Out of the dark
She was Yve Williams, beauty journalist, until a lucrative publishing deal turned her into Alex Barclay, international thriller writer. Bernice Harrison meets a new Irish scribe.
Alex Barclay's is the sort of success story that budding writers cling to. Two years ago, in her spare time between day jobs as a journalist and an advertising copywriter in Dublin, she wrote three chapters of a novel. Not knowing anyone in publishing, she thumbed through the Writers and Authors Yearbook - a sort of Yellow Pages for writers - picked a London agent at random, sent off her few pages and kaboom, uber-agent Darley Anderson not only took her on but whipped up an international bidding war, bagged her a lucrative two-book deal with a major publisher and went on to sell the rights all over the world (the publication date in America has just been set for next year and it has just been translated into French and Japanese).
More to the point - and this is what really pleases her - since its publication here and in the UK earlier this month, reviewers have been lathering on the superlatives, because Barley's novel, Darkhouse, is a tightly plotted, sharply clever and pleasingly gruesome crime thriller.
The central character is New York cop Joe Lucchesi who is being hunted down by a vengeful and deeply twisted serial killer. The action is set mostly in a fictitious lighthouse village in the southeast of Ireland, with flashbacks to New York and Texas. "I've since read somewhere that flashbacks are a no-no, so it's good I didn't know that when I started out," says the DCU journalism graduate whose giddy laugh is so infectious it jars with her new day job, which involves researching and imagining the deep dark sides of human nature.
Her book is a rare read, in that it captures the gritty realism and pace which is essential for a gripping thriller and mixes it with a vividly realised Irish location and cast of characters. It's not often, even in blockbuster fiction, that an NYPD cop and a smalltown garda get to share a crime scene.
In this chick-lit age, the bloody business of catching a serial killer is not quite what you might expect from the one-time fashion and beauty editor of the RTÉ Guide. Alex Barclay isn't even her real name. "When I started writing I thought that I'd always be working as a journalist and a copywriter so I wanted to keep things separate," she says of her decision to write under a pseudonym. "Alex Barclay seemed like the sort of strong name that a thriller writer might have." The Guide's readers, who followed her tips about hemlines and eyeshadows, would be more familiar with her real name, Yve Williams.
Originally from Bayside on Dublin's northside, the 31-year-old is a study in singlemindedness. Getting an agent turned out to be the easy part; actually finishing Darkhouse involved six months of living away from home both writing and researching - tricky when you're a self-confessed homebird who was rarely apart from husband Brian Williams, an advertising commercials director whom she married when she was 25.
"I found that I simply couldn't write in our house, so I took myself off on my own to rented holiday homes all around the country for weeks at a time," she says adding that in the past two years she has stayed in Sue Booth-Forbes's place "around 10 times". "It's an extraordinary place," she says of the largely undiscovered writers' and artists' retreat, Anam Cara, in west Cork. "The atmosphere in the house really makes you produce good work."
As a reader who devoured thrillers (John Lehane and Henning Mankel being particular favourites), Barclay knew that the genre succeeds or fails on the quality of the research, and in Darkhouse it is meticulous and wide-ranging.
Lucchesi's wife, a style journalist, is working on a project to restore a lighthouse so Barclay, herself something of a lighthouse fanatic, picked the brains of a lighthouse expert and restorer in Australia "by e-mail - we still haven't met".
Another on the long list of experts she consulted was the state pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy. "I think she's been asked for advice by lots of other writers," she says. "She was incredibly helpful on verifying my crime scene details."
Barclay's next novel once again features the handsome, slightly troubled NYPD cop Joe Lucchesi and is set in New York. She spent two months there with her husband last summer gathering research for the book, provisionally called The Caller. When the round of publicity for Darkhouse is finished this week, she'll be heading off again alone to an anonymous rented house somewhere or other to knuckle down to the business of finishing the new book.
Writing under a pseudonym means that she doesn't get the thrill writers talk about of going into a bookshop and seeing her name in bold type on the spine of a book. "I don't care about that," she says, "It's all about telling stories that are in my head; that's why I write."
Alex Barclay's Darkhouse is published by HarperCollins,€14.60