Sinead Crowley’s new novel ticks a lot of boxes if you’re invested in historical mysteries
Supernatural goings-on, a big house with a history (and an unexpected occupant) and an intricate maze named after a deadly poison… sounds exactly our kind of novel.
RTE’s Arts and Media Correspondent Sinead Crowley’s new novel, The Belladonna Maze, may at first glance seem miles away from her previous crime fiction concerning Claire Boyle, but the two share similarities.
Lover of mysteries, Sinead’s latest book unravels secret after secret when Grace arrives at Hollowpark as a nanny for Skye FitzMahon. It’s a place seeped in the past where a young girl once went missing, never to be seen again.
Grace sometimes glimpses a woman in an upstairs window as well as an apparition who begs the new arrival to find her. Seriously spooky but a plot that will ensure you’ll want to read it in one sitting.
“It’s like your wedding: you look forward to it being on, but the run up is both very long and very short,” says Sinead ahead of publication.
“I was out of contract, so I was able to write whatever I wanted. That’s an incredibly freeing place to be, I had that blank slate,” she continues of writing this book.
“Then even though the story was floating around my head before Covid, during Covid I started to read a lot for comfort.
“When times are tough, you read what makes you really happy so that kind of ghost story is what I love reading to escape. I was changing agents, so I had no clue that this was going to be published ever, it was written for pleasure. I let my imagination run away with me.
“I was toying with the idea of should it be a psychological thriller, but I love books where they put their money where their mouth is. In the past few years I’ve loved books like The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle, The Haunting of Hill House.
“As well, being stuck in Dublin, writing about the west of Ireland meant I got to travel in my imagination.”
Covid meant Sinead embraced the ‘complete change’ that writing her latest book afforded, though the original draft contained less of the historic content.
“The original draft of the book would have been much more Grace’s story, with the odd flashback, very little of the past just to set it up,” says Sinead.
“But my agent Sarah loved the historical bit. That’s the lovely thing about publishing; it can push you in different directions. I’d never really thought of historical really.
“My last crime novel went back to the 1990s but that’s as far as it went. She loved it and kept pushing me, saying you can do this. The more I wrote, I absolutely loved it and really enjoyed the research as well which is something I haven’t had to do before because everything was contemporary.
“I worked with a couple of historians to ensure it was factually right. I really enjoyed it, to the extent that the next book has a dual timeline.
“That was a decision from the off, I enjoyed it that much. It needed more of Deirdre’s story; it wasn’t enough to say this was a house with a ghost floating around.
“You needed to know why she’s there and what happened to her that affected her so much that she wanted to hang around the house a hundred years later.
“The research was gorgeous. I got a couple of books on old Irish houses with photographs that you just kind of get lost in.”
There’s a lot to like about Sinead’s book, particularly if novels geared to the historical floats your fictional boat.
“Even though I didn’t base Hollowpark on any one location, because my job brings me to a lot of houses around Ireland, I would have covered concerts or art exhibitions, but it drew from my experience people who use houses and estates to have modern events in them,” she explains of the big house.
“So even so the house isn’t based on Slane Castle, the idea that they’d have concerts in the grounds, that influenced the idea that this family would have a house in modern day and would be trying to search around for ways to keep it up.
“They love the house so much that they’re trying to keep going.”
As Sinead has said, Grace’s story was to be the pivot of the whole book and she took her character inspiration from an unlikely source.
“When our children were very small, we visited a hotel in Greece, and it had an amazing kids’ club. They used to do this kids’ disco every night and the reps were just amazing, so energetic. I was fascinated by the reps; even in the evening time it was so warm and there they were, dancing and singing and entertaining kids and brilliant at it. I thought, who are you and what do you do when the summer ends?
“She was the first character, and it was all built around her then. I knew she was Irish living in England, I knew she was looking for a change, I knew she was going to go back to a spooky house so that’s where the story came from and then Deirdre’s story grew out of that.”
Describing herself as ‘not a planner,’ Sinead however still knew what she wanted her novel to contain regardless of genre: a mystery and a resolution.
“Twists and resolutions are not confined to crime,” she says.
“I wasn’t sure where the story was going to take me, but I knew who would be at the centre of it; I knew A and I knew Z, but I didn’t know how I was going to get there. Sometimes that changes but from in this case, from very early on, I knew what the resolution would be but no clue how I was going to get there. I like that because you surprise yourself then.”
Her next book is also a mystery, and she says she’s interested to see where bookshops will place her books.
“I thought I was writing crime but then it got more historical. But there is a big house genre, my agent calls it ‘historical mystery’ which I’m really happy with. I always had a few more ideas for Claire but we’ll see. I’m very much focused on this one and the next one now.”
The Belladonna Maze by Sinead Crowley, Aria, £18.99, is available now