Local author Marrisse Whittaker’s latest novel The Devil’s Line is due to be published on 10 November. It is the second in the DSI Billie Wilde series, following on from her successful debut novel The Magpie, and it promises to be a gripping and gritty read.
Marrisse has had a fascinating career; she has been a make-up artist, a script-writer for shows such as Byker Grove and Hollyoaks, and has also run her own television production company with her journalist husband, Bob Whittaker. I was lucky to be able to catch up with her to talk about her current career, novel writing.
How did you get into writing novels?
“My background is in television, first as a make-up artist, and then as a writer and then as a producer, so I’d written television scripts.
“I happened to be in the local library and picked up a leaflet for Newcastle Noir, and there was information about the Lindisfarne Prize for Crime Fiction – the crime writing competition sponsored by L. J. Ross – within that.
“We went on holiday to the Canary Islands and became stuck there because their Covid-19 lockdown started two weeks earlier than the UK’s. We were on the balcony of the hotel and wondering what to do, so I started writing. Two chapters and a synopsis had to be submitted for the prize, and I managed to get that done. I sent it in on the last day and although I didn’t win, I was the runner-up. I thought I had better finish the book and I did, and then I sent it around publishers. It was picked up by Bloodhound Books.”
How important is the North East setting in your books?
“I was born in Sunderland hospital and brought up in Boldon. I spent twenty-five years in London and eventually moved back to the North East. The criteria for the Lindisfarne Prize was that it either had to be set in the North East or about the North East, or the person who wrote it had to come from the North East. So naturally, I was guided by that. There is a lot of fiction set in the North East now, with Vera and L.J. Ross’s books.
“My books are darker, more gritty, a bit more Nordic. After the third book there will be a spin-off series in which the core characters can move further afield. I think people are still getting to know the North East area, and it’s such a large area there’s still loads to explore.”
How do you develop your characters and plots?
“The characters kind of walk in the door and sometimes when I write scenes I think ‘oh, I didn’t know that about them.’ I watch them when I’m writing, as though I’m looking at a television screen and I write it down. I do plan my writing, though, structurally. My novels have quite complex plotlines and when you have murders and you’re dropping clues, I don’t know how you would pick it apart if you had to make any changes. Also, if you have a number of plotlines and you’re weaving them through, you’ve got to have them coming in at the right time as towards the end they all start blending together. I always have a backbone and I use index cards and different colours for different characters. I always know how the story is going to start and how it’s going to end.”
Where did the inspiration for your books come from?
“The inspiration for my debut, The Magpie, came from a group called The Unthanks who come from the North East. They did a charity performance at the village hall up in Northumberland where we live, and I asked them to sing their song ‘The Magpie’ which is based on the old medieval children’s rhyme, ‘One for sorrow, two for joy’. When I worked on Hollyoaks you had to choose the music that you think illustrates and fits in with the scenes, so I automatically think that way, and I wanted to write a story based around ‘The Magpie’. My sister said that if I used the song for inspiration for a novel, I would have to include seven murders, and indeed there are seven murders.”
“Last year I read an article in a newspaper about a drug called Devil’s Breath which had come into Britain and originates from the borrachero plant in South America. Allegedly, you can blow Devil’s Breath powder into people’s faces and it causes amnesia and a willingness to do anything. There are around 50,000 incidents in South America every year. There was also a news story about a male dancer in London who had been killed after someone had drugged him by dropping the Devil’s Breath into his drink. It’s quite current now with all these incidents of people being injected while on nights out.”
“As I was reading about that I got side-tracked by the issue of county lines. County lines criminal activity has really blown up recently in the North East and children from this area, some of them as young as eight, are going out as county line couriers to different areas, the main hubs, if you like, such as Manchester, Liverpool, London and Glasgow, because the organisers want kids from out of the area so they can’t be identified. They call them Bics because they are disposable like razors. It was quite shocking reading about them. I was going to say that my story line, because it is a work of fiction, is taken to extremes but, in fact, it isn’t that much because everything that happens in the book could happen, and has happened, to some child. The truth is scarier than the fiction, even in my scary book.
“If people get to know more about the county lines issue it will be good as a recent survey found that around 40% of people in the North East don’t know what it is, or what to look out for. One of the most shocking things I read about was how they reel children in by saying, ‘You’ll be able to buy new trainers’ and then on their second journey they are stabbed in the backside to scar them and the money is taken off them, but it’s taken by the dealer so they end up in bonded labour forever.
“So, the backbone of The Devil’s Line is about county lines, but the Devil’s Breath does feature. Billie Wilde is searching for the county lines drug leaders in order to stop some killings, and she also has a stalker, but that’s all I can tell you…”
The Magpie is out now and The Devil’s Line is out on 10 November.
Read more by Abbie Rutherford