12th Aug2015

Unravelling Marnie Rome by Sarah Hilary

by Lloyd Paige


Implementing character back stories into a main narrative can be tricky but it’s something that Sarah Hilary does well. So I’m very pleased to welcome Sarah back to the site to discuss this as part of her No Other Darkness blog tour.

Each of the books in my Marnie Rome series begins with a scene from five years ago.

In the case of Someone Else’s Skin it is the moment when Marnie returns home to find her parents murdered by her teenage foster brother, Stephen. The shadow cast by their deaths stretches over the entire series as Marnie fights to overcome her grief and guilt, and to find answers to her questions about their deaths.

In No Other Darkness, the book opens with a scene from five years ago that has no direct connection to Marnie but which becomes the basis for the harrowing investigation she leads in the present day narrative.

Two small boys are trapped underground, dying. When she learns of their fate, Marnie wonders why she didn’t hear of the police search five years ago for the missing boys. Was she so bound up in her own loss that it failed to register? More frightening still is the idea that her past is colouring her judgement, and interfering with her ability to do her job.

“…readers want to find out details about the main characters.”

Clancy Brand, an angry teenage boy, becomes a suspect in the case. His likeness to Stephen scares Marnie, who must unravel the strands of past and present — her demons and the killer’s — in order to solve the case.

No doubt there are potential pitfalls in attempting to weave the background stories of the central characters into a book’s main narrative, but for me these are outweighed by the benefits of being able to touch the story’s central pulse, which was established in that first flashback from five years ago. In this sense, Marnie’s struggle mirrors the themes that run throughout the series—of regret and remorse, fear and forgiveness, cruelty and compassion.

Quite naturally, readers want to find out details about the main characters. Backstory is a vital part of that discovery, but it must be handled skilfully to avoid reading like info-dump. My rule of thumb is that the background story must always echo or enrich the main narrative, (certainly it must never distract from the main narrative). Done well, the weaving of these threads between past and present results in a more layered story, one which peels away not only the clues to the crime but the clues to the characters.

In No Other Darkness, we learn a little more about Noah Jake’s childhood, in particular his relationship with his younger brother, Sol. In the context of a story about brothers, this backstory finds its natural place. And Noah’s conflicted feelings for Sol are put into perspective by the investigation and its conclusion.

A story is a living thing. Organic. By obeying that first rule I hope to continue unravelling Marnie and Noah to the satisfaction of my readers.

No Other Darkness is out now and published by Headline.

Read my review of No Other Darkness here.

Visit Sarah’s blog.



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