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Elly Griffiths on Lockdown, Locked Room Mysteries, and Pandemic Fiction


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The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 is thought to have killed over 50 million people worldwide. Yet, while the First World War provides the background for countless novels, the pandemic features in very few contemporary fictional accounts. Even modern writers tend to skate over this devastating episode. In Downton Abbey, Spanish Flu seems to last the length of a dinner party, although someone does die (after having been pronounced perfectly healthy by Dr Clarkson, the world’s worst doctor).

I thought about this when planning my fourteenth Ruth Galloway novel. The previous book, The Night Hawks, ended in December 2019 so I knew that in the next instalment I had to face the problem of 2020. Should I pretend that Covid-19 had never happened and let Ruth and Nelson get on with their everyday, albeit complicated, lives? Should I set the novel in the future? Surely Covid would be over by, say, 2022? Should I cram all the events into January and February and leave the virus as a dark cloud on the horizon?

In the end I decided to cover lockdown and the pandemic. Having written a book about Ruth every year for fourteen years, it somehow seemed wrong to miss out 2020. Some real-life events, like Brexit and Donald Trump becoming US President, had already infiltrated Ruth’s world. I thought that, looking back at the series, I would regret not mentioning the most devastating world crisis of my lifetime. Also I thought that readers might want to know what happened to the characters in lockdown. At the start of The Locked Room, Nelson is scoffing at the thought of hand sanitiser and Cathbad is putting a circle of protection around his cottage.

All the sounds very high minded but I have to admit that an evil, writery part of my mind thought: what a great opportunity. All crime writers are obsessed with locked room mysteries, so-called impossible murders where a body is found in a completely inaccessible place. In this book, Nelson is investigating a series of apparent suicides, including one in a room locked from the inside. But, when lockdown started in March 2020, the whole country became one big locked room. I wanted to explore this shared experience and also to highlight the plight of people for whom home was not a safe place. The Locked Room has some light-hearted moments – for example, Ruth’s lockdown shopping list starts ‘Cat Food, Wine’ – but there is darkness too.

It has often been noted that lockdown did very strange things to our collective memory. The Locked Room was written in 2021 and 2020, which already seemed a lifetime away. I’ve kept a diary since I was eleven and, during the writing process, I was very grateful for it. I’d made a point of writing every day during March and April 2020, even noting the changing state of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hair. I’d forgotten so much. At the start of the pandemic, masks weren’t worn much in England but people wore gloves and disinfected their shopping before bringing it into the house. We stood outside our houses every Thursday night and clapped for the carers even if, as in Ruth’s case, there was no-one to hear. There were daily government briefings, politicians flanked by health experts repeating the words: ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’. Of course, we didn’t know then that staff at Number 10 Downing Street were actually engaged in a never-ending stream of parties. 

Spring 2020 was particularly beautiful or maybe we just appreciated it more. There were endless sunny days. The skies were cloudless and unpolluted by airplanes. Every day I walked through the garden to my writing shed and felt very lucky to have a job to do and a fictional world to escape to. The Night Hawks was the book actually written in lockdown and it’s full of longing for Norfolk, a place that I could then only see on Google Earth. 

But, even if I couldn’t get to East Anglia, I was lucky enough to be by the sea in Brighton. Every day I took a walk to the beach and felt refreshed. I knew that many people – doctors, nurses, teachers, retail workers – were not able to stroll in the sunshine and guilt was added to the ever-present worry. Because these were dark days, however bright the sun. There was no vaccine and no cure. I stretched things slightly in the book by having a character mention a possible vaccine but, in truth, there seemed no light at the end of the tunnel. People died alone, relatives watched funerals on zoom. We all did what we could to cope. Like Ruth I did yoga and listened to birdsong. Like Ruth I was comforted by my children and my cat.

Deciding to write a book is one thing, waiting for the public reaction is another. My publishers were very supportive of the lockdown book but how would readers react? Had everyone had enough of Covid? In the event, reviews were overwhelmingly positive and The Locked Room was my first number one in the Sunday Times bestsellers list. I’m hoping US readers will like it too and enjoy a mystery set during, but not overwhelmed by, unprecedented world events.

Will Covid-19, like Spanish Flu, be forgotten by popular culture? It seems that one genre, at least, has risen to the challenge. Several crime writers have set their books during lockdown. Peter May deserves the prize for writing his novel, Lockdown, about a global pandemic, in 2005. At the time, he couldn’t find a publisher for such an outlandish concept, but the book was released, to great acclaim, in 2020. Catherine Ryan Howard’s 56 Days is the story of a couple who meet and are instantly locked down together. It’s brilliantly creepy and claustrophic. One of my favourite writers, Phil Rickman, has just published Book 16 in his Merrily Watkins series. The Fever of the World features Wordsworth, paganism, a dead estate agent – and Covid-19. It’s an unforgettable addition to the series. 

Like every writing decision, choosing whether or not to include the pandemic is a personal one. But, now that 2020 seems almost as far away as 1918, I’m glad that The Locked Room contains a record of that terrifying, sunny spring. It also allowed me to share my guilt about never quite getting round to baking my own bread. 

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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