CARO RAMSAY has just told me how to commit the perfect murder. It’s a question that people are forever asking her, to which she always responds by saying, kill your victim, then phone the police immediately and say: “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean it, but I think he’s dead.”
“You’ll get off with manslaughter and serve a much shorter sentence,” suggests the debut crime novelist, with an evil cackle. “Personally, I would do it in a really mundane way, like pushing somebody off a mountain. Yeah, if you really want to do away with someone, take them hill-walking. Oh dear, now none of my friends will ever take to the hills with me again.”
However, she continues, there is a way to bump someone off – and get away with it. Even grizzled Gil Grissom in CSI Las Vegas wouldn’t detect it, promises Ramsay, who is being hailed by her publishers as “a bright, new star – the biggest crime-fiction talent to come out of Scotland since Ian Rankin,” with the publication of Absolution, her compulsive and utterly compelling first thriller in what may well shape up to be a best-selling series, featuring a trio of Glaswegian cops.
Penguin is putting the might of its marketing machine behind Ramsay, who has won a two-book deal from the publisher and a hefty advance, although it is nowhere near the 300,000 reported by one Scottish red-top, she insists.
Nonetheless, the publishers are predicting “outstanding results” in the bestseller lists, with Ramsay’s crime-writing career escalating to new heights by next summer, when Tambourine Girl, her second book in the Glasgow-set series, will be published.
She’s already more than 50,000 words into both the third and fourth books, all set in the Dear Green Place she knows and loves. Meanwhile, the BBC is making a documentary about her to be shown in November.
So it’s hardly surprising that Ramsay, who is smiling sweetly and demurely sipping a glass of mineral water in the Glasgow hotel where we meet, has murder most foul on her mind. “The pericardium of the heart, in some people, is only a quarter-of-an-inch away from the ribcage,” she explains, going into forensic detail about how to get away with murder.
“If you stick an acupuncture needle in, you can kill instantly. Certainly the victim wouldn’t feel it. And there’ll be no mark on the skin, unless you look really, really hard with a microscope – that lot in CSI wouldn’t find it, because that show’s just pure fiction and they get it very, very wrong.
“But I remember learning about the dangerous closeness of the pericardium to the ribcage in anatomy class at college and making frantic notes, thinking ‘That’s a useful way to get rid of somebody in a thriller’. Everybody else was also making notes, thinking, ‘If I’m treating a finely built woman, I must remember this and avoid that point under her breast’. Not me! I remember my friends going, ‘Oh Caro! No!’ as my eyes lit up.” A successful osteopath and acupuncturist, with a large practice and a staff of 36, split between Paisley and Renfrew, she specialises in treating both animals and humans. “It’s better than being a vet,” she says. “I never have to end an animal’s life, and I never have to end its sex life either.”
A Glaswegian and proud of it, Ramsay – in her “late thirties” – is tall and slim, with a curtain of sunshine-yellow hair that complements her sunny character and bright smile. She laughs and jokes a lot and has a nice line in self-deprecating humour. She hopes that fundamentally she’s a nice person, a “nippy sweetie” of a woman whose day job involves healing people and animals, alleviating suffering to the best of her ability. Only when she’s alone at home, a house overlooking Ben Lomond, which she shares with what sounds like a menagerie of rescued animals, including a reformed pit bull named Emily, who was called Satan when she belonged to a Glasgow drug-dealer, does she draw on her “dark and twisted” imagination to dole out fictional death and destruction in gruesome, gory tales.
She confesses: “I sit and plot how to murder people all the time. I remember sitting on a bus wending its way through London, and there was this man in front of me picking a wart off the back of his hand – and it was making a noise. I decided to garotte him with the contents of my pencil case, or even with my white clinic coat, which I could have wound tightly into a rope. I recall thinking, ‘Would anybody notice if he went blue in the face and started fighting for breath?’” At this point Ramsay mimics the sound of someone being garotted.
Whenever she is put on hold on the phone, she dreams up coolly effective ways to kill the person on the end of the line. “I don’t come up with bizarre methods – bullets made of ice, all that stuff,” she says, adding that she thinks her vivid imaginings are just part of her survival system. “The simple methods are the best.” The “simple methods” of disembowelling and evisceration used on women by the serial “Crucifixion Killer” in Absolution are graphically described, as the victims are sliced open and left to bleed to death. The murderer is so called because the bodies are always neatly arranged, with their arms outstretched, feet neatly crossed, and heads tilted – “the roll of dead eyes looking at the door as if watching for Nemesis”.
It’s powerful stuff, with a killer who clearly sees women as the root of all evil. But Ramsay has done her apprenticeship by reading a heck of a lot of crime fiction. “I devour it,” she says cheerfully, although she can’t read other novelists when she’s writing. “I think I’m a bit of an amoeba, anyway.
“I can’t talk to somebody for ten minutes without imitating their accent, so I don’t want to soak up other writers’ styles. But I’ve always loved the physical act of writing – I write longhand in purple ink, with an italic fountain pen, lying on my side or my front, never sitting, because since childhood I’ve had a lot of back problems.
“Three times I’ve ended up in hospital on morphine, paralysed. Last time this happened to me, a few years ago, a journalist friend gave me his battered old laptop and I lay on my back typing a 200,000-word novel with two fingers. It was complete rubbish, but eventually I rewrote it and restructured it and it became Absolution.”
