Simon Lelic: how The Body inspired my new thriller
‘I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, did you?’
It’s one my favourite lines from one of my favourite Stephen King stories: The Body, better known as Stand By Me, a rare (solitary?) example of a film adaptation of a Stephen King story that is every bit as good as the source material.
I admit to having seen the film before I read the novella, but I’ve since revisited both countless times. The idea of a group of young friends setting off together on an adventure is for me the perfect set-up – and one I drew on heavily as inspiration for my latest novel, The Search Party.
King’s story is set in rural Maine (where else?), whereas mine begins in a rundown seaside resort on the south coast of England. But just like Gordie Lachance and his pals in The Body, the five teenagers in The Search Party are outsiders in their home town, and while they have no train tracks to follow, they head off into the countryside aware that something terrible has happened. The difference is, while Gordie and his friends know exactly what they are looking for, the teenagers in the search party have no idea what they will find when they go hunting for their missing friend. Nor, crucially, what horrors they are also taking with them…
As well as the teenagers who take turns narrating parts of the story, The Search Party focuses on Detective Inspector Robin Fleet, an overweight man approaching middle age who has his own demons to contend with, as well as problems in his personal life. He is separated from his wife, but still desperately in love with her – though Fleet isn’t the kind of person to talk openly about his feelings.
While it is clear in my own mind where the inspiration for the search party itself came from – as well as Stephen King, I am grateful to Jon McGregor, whose masterful Reservoir 13 sparked the original idea – Fleet’s evolution is more hazy. I obviously owe a debt to the great literary detectives we have all known and loved over the years, and the crime writers who created them, but Fleet for me began as a character in a completely unrelated book I wrote that I have never seriously tried to get published. Oddly, perhaps, he wasn’t a policeman in the original version of that book, but he evolved into one in the second draft. Briefly, at the start of another story I began and soon abandoned, he morphed into a woman, and when I consigned that manuscript to the recycling bin, I thought the character was gone forever.
But he came back. And he will come back again: I’ve already written the follow up to The Search Party, and I’m itching to pick up my notebook and start planning DI Fleet book three. More than any character I have ever created, he has quickly become something like a friend. I hope he will for you, too. Perhaps he’ll never be as close as the friends you had when you were twelve, but in The Search Party and the books that follow, I can guarantee he’ll take you on an adventure.