooding, misty side of the landscape that best lends itself to crime novels, but Scotland has some spectacular weather. It’s especially good for hiking and climbing. I’ve skied in Aviemore with azure skies above me. It can be a picture postcard idyll or horror movie bleak. That’s what I love about it, in fact. It’s a single country that’s never the same, no matter how many times you visit. Plus, Scotland’s sunsets are some of the best I’ve seen in the world.
I’ve never visited the Isle of Skye and I’ve been longing to go to the Spar Cave. I know it’s hard to access, and tidal, but it seems well worth the effort. I’m fascinated by the historic myths that surround it, and the wonderment of previous visitors. Also on my list is the neolithic settlement of Skara Brae on the Bay of Skaill on Orkney. I’m a history lover, so this is a must for me at some point. And I’m always on the lookout for new book locations, so no trip in Scotland is ever wasted!
My favourite place in Scotland, hard as it is to pick just one, is Aviemore. In sunshine or in the snow, it’s a bustling, lively, fun place to be with plenty to do. The hiking up there is amazing. You can find peace, stare at the endless views, and surround yourself with natural beauty. I go there with my family and we reclaim life away from social media. We walk, play games, sit around a fire, cook together, and just breathe the fresh air.
I was brought up reading Robert Louis Stevensons’s writing, amongst others. These days, my favourite Scottish writers are Christopher Brookmyre who writes characters like no one else, Alexander McCall Smith for sense of place, and Stuart MacBride for black comedy.
A modern but incredibly meaningful addition to important Scottish songs is “Scotland’s Story” by the Proclaimers (I’m a huge fan of their music). It’s about immigrants in Scotland and how every one of them brings value and diversity. It’s as good a description as you’ll find of the inclusivity that makes Scotland such a wonderful place to live.
When I was younger I wanted to be an opera singer, and trained for a long time, until I decided my path lay in law.
The beautiful beaches. Visitors from abroad often are unaware of this aspect of the landscape. The Scottish islands, in particular, have some of the most stunning beaches I’ve found anywhere in the world