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All their pretty white decapitated heads

All their pretty white decapitated heads

We’ve been talking a lot about marketing: 

  • here, on how to make Amazon work for you, 
  • here, for a more holistic view of book marketing, 
  • here, on why you need, as a very first step, to get people engaged with your book offer at some very minimal level, and  
  • Here, on how my Fiona series put some of these thoughts into action 

I also said that I would “show you some snippets of how the book itself lines up behind its marketing promises – not just early on, but all the way through.” So that’s what we’re doing today. 

Last week we said that my books were: 

  • Dark 
  • Literate 
  • British-set 
  • Police procedurals 
  • With a female detective 
  • Who used to think she was dead 

That was the marketing message we wanted to deliver everywhere. But is that actually true of my stuff? We’re about to find out. I’m going to look at the first book in the series, Talking to The Dead, but in principle we could do the same exercise with any of the books. Here goes: 

First chapter 

The first chapter opens with Fiona being interviewed for a British police job by a British police officer. So I obviously tick the boxes for British-set police procedural and it’s already evidence that Fiona is going to be the detective who propels the series. So at the most basic level, my opening chapter reassures readers that they’re going to get what they came for. 

As for the “literate” requirement – well, the literacy doesn’t shout out at you, but it’s there all right. Take this passage: 

Matthews is a big man. Not gym-big, but Welsh-big, with the sort of comfortable muscularity that suggests a past involving farm work, rugby and beer. He has remarkably pale eyes and thick dark hair. Even his fingers have little dark hairs running all the way to the final joint. He is the opposite of me

That last line is inventive enough that it will catch the eye of people wanting to engage with decently written and thoughtful prose. But it also hints at more. What is the opposite of Matthews? Well, Matthews has a “comfortable muscularity” to him. The ingredients making him up involve farm work, rugby and beer. So Fiona’s the opposite of that. If Matthews is physically grounded in his body, Fiona is the opposite. Where Matthews is literally comfortable in his skin (and muscles), Fiona isn’t. 

That’s a very roundabout way of suggesting that where Matthews is comfortable with the basic task of being alive, Fiona is not. But roundabout is fine. The theme is there. 

And (not to beat about the bush) it’s there in the last paragraph of the first chapter too, just after Matthews has told Fiona she’s getting the job: 

I’m standing up. Matthews has stood up too and comes towards me, shaking my hand and saying something. His big shoulders block my view of Bute Park and I lose sight of the kites. Matthews is talking about formalities and I’m blathering answers back at him, but my attention isn’t with any of that stuff. I’m going to be a policewoman. And just five years ago, I was dead. 

Boom! You want a story about a detective who used to think she was dead? Well, here she is, chapter one, telling you she used to be dead. 

Page 50 

On page 50 (in my Word document, not the actual book), I have this: 

I’ve never cried once during my time on the force. Indeed, that hardly says it. I haven’t cried since I was six or seven, ages ago anyway, and hardly ever even then. Last year, I attended a car accident, a nasty smash on Eastern Avenue, where the only serious casualty was a little boy who lost both his legs and suffered significant facial injuries. All the time we were getting him out of the car and into the ambulance, he was crying and holding his little tiger toy against his neck. Not only did I not cry, it wasn’t until a few days afterwards that I realised I was meant to have cried, or at least felt something. 

I reflect on all this as Amanda cries and I say, ‘It’s all right,’ like a mechanical toy, wishing one day to find some tears of my own. 

The core elevator pitch is present here too – albeit only very obliquely. 

But obliquely is fine! Obliquely is actually good. If you bash away at the same thing in the same way for 300 pages, you’re going to produce a tedious book. So really you’re pasting together a thousand jewelled pieces, no two of which are quite the same, and which all have slightly different lustres and qualities, but which combine to give the effect you are seeking to deliver. 

And this passage – Fiona failing to cry when it might be normal to do so – points again to the core oddity of Fiona. What’s wrong with her? Why no feelings? Why does she talk of herself as a mechanical toy? And, golly gosh, if you wanted to summarise in two words the self-view of someone who used to think she was dead, then ‘mechanical toy’ gets you pretty darn close, right? 

Page 150 

Fiona gets ready for a date: 

I go up, get dressed and put on some make-up. I don’t often make the effort, but if I put my mind to it, I can look all right. Not Kay-like gorgeous. That’ll always be well beyond me. But nice. An attractive girl. That’s all I’ve ever hoped to achieve, and I feel a kind of satisfied relief at being able to achieve it. More than relief. Pleasure. I like it. I like the way I look tonight. 

