Fremantle writer Alexander Thorpe is celebrating the release of his debut novel, crime thriller Death Leaves The Station, set in the Australian wheatbelt. Alexander chats to The Starfish.
In a nutshell, what’s it about?
Death Leaves the Station is both a murder mystery and a coming-of-age story set in 1920’s Western Australia. It’s about a girl who has spent her life on a remote station. She stumbles across a corpse and is swept up in the resulting investigation, which takes her all the way down the coast to Perth. If I had to summarise it in three words, I’d say ‘outback Agatha Christie.’
Are any of the characters inspired by people you’ve come across in your life?
None of the characters are inspired by any one person, no. Having said that, there are traits and habits I have borrowed from certain people, usually with the aim of gently lampooning them. There’s always a bit of me in every character, too, for better or for worse. I think that’s inevitable.
One of your main characters is a lapsed Catholic friar. What inspired this individual? Were you raised a Catholic?
I was raised with almost no conception of religion at all; I remember a kid at primary school trying to talk to me about Jesus and having absolutely no idea what he was on about! The initial inspiration for the friar came from reading about Fr Jerome Hawes, who wandered about the Geraldton area in the early 20thcentury. I realised that the transient nature of a religious figure – together with the mix of reverence and dismissiveness they tend to inspire – had great implications for a mystery novel.
How did you dream up the plot?
I honestly don’t remember at this point – it’s been through a great many changes. I love puzzles (cryptic crosswords are a favourite) so the ‘whodunnit’ formula has natural appeal. After reading a mountain of old mysteries, I started trying to dream up ways that a seemingly impossible crime might come about and how it might be untangled. I’m always fascinated by themes of identity, too, so those threads naturally found their way in.
What were some of the challenges of setting it in 1927; did you have to do much research into the era?
A huge amount. I was able to quiz my grandfather on a few things, which was great, but the rest was Trove and the State Library’s local history / genealogy section.
Things would have been pretty rough in the Wheatbelt back then. Was there anything in particular you learned about how the era that hit home how hard it was for people living there?
The remoteness seems pretty dire, of course. On the whole, though, my discoveries tended to go the other way – I’d be imagining a sort of dusty wasteland, but then I’d hear stories about people building their own backyard swimming pools, or these big masquerades at the town hall. I think people always find a way to make things bearable.
You are a life-long insomniac; that must be difficult to deal with sometimes?
It’s not great, certainly, but I can operate fairly well on little sleep by this point. In the scheme of things, there are much worse problems to have!
But you’ve managed to put this inability to sleep to use, writing a lot of fiction at night. Has this really made a difference in coping with this condition?
It doesn’t do much to help me function the next day, but it’s a good opportunity to get some writing done, and it’s better than lying awake and fretting about not being able to sleep. An added bonus is that if I’m really sleep-deprived, I’ll often come up with something I wouldn’t have dreamed of otherwise. I usually have to edit this out later, but every so often it works nicely.
Do you do most of your writing at night?
I don’t really have a schedule or any fixed writing habits – I’ll pick up the story whenever I have the time and the inclination. Thanks to the pandemic, I’ve had a little more free time during the day this year. Silver linings!
Fremantle Press says your book “offers a wry critique of our country’s attitudes towards gender, race, class, and culture.” Did you set out to do this, or did you find it just turned out that way?
I didn’t explicitly set out to do this, no, but I do find it hard to write anything without examining the world in which I’m writing. From my point of view, it doesn’t take much to see the inequities that still pervade our society (and were obviously far more prevalent back in the 1920s). To not reflect on these in your fiction seems like white-washing or wilful ignorance.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself.. did you always hope to be a writer? What do you do when not writing fiction?
There’s not much to tell! I’m in my early 30s. I’ve always written things, but I never really thought anyone else would want to read them. I originally studied journalism, but turned to teaching, which has taken me to all sorts of interesting places. I still teach English as a Second Language in Perth now.
Did it take long to write Death Leaves The Station?
I spent a while jotting notes and getting my ideas together. Once I actually started to plot out the story, it took a couple of years to end up with a finished manuscript. I was working in fits and starts, between full-time work and travel.
When you sat down to write it, did you already know exactly how it would pan out – or did the characters surprise you along the way?
I had some pretty clear ideas – particularly about the central crime and the mechanism behind it – but there were definitely some big changes. Without giving too much away, there were two central characters that I ended up combining, and a sub-plot that I only saw emerge in retrospect, so I went back to strengthen it. I was really surprised by the editing process; I’d never realised how vital it is to let your work sit a while and come back to it with fresh eyes.
What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Showing it to others. Despite not being a particularly personal work, having other people read my manuscript for the first time made me feel hugely vulnerable. The response has been great so far, though!
Any favourite authors who inspire you?
To be honest, the books that inspire me the most are the ones I don’t like, because they make me think I could do better than this! Books I enjoy tend to have the opposite effect; I wonder how anything I could produce would ever approach those masterpieces. Having said that, there are definitely writers who have influenced me, both in form and style. Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and P.G. Wodehouse taught me how to have fun with language. Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh and John Dickson Carr taught me how to keep people guessing. Tom Robbins and Banana Yoshimoto taught me not to be afraid to try something different. Isabel Allende taught me that sometimes, too much is just enough.
The book is dedicated to John, your grandfather. Why did you single him out?
His memoirs, which he dictated to me, gave me the setting for Death Leaves the Station. He grew up around the Murchison, and his (possibly unreliable) tales made me consider the region as more than just ‘the country’.
With Christmas upon us, who should be getting your book in their stocking?
I think it’d be a great gift for anyone who enjoys crime and mystery, or even those who particularly like historical fiction. And fans of Agatha Christie, of course! Having said that, I’d like to think you can get something from the story regardless of your usual genre affiliations. I think recent movies like Knives Outand Sweet Country could point people in this direction, too.
Are you already working on the next book; if so, what can you tell us about it?
I am. I can’t tell you a huge amount, as I haven’t written too much as of yet. It’ll be a locked room mystery, and it continues the story of the itinerant friar from Death Leaves the Station. This one is set further south, though – tentatively in Kojonup. With any luck, people who liked the first one will enjoy the sequel just as much!
Death Leaves The Station (Fremantle Press) is out now.