London, and then took degrees in Archaeology at Cambridge, and in Law at Leicester University.
She is a novelist, journalist, broadcaster and author of non-fiction. Jessica has been a Planning Inspector, chaired public committees, been involved with the NHS and been responsible for protecting water customers. But she always wanted to be a writer, ever since she learnt to read. After living in Edinburgh for ten years and for three in Leicester she moved with her husband, the archaeologist Professor Charles Thomas, to Cornwall, where she still lives. Jessica has written 22 crime novels, and 4 non-fiction books.
She has two sons, two daughters and 11 grandchildren.
Lizzie: Your new book, A Stroke of Death, brings back Tamara Hoyland, formerly an undercover operative for government intelligence, who featured in six books from 1981-1988. What prompted the decision to bring her back?
Lizzie: When writing crime fiction do you plan your plots before you start? And, if so, do your books change during the writing process? So often writers say that the characters take over, resulting in a different ending and sometimes perpetrator. Do your books pan out exactly as you originally planned?
Jessica: I realise what’s happening, why, when, where and to whom, only as I’m writing it. I wouldn’t recommend it as a way of producing a book because it can leave one completely stuck, sometimes for months. But if I knew the story beforehand, I wouldn’t find putting it on paper very interesting. It’s a process of discovery for me too, even though it means that when it’s finished I have to go back to the beginning and patch in some clues. It always amuses me when a reviewer calls my books “tightly plotted”. I wish!
Lizzie: When embarking on a new book, what area of the book challenges you the most?
Jessica: I write unfashionably short books in the age of the blockbuster. Some of the novels I am sent as review copies - because I write a monthly crime fiction review column for the Literary Review – are 900 pages long! So mine, which are the traditional length of crime fiction up until the 1980s, about 70,000 words, are puny in comparison. I go back to the beginning to make them longer, and end up with something even shorter. My trouble is that I write “tight” and I simply cannot pad it out, hard as I try.
Lizzie: In addition to your 22 crime fiction books you have written four non-fiction books. I was particular interested in Godrevy Light which you co-authored with your husband Charles. The book I understand sparked by the fact that you met your husband Charles at an archaeological dig at Godrevy over fifty years before, and the Golden Anniversary of your marriage coincided with the 150th anniversary of the first lighting of Godrevy Lighthouse. To mark both anniversaries your book recorded its history, illustrated in works of art from your own collection. I am sure that must have been fun to do together. But do you have a preference for non-fiction, or is the use of the imagination that writing crime fiction brings, more fun?
Jessica: The Godrevy book was fun to do, and unexpectedly successful too. Charles, being an academic, didn’t expect to be paid for writing, though he published a dozen books and hundreds of articles. He was absolutely incredulous when he got royalties for Godrevy Light!
No, I don’t prefer non-fiction – it’s just much easier to write, even if it takes a bit longer, because you don’t need to wonder or worry what happens next. And if you don’t feel like writing you can do a bit of research and feel virtuous. And when it’s journalism (I have done quite a lot of freelance journalism) it brings the instant gratification of immediate publication and payment! But fiction is what I prefer to read, and what I want to write. And however unsuccessful it may be, whatever kind of disappointing reception a novel may have, I shall always be happy that I fulfilled my childhood ambition. I dreamed of holding a novel with my name on the jacket - and believe me, it does still bring the pleasure and satisfaction I thought it would – after all these years!
Lizzie: So what next? Do you plan another Tamara Hoyland? Or ?
Jessica: I have the kernel of an idea for Tamara’s next adventure, but if I say anything about it, the bubble will burst.
Thank you Jessica, for taking the time to talk to me for Mystery People.
The Only Security (1973)
The Eighth Deadly Sin (1976)
A Kind of Healthy Grave (1986)
Death Beyond the Nile (1988)
A Private Inquiry (1996)
The Survivor’s Revenge (1998)
Under a Dark Sun (2000)
The Mystery Writer (2006)
Dead Woman Walking (2013)
The Stroke of Death (2016)