A keen member of Johnstone Writers Group – “a right bunch of nutters!” – Ramsay says it all began when the award-winning journalist-turnednovelist Ajay Close told her at their Thursday-night group that she should try sending “that thing” she’d written to the agent Jane Gregory, in London, who represents such best-selling crime writers as Scottish author Val McDermid.
Gregory invited her to London for lunch. They talked, she flew home, but no offer was made.
“I phoned an old friend, who’s written a lot. He explained that a subtle interview had been going on, because so many Scottish writers have the reputation for being big drinkers, for instance.
He said they’d obviously wanted to check out that I was presentable. Two days later I got the contract; it was a done deal.” Ramsay was and is still terrified at the prospect of her book being published. She has trouble believing that all this has happened to her.
“I’ve been asked to appear at book festivals, to give talks in libraries about how to write books, I’ve been made over and photographed for glossy magazines such as Marie Claire, and 300 tickets have been printed for the launch party on 28 June. But I still worry that I’m going to get found out, because I feel I’ve yet to learn how to write properly.”
Story ideas are not a problem. “I have this deeply, deeply devious, very evil mind. At our writers’ group we were asked to write something for children. So I wrote about the teddy bears’ picnic, although in my version the bears all turned on the children and ate them; I can’t be nice to save myself,” she says merrily.
The main influence on her as a writer, though, is her job. “Being an osteopath and acupuncturist, you are taught always to talk to people and I’ve found human frailty absolutely amazing, Everything passes through my door. It gives you a very dark view of some aspects of humanity.
“I’m so interested in people – the good side and the bad side. Nothing shocks me. Although I’ll do almost anything to human beings in my books, I’m a peace-loving vegetarian; I don’t drink alcohol and I’m almost Buddhist in my approach to life. I campaigned against the war in Iraq, was a secretary for Greenpeace – basically I’m just an old hippie. I know that I make women suffer in Absolution, but I think that’s because I can get into women’s minds easily; I understand their psyche.
I backed off from making the violence in the book even more graphic, which my editor was pushing me to do. I refused because I do think the scariest place is always between your ears.”
Born in Govan, the younger daughter of a shipyard crane-designer and an office worker, Ramsay was educated at schools in Moss Park. Her devoutly religious family of slightly lapsed Wee Frees – she’s adopted her mother’s maiden name as her writing identity – was part of “the great Glasgow drift to Paisley”. Initially she planned to go to medical school, but was unable to because of her back problems, which have now been diagnosed as a rare form of MS, although she’s actually run marathons when in remission. She studied to become an osteopath at the British School in London, and loves the work with a passion. “I think my own back troubles have made me very good at my job, because I understand pain,” she sighs.
Unmarried and childless, Ramsay has a tall, blond, blue-eyed Australian boyfriend, Chris (aka “Skippy”), who lives in London, but who comes up and cleans her house for her and cooks like a cordon-bleu chef.
But her life is consumed by her writing. “I work seven days a week at the practice, from 8am until 1:30pm; then I go home and write. I make tea for my 103-year-old granny, Jessie, who lives nearby, then go home, lie down and write all night.”
So how does Ramsay feel about being “the next Ian Rankin”? “I think any author who’s Scottish and who gets a crime thriller accepted for publication is described that way.
“None of the guys – or the policewoman, DS Costello – in Absolution is Rebus reborn. But it’s a great compliment to be compared to Ian Rankin,” she replies.
“My characters are all very normal people – they have their quirks, but they’re not angst-ridden drunks or anything; I do think some fictional detectives need to cheer up and get a life. I want to give some of them a good slap! I like having my detectives nipping off to B&Q, because that’s what they do in real life. I think if you write with one foot in normality, then the horror of violent death comes much closer to you and is much more shocking and believable.”
• Absolution, by Caro Ramsay is out now, published by Michael Joseph and priced at 12.99.
Scotswomen with a taste for murder
CREATOR of the Paddy Meehan crime novels, whose central character is a young female newspaper reporter in Mina's home city of Glasgow. Her massively popular Garnethill trilogy won her the John Creasy Dagger for best first crime novel, and Mina makes no apology for her blood-drenched plots: "The vast majority of crime readers are women. Having children is such a visceral experience that it probably makes you more gory."
• Death by... throat-slitting
FORMER maths teacher turned novelist and screenwriter, Anderson is the daughter of a CID detective from Greenock, who now lives in Edinburgh. Her most famous character is Rhona MacLeod, a forensic pathologist, and much is made of the Scottish landscape, from the mean streets of Glasgow to the Hebridean island of Raasay.
• Death by... dismemberment. A foot is found floating in the sea off the Isle of Skye.
AN OXFORD-EDUCATED native of Kirkcaldy, McDermid specialises in knuckle-biting tension, psychological complexity and extremely gory murders. Her most popular creations, which have won her awards, include detectives Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, whose characters were adapted for the TV series, Wire in the Blood, starring Robson Green and Hermione Norris.
• Death by... mutilation and medieval-style implements of torture
GLASGOW-born Marion Chesney, now 70, writes the dry, witty and dark Agatha Raisin detective novels as MC Beaton. There's an element of satire to these Cotswold-set mysteries, and little bloodshed, but middle-aged Agatha is a fully formed (and flawed) private dick for the 21st century. Pushy, egocentric, short-tempered and pig-headed, she is beloved of people who watch Midsomer Murders and Miss Marple.
• Death by... poisoned quiche at the village fte.