Lucy Foley: ‘I love a really well-written yarn’

Best-selling author enjoys playing with old crime clichés

It seems best-selling novelist Lucy Foley is as plagued by Wordle scores as the rest of us.

She’s on a WhatsApp group with “about 50” of her Irish cousins, some of whom she has never met, and everyone is posting Wordle scores endlessly. It’s the last great unifier. Does she join in? “I do, when I’ve got a not too embarrassing score,” she says.

Foley is the British author (with an Irish passport, but more on that later) of The Hunting Party and The Guest List, murder mystery thrillers that have sold over a million copies worldwide and topped the New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller lists. Both books are being adapted for the screen.

She is a pleasure to talk to, cheerful despite being embroiled "in a bit of parental juggling" just before our call. Her baby boy has a cold ("not Covid") and he's home from creche, "so I've just swapped over with my husband". He is a pandemic baby, "I think technically, he was conceived before the pandemic, not to go into too much detail." He was born in Brussels in 2020, where Foley and her husband currently live.

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“It’s life-changing in wonderful ways, but also makes you realise how much time you had before and like, what did I do with my days?”

Anyone following Foley’s career knows exactly what she did with her days. She is a prolific writer, writing a novel a year for the past six years, working initially in historical fiction and now mystery thrillers. Her most recent novel, The Paris Apartment, is another page-turner that will take its rightful place upon many a beach towel this summer. Set in a beautiful old apartment block in Paris, it’s a classic twisty whodunit told from various tenants’ perspectives.

The idea for this novel came on one of Foley’s habitual writing jaunts. “My old thing before was renting a cheap Airbnb somewhere and working there for a while away from home.” She’s wondering how she might incorporate her baby into this practice. “just to have some headspace for the new book. He’s just 16 months, he doesn’t need to be in a particular creche so like, find some childcare and go somewhere else for a month and do that? I’ll report back if it works.”

Foley finished The Paris Apartment in autumn 2021 and will be contributing to a Miss Marple story collection out next year, alongside the likes of Val McDermid and Kate Mosse. "I went straight into that in November and now finally got a bit of headspace to write a new book."

The deadline for her next novel is September. As a lifelong mystery reader herself, she is aware of the voracious appetites such readers have, and their need to know an author’s next book isn’t too far away. She prefers tight deadlines. “It works quite well for me, because my editor loves to get in there at quite an early draft stage. It feels quite collaborative and less lonely.”

I could hear these strange sounds coming from the apartment above me, like something heavy being dragged across the floor, probably just furniture. It immediately started the cogs whirring

Foley tends to be inspired by her surroundings. The Guest List’s setting was inspired by a trip to Inisbofin. The Paris Apartment was inspired by another serendipitous trip.

“I was trying to finish the final draft of The Guest List. I wanted to go somewhere completely free of distractions and home, so I booked a cheap Airbnb in Paris. It was in this beautiful old apartment building. It felt like it hadn’t been touched for at least 30 years.”

With its high ceilings, parquet floors and big windows over a central courtyard, it was “really sort of atmospheric. So that apartment, with some Gothic touches, made it wholesale into the book. It was a real gift.” A certain creepiness helped. “I’d be sitting there working at all hours of the day and night, and I could hear these strange sounds coming from the apartment above me, like something heavy being dragged across the floor, probably just furniture. It immediately started the cogs whirring. I thought, there’s a real story to be told here, and I want to be the one to tell it.”

Apartment buildings provide rich pickings for a murder mystery. “That’s something we’ve felt more in the last couple of years, being isolated but close to people, cheek by jowl. In the absence of other things to do, we’re wondering about our neighbours’ movements and curtain twitching. So a Rear Window vibe as well.”

When I'm writing, and I find myself in a plot hole, I think what would Agatha do?

Her two previous thrillers were classic “locked room” murders. “I wanted to do something totally new but keep that closed circle, that limited pool of suspects. I love writing that sort of book.”

She’s delighted when people compare her to Agatha Christie.

“When I’m writing, and I find myself in a plot hole, I think what would Agatha do? I’ve got every Agatha Christie going. I’ve also got her Secret Notebooks. It’s fascinating to see the way her mind works.”

For the past two years, Foley has missed sitting with her notebook in crowded cafes, her happiest place as a writer, but she found escape in writing. She resisted including the pandemic in her novel, despite her “very practical” husband’s advice. “I wanted it to be the reader’s escape. It’s a love letter to a time outside Covid. There are crowded bars and Metro carriages and people touching each other. It’s kind of an anti-Covid novel.”

She was determined to play with some old crime clichés. “I had this idea that I wanted to write a missing boy story as opposed to a missing girl story.” Why does she think the dead girl trope holds such sway in crime fiction?

