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Introducing DCI Serena Flanagan

I’d like to say that the lead character in my new novel, Those We Left Behind, is the product of painstaking development, planning and research on my part. In truth, however, DCI Serena Flanagan came about almost entirely by accident.

Some time in late 2012 I abandoned a book I’d been writing. It centred on two brothers released from a young offenders’ centre years after having killed their foster father. Having to ditch a novel I’d been working on for months was a horrible experience, one that I feared could end by career. I spent the following months scrabbling around for another idea, eventually being inspired to write The Final Silence by the act of clearing out the house of a recently deceased relative.

Up to and including The Final Silence, my main series character had been Detective Inspector Jack Lennon, and that book found him in a bad place: still in terrible physical shape after the end of Stolen Souls, addicted to painkillers, barely hanging on to custody of his daughter. I’m often unkind to my protagonists, so I decided to heap more misery on poor Jack by having him investigated for murder. Who better to grill him than a senior cop who was his mirror image?

Therefore I created Detective Chief Inspector Serena Flanagan, who in the first draft was a redheaded, forty-something, singleton, cold, ruthlessly efficient career cop. Great, I thought, a perfect foil for DI Lennon. Then I sat down to watch The Fall, the BBC’s Belfast-set thriller starring Gillian Anderson as a redheaded, forty-something, singleton, cold, ruthlessly efficient career cop.

Serena FlanaganOh dear, I thought.

Now I had to pull Serena Flanagan apart and rebuild her from the ground up. She could no longer be Lennon’s mirror image, so I went in the opposite direction. Serena went from being a singleton cop married to her job to being married to a school teacher with two young children. Rather than cold and ruthless, she became compassionate and empathetic to a fault. I pushed against all the familiar tropes of the lone-wolf cop (many of which applied to Lennon); she isn’t an alcoholic, she has no ostentatiously maverick tendencies, she doesn’t have a weakness for a niche music genre. I did, however, tap into my own family’s experience to give her one standout feature…

Before Flanagan appears on stage in The Final Silence, she is discussed by other cops; they’re terrified of her, she’s tough, she takes no nonsense. We get an image of her as an imposing, almost intimidating figure. And the first time we meet her face-to-face, she’s in a doctor’s surgery being diagnosed with breast cancer.

That juxtaposition of toughness and vulnerability made Flanagan an interesting character to spend time with, so much so that I found myself more curious about her than I was about Lennon, the book’s supposed leading man. And readers responded to her as well. So when it came time to start a new book, I decided it would be Serena’s story. And then I idly wondered what would happen if I dropped her into the book I’d abandoned back in 2012? Could she be the factor that book was missing? Could she bring this story of two killer brothers back to life?

She could, and she did. As soon as Flanagan’s empathetic point of view was introduced to that story, it blossomed in ways I couldn’t have imagined before. Now Those We Left Behind, the first in a series of books featuring DCI Serena Flanagan, is being published. And even if I do say so myself, I think it’s the best novel I’ve written to date.

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