Helen Giltrow’s blistering debut thriller The Distance introduced us to the coolest heroine in suspense fiction, Charlotte Alton – alias Karla. We sat down with Helen to find out more about her leading lady.
In The Distance your main character Charlotte Alton – alias Karla – runs a successful clandestine business selling information to criminals. What made you want to write a crime novel with a criminal as the lead?
Honestly? Because I felt I was standing in the shadows of giants! There are so many great detectives from the right side of the tracks out there already – cops, psychologists, pathologists, intelligence officers, lawyers, private eyes … And gifted amateurs too (like Miss Marple), and ordinary citizens who just notice something odd and start asking questions. All of them generally operate within the law (though they’ll bend it if they have to). And I love them; my bookshelves are full of them. But I just couldn’t see how I could write that sort of good-guy character and make them fresh. Whereas a criminal-turned-detective…? Yes, it’s been done before; but nowhere near as much.
Did you put a lot of thought into Karla’s character before you started writing The Distance?
None at all. In fact I started out with a completely different main character. Early on in the action, my then-lead (also a criminal) urgently needed information that he couldn’t get hold of legally; he arrived at an apartment in London’s Docklands, was shown into a huge room with fabulous views, and in walked this woman, dressed for a night at the opera and putting her earrings in. A desperate man had just turned up on her doorstep, posing a huge risk to her security, and she barely blinked.
When you've got a character with so much self-possession – someone who from the outside looks to be so completely in control – as a writer you immediately want to know what’s going on underneath. And what would make them crack.
Even so it took me months to realise how much more interesting my story would be if Karla were to tell it.
So what makes Karla tick?
At the beginning of the book Karla discovers someone’s trying to have a prison inmate killed – an inmate who according to records doesn’t actually exist – and against her better judgement she sets out to discover what’s behind it all. Her whole adult life has been about data – uncovering it, manipulating it, deleting it, all in the service of her criminal clients – and at a fundamental level she’s simply got to know what’s happening. She can’t help herself. But she’s also doing it to protect someone she cares for. Karla may be a professional criminal, but she’s got a morality and a conscience too, and she can’t always switch them off.
Amoral, ‘difficult’ or challenging female leads are increasingly popular in fiction. Why do you think that is?
I think partly that’s just mirroring social change. The old strictures about what women could and ‘should’ be like, and how they should behave, have lost some of their power; not all of it, and not at all levels of society, but women do have much more freedom – freedom to be bad as well as good, and fiction’s reflecting that.
But I think there’s an element of experimentation, even wish-fulfilment operating too. Fiction provides the opportunity to explore choices we might never make in real life. My own upbringing laid a lot of stress on ‘being good’ and ‘obeying rules’ – so the chance to step inside the mind of a woman who lives on the wrong side of the law was just too good to miss. That’s the great thing about fiction, and that’s probably why I write.