At seven ten, I skitter out of the house. I’ve still got an undercurrent of anxiety about my physical safety, so I carry a kitchen knife in my clutch bag, but the knife is quite a small one, and the clutch bag matches my dress, has silver trimmings and boasts an extravagant silk bow, so as far as I’m concerned, I’m still in girly heaven

There are two things here. First, the relationship between Fiona and physical looks is slightly non-standard. It feels like she is wanting to tick a box – to fit in. It’s not quite that there’s anything forced about that impulse, just that it doesn’t feel to flow with real naturalness. 

And second – more strikingly – she goes on a date with a knife in her clutch-bag. Fiona’s version of ‘girly heaven’ still involves something intimately bound up with violence and death. All that is highly consistent with a woman who has a very complicated relationship with the fact of being alive. 

Page 250 

We’re getting towards the end of the book now. The big denouement is about to take place. Naturally enough, the prose is more concerned now with setting up the next stage of the action. Except that here is how the chapter starts: 

A mile or so away from my destination, I park up. The verge is so thick with tall stalks of cow parsley that I have to mow a swathe through them to get off the road. All their pretty white decapitated heads

That last sentence is classic Fiona description. Yes, British verges in May are gloriously lacy and white. Yes, if you park on them, you’re likely to knock over some flowers. But ‘pretty white decapitated heads’? Only Fiona would join some springtime floral loveliness to a particularly gruesome image of mass murder. 

Again, the reference to our elevator pitch is notably oblique. But it’s present – that’s what matters. Fiona has a strange relationship to life and death. And here, looking at flowers, those two things get joined in a very unsettling way. Even on page 250, where the book is getting ready to let off some fireworks and then close down, the theme is there. 

Oh yes, and the reason why I chose to look at pages 50 / 150 / 250 is simple: I wanted to prove to you that I wasn’t cherry-picking extracts. Truly, truly, the theme is there pretty much anywhere you look. (I checked page 100 and page 200 too. And yep. You find the basic pitch all present and correct there as well.) 

Closing chapters 

I won’t talk about the closing chapters in detail. Suffice to say that in the pre-penultimate chapter, Fiona tells her boyfriend (and the reader) about the psychiatric condition that she used to have. She tells him: 

‘In a mild form [of the illness], patients suffer from despair and self-loathing, but my form wasn’t mild. Not mild at all. I had the full monty. In a severe state, patients hold the delusional belief that they don’t exist, that their body is empty or putrefying … For two years, I thought I was dead.’ 

Boof! That’s the promise of the elevator pitch fully and completely discharged. All those earlier clues and hints now line up between the fact that unifies and makes sense of them all. 

The penultimate chapter is something of a riff, a monologue, from Fiona. As part of that, she imagines talking with one of her former psychiatrists. In that (imagined, not real) conversation she tells the doctor that she spent a night once in a mortuary. The doctor is shocked and she responds: 

Yes, The mortuary, Doc. Where they keep dead people. Why? Are you bothered by the dead? Do you have uncomfortable feelings around them that you find hard to deal with? Perhaps you should find someone to talk to.” 

Again, that keeps the core pitch front and centre of this chapter. 

We then move onto the final chapter where Fiona learns another deep secret about her past. She is moved and finds that something very strange is happening to her: 

It is not a painful sensation, as I always thought it must be. It feels like the purest expression of feeling that it is possible to have. And the feeling mixes everything up together. Happiness. Sadness. Relief. Sorrow. Love. A mixture of things no psychiatrist ever felt. It is the most wonderful mixture in the world. 

I put my hands to my face again and again. Tears are coursing down my cheeks, splashing off my chin, tickling the side of my nose, running off my hands. 

These are tears and I am crying. I am Fiona Griffiths. Paid-up citizen of Planet Normal. 

She cries. For the first time in twenty years. The person who started the book as the ‘opposite’ of big, Welsh, muscular Matthews is now not exactly the same as him, but on the same planet as him. She’s come home. 

Elevator pitch – delivered. Reader (assuming they are in the market for this kind of book) – satisfied. Marketing task – done. 

And that’s enough about marketing. We’ll be on something completely different next week. Bring a glass of rosé and a bowl of salted almonds. We’ll talk till the sun sets beneath the wine-dark sea. 

Til soon. 


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  1. Gotta love that line ‘All their pretty white decapitated heads’. Great to see the elevator pitch laid out through the book like that too. Have a jam/preserve/conserve-free week!

  2. We’ll talk till the sun sets beneath the wine-dark sea. Ah. The Wine Dark Sea. A lovely book by Patrick O’Brien, and, I think it is the Ionian Sea, protected on most sides, and therefore a perfect voyage for gnentlemen, with a gentleman’s wind for relaxation.