“There’s a horrible sort of prurient fascination with it, isn’t there? As a feminist, it makes me deeply uncomfortable. There is this sort of objectification of the beautiful corpse and the beautiful missing girl who doesn’t actually get a voice in the story herself. I wanted to flip that on its head and have this beautiful and enigmatic man and we only see him through the eyes of others.”

She also enjoyed putting a young woman in charge of the search for him. “What does that mean in terms of the situations she has to place herself in a way that a man might not think twice?” Foley recalls a night walking home with her husband in London when they were crossing over some dark train tracks. “We heard a scream and it just really struck me because my husband’s immediate reaction was let’s go investigate, someone’s being attacked. And mine was like, let’s go home and call the police.” It turned out to be foxes, but the point was made. “That moment crystallised so much.”

She recently read something a male writer wrote, “He just said, I love wandering around at night on my own to get inspiration for my books. If only that was available to me as a female writer. I’m not gonna go wandering around dark alleyways and streets on my own, its just asking for trouble.”

She tells me that she went to university with Sarah Everard.

“When you start thinking about it, it makes me so angry because there is literally nothing stopping a woman being able to walk around outside at night, other than that 1 per cent of people who would do them harm. We should be able to do that. It blows your mind when you start thinking about it.”

I've always tried to focus on just writing the book that I as a reader would like to read, or that I as an editor would like to land on my desk

Before she became a writer, Lucy worked as an editor for seven years. Does that make her very aware of the commercial realities of the industry when she’s writing?

"There's probably an element of that. But you don't want to listen to that voice too much because often in publishing something comes along, like an Eleanor Oliphant, the sort of book that no one could have seen coming. It just blows everything wide open. I've always tried to focus on just writing the book that I as a reader would like to read, or that I as an editor would like to land on my desk."

With The Hunting Party, one reviewer accused her of writing “a novel of privilege”. She concedes the point. “It’s why I love watching a show like Succession; watching these very privileged characters, and seeing how miserable they are.” There’s wealth in The Paris Apartment too, but the key for Foley “is always having a modern formulation of the Upstairs Downstairs dynamics. Ordinary characters who are, in some ways, the most clear-sighted, holding the ‘Upstairs’ characters to account. I think if you’ve ever worked as a waitress, you see the way people talk as though you weren’t really there. I did a lot of waitressing and it’s all material. I even thought at the time, one day I’ll write a book and use this!”

There's no question that crime writing is increasingly female-dominated. "I think all my favourite crime writers, historic and current, are women – Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier, Louise Candlish. It's very much in that female tradition of thriller writing."

While acknowledging she’s making sweeping generalisations, she says: “I think women are great at, I don’t want to say domestic, because that belittles it and makes it small, but I think women are great at that insight into character. There are some brilliant, male crime writers out there, but we’re more interested in the motivation and the repercussions and the emotional stuff surrounding a crime.”

She sees crime fiction being taken more seriously now. "Especially when you have serious writers like Kate Atkinson and John Banville stepping into that space. The crime writing community is such a big community with quite a loud, powerful voice now and everyone's so welcoming. It was great seeing Belinda Bauer shortlisted for the Booker."

And crime thrillers sell.

“You have the prizes, we’ll take the book sales,” she laughs, “No, that’s awful.”

Maybe there’s no shame in wanting to make a living?

“And actually be read by people. I think there has been a snobbishness about plot as well. That’s partly what underpins it, because plot is so crucial to crime fiction. But you look at Dickens, a book like Great Expectations, the plotting and the twist in that is jaw dropping. That is the sort of twist you get in crime fiction. I love a really well-written yarn too. I think people like that.”

There's something wonderful about knowing that you're going to have like a satisfying ending to the story

What does she think people will want to read as we come towards the end (hopefully) of the pandemic? Might crime fiction offer a certain comfort?

“What I find satisfying about writing the kind of book I write, as a reader and as a writer, is that there’s a sense of just desserts. People are punished for their wrongdoing and everything’s going to be solved for you. There’s a real comfort in that. One of the things that is so distressing about Covid at the moment is that we don’t really know when it’s going to end. We’re in a funny holding pattern and that’s psychologically unsettling.

"There's something wonderful about knowing that you're going to have like a satisfying ending to the story. There's also a sense in politics at the moment that the baddies are winning. Look what's going on in Ukraine, in our politics in the UK. So it's quite satisfying to see people get their just desserts."

And so to the Irish passport. Can we claim Lucy Foley as our own?

She actually sought out her Irish citizenship before Brexit. Her grandfather is from Connemara and she spent a lot of time there as a child. "I've always felt really close to Ireland and have so much family there." That will be the Wordle-posting cousins.

She planned to get her Irish passport when she was thinking about having a child. "I'd want them to have that as part of their identity as well." The political motivation came later. After Brexit, "I want to be part of Europe. My European-ness has always been really important to me. That's all felt quite sad."