Murder by Natural Causes by Helen Erichsen is published by Muswell Press on 25 May 2023.
Helen kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about Murder by Natural Causes.
22 year old Cilla is a trained hitman who specialises in The Dry Job: an assassination that masquerades as a death by natural causes. Trained in the Soviet Union at Academy 43 and cut loose by the State she now works for Vladimir Haugr; gangster, drug dealer and owner of the TGR’s Bridge Club in London. He keeps her busy but she still has time to take on the odd freelance job. Cilla doesn’t want to be a hitman anymore. She yearns to lead a “normal” life. But she is deeply embedded in a world of organised crime and violence. Can she find her way out of the maze and how many people will she have to kill to get there.
2. What inspired the book?
I wanted to create a female protagonist that broke the mould, not the usual gorgeous femme fatale who could fell a grown man with one kung fu kick from her stiletto. The reality is that women cannot fight men on men’s terms. I wanted to conjure up a character who made her own terms: stealth, subterfuge, invisibility. Cilla is unassuming. She’s not pretty. You wouldn’t notice her in a crowd. That is part of her strength.
I’ve long been interested in state sponsored assassinations. Back in the 1970’s the dissident Bulgarian author Georgie Markov died after a man stabbed him in the leg with an umbrella on the Strand delivering a poison pellet which may have contained ricin. More recently there were the Salisbury novichok poisonings and the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s brother in law in a Malaysian airport. These are just the ones we know about. In 2017 Alexander Perepilichnyy collapsed and died in Surrey after vomiting greeny-yellow liquid. I don’t think that one was even classified as an assignation. Imagine all the other people who have been systematically and covertly removed by state sponsored assassins. That led me to develop the idea of the Dry Job: a murder that poses as a death by natural causes.
I was also interested in the existence of child soldiers. It is well documented that children have been recruited by armies. In civil wars children of the opposing faction may be snatched and co-opted. I’ve even read accounts where such children are forced to kill members of their own family to prove their allegiance to their captors. Pre-pubescent children are often seen as pre-moral, easy to train and brainwash. I wondered what would happen if a government actually decided to create a training programme for suitable children to train them as assassins and executioners. This idea evolved into Academy 43.
Finally I’m interested in neurodivergence in all its forms. I come from a neurodivergent family. I play bridge which is stuffed full of neurodivergent people. A state sponsored boarding school looking for suitable recruits would probably concentrate on searching out young psychopaths and training them. So the character of Cilla was born. Is she a victim or a perpetrator; evil or innocent? Is it possible that she is all these things? That’s up to the reader to decide.
3. Do you plan before you start writing or do you sit down and see where the words take you?
I think and I plan but I don’t tend to write down much of the plan until I begin. The character of Cilla was mostly invented at night. She kept me company through my insomnia. I thought about her for several years before I started writing about her. When I realised that there was already a female assassin in existence (Villanelle: Killing Eve) I nearly decided not to write the book. But the two protagonists are so different from each other I decided that there is room for both in the world.
4. Is there anything about the process of publishing a book that surprised you?
It’s very slow.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
I play high level competitive bridge – although to be fair that’s not really very relaxing. I garden obsessively. I play a bad but enthusiastic game of tennis – imagine a dog chasing a ball, that’s me on court.
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
Dancing with Mr D; Notes on Life and Death by Bert Keizer. It’s a masterpiece of a medical memoir with a fair amount of philosophy thrown in. It’s also fairly long – which matters if I’m going to have to read it for eternity.
7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
I think the question would be: What do you think it is that motivates you to write? In my case the answer would be: Inner rage
About the Book
A double life with a single purpose, getting away with murder. Cilla is a 22-year-old contract killer, specialising in the dry job: a murder interpreted as death by natural causes. Her main client, Vladimir Haugr, is the owner of TGRÕs bridge club in London. In return for a flat, a retainer and expenses, Cilla does five jobs a year. She occasionally works freelance. Neither strong, nor beautiful, Cilla isnÕt your typical female protagonist. In fact, she is so unremarkable as to render her almost invisible, an advantage in her line of work. She has survived because she is clever, stubborn and lucky. But Cilla knows that, statistically, her luck is about to run out. She must find a way to reinvent herself. Soon.
You can buy a copy of the book here.
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