Irish author Alex Barclay's newest crime thriller I Confess is a departure for her: a standalone novel, it's her first set entirely on the Beara Peninsula - where the Dublin-born author currently lives herself. Set between a classic birthday party reunion between a group of friends with flashes to them as children and teens, Barclay sets the mystery - and eventual murder - up with aplomb. The dialogue is sharp, the characters memorable - and you'll never see that twist coming. She sat down with Jennifer McShane at the Westbury Hotel in Dublin to delve a little further into this brilliant whodunnit.
It starts as all great thrillers do, in this case, at a party and reunion amongst old friends in a remodelled convent and industrial school at Pilgrim Point. Golden couple Johnny and Edie have reinvigorated it into a Condé Nast Traveller recommended Irish country house, and await their friends, some of whom they haven't seen for many years. They'll all reunite bar Jessie, whose death years earlier still leaves a mark.
The setting is quiet, the guest house a place to get away from it all, cocooned in luxury. It's one so familiar to Barclay, given her home is in Cork, but she says the pull to write about it proved irresistible. "I wanted to get this sense of isolation, the place being claustrophobic with the feeling of being cut off from the world for this particular evening. Beara is isolated in a way that I had never experienced before - in a really lovely way. It felt like the perfect fictitious setting for this small-town group of friends to reunite on this grim night."
"The inspiration for this story was the theme of, how much do we change and how much do people allow you to change as a person? The beautiful setting, which had meant so much to them all growing up, was an ideal way to explore this. It made sense to me with the use of the setting and the small group of friends, even though I initially thought 'should I do this so close to home' but I'm really glad I did."
Author Alex Barclay
There is a sense of unreliable narration throughout the characters as adults, and Barclay explains that this was intentional. "All you can go on is what people are saying to you. I loved that idea of what they are saying now and who everyone is telling them who they are, is all that you see at the party. They are almost assigned roles. Yet that role could be really outdated yet you're still being pushed into it. It's only when the flashbacks start that you start to ponder who could be capable of misadventure."
"I love the idea of keeping people reading through it, so they have the clues as they go; they're investigating it the same way an investigator would."
A crucial element to the story is always the twist, and Barclay explains that it's not always something that she knows will happen a particular way. "I will always have an endpoint - and then I'll twist it and sometimes, twist it again."
"The really big twist at the end I came up as I was writing - even though I knew the endpoint from early on." And when it comes to writing a page-turning crime novel, surprisingly, the author didn't include the twist in her top three essential elements. "I know and I'm obsessed with twists," she said, laughing.
"I think pacing is hugely important for crime more so than any other genre," she continued. "For me, I love the idea of keeping people reading through it, so they have the clues as they go; they're investigating it the same way an investigator would be as well and speeding through it.
"Also, an interesting story, and the characters have to be relatable because you are conscious that there's a suspension of disbelief when it comes to crime writing. We can all relate to that idea of friends getting together at a party and how people are presenting themselves and how you might know more about them or there's something else hidden there.
"In a way, I'm lulling you into a false sense of security, tieing everything up and thinking 'just one more little bit' and hoping nobody is going to guess it."
Watch the full interview above.
I Confess by Alex Barclay (HarperCollins, approx €9.99) is out now.