Less than five minutes into my chat with Lynda La Plante and we are talking about people being killed by fentanyl. The synthetic form of heroin—up to 100 times more powerful than its natural antecedent, she tells me—is part of America’s ongoing opioid crisis and is the major factor in the spike in overdose deaths across the United States. La Plante leans in, almost confidingly: “It is so very transportable: a dose the size of a pinhead is enough to kill you. So, in my bag here”—she picks up her small clutch from the table and waves it around—“I could probably carry enough to murder 5,000 people. But the high is so very short, which is so dangerous because people want more quickly—and [the users] get very paranoid and become very violent.”
She has not found this out by, say, perusing a long read in the Guardian, but from one of her many contacts in law enforcement, this time the head of the drugs unit of the New York City Police Department. In fact, a hallmark of the career of the superstar crime author and creator of myriad of TV shows (including “Prime Suspect”, “Above Suspicion” and “Widows”) is that she goes deep with research. Interviewing victims of crime, “villains” and cops; attending post-mortems and accompanying police on dawn raids. She’s so respected by criminologists that La Plante is the only layperson to be admitted to the Chartered Society of Forensic Science.
A new project is a podcast about this research, “Listening to the Dead”, in which she and her long-time friend, former Metropolitan Police detective and crime scene investigator Cass Sutherland, delve into forensic techniques. It is riveting listening but not for the faint of heart or stomach—episode one, which launched at the end of February, has bits on how useful blowflies and maggots on a corpse are in determining time of death and how analysing types of peat led to discovering the killer of a murdered infant. In fact, much is new with La Plante: the podcast; a new US-based TV series with CBS Direct, “Cold Shoulder”, based on her 1994 novel of the same; and her soon-to-be released novel, Buried, with her new-ish publisher Bonnier UK.
It was a big surprise when the Bonnier deal was announced a couple of years ago (in which it acquired all world English and translation rights); the writer, after all, had been with Simon & Schuster UK for 30 years. La Plante says: “I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way, because [S&S] were always very good to me. But I think they had become complacent and I probably had become complacent. But Bonnier are all very young and they are so full of energy. For Buried they sent out proofs with half-burned fake banknotes with my face on it. It was great—at the end, I don’t think S&S bothered to even check my proofs for mistakes, let alone market the [books]. And Bonnier have really encouraged me to get online, to go on Twitter and try new things.”
Without giving a twist away, Buried is connected to “Widows”, the six-part mini-series La Plante wrote in the early 1980s about a group of women who, after their husbands are killed in an armoured car heist, take on their plans for a future robbery. La Plante had had a successful career as an actress since she graduated from the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts in the mid-1960s, consistently working in guest slots on classic British television shows like “Z Cars”, “The Sweeney” and the cult kids’ programme “Rentaghost”. (“‘Rentaghost’!” she exclaims with mock indignation when I ask her what working with Christopher Biggins was really like. “I only did five episodes and I think I’ve been asked about it every week of my life since.”)
La Plante moved to writing because she wanted more control over her career. “Widows” was a smash hit which she soon turned into a novel, and ever since she has bounced between film/TV and fiction, writing 33 novels since and, she reckons, over 150 hours of television. If there is a through-line in those works, it is they feature smart, tough women making their way in male-dominated areas. She was writing from personal experience as one of the few women working as what we would now call a showrunner in 1980s and ’90s British TV.
She says: “What I learned about being the only woman in the crew was to make sure I got what I wanted, but not fight against [the misogyny]. If I insisted on something in the script or the editing room, I would do it calmly. I knew the men would mutter about me when I left, but throwing a tantrum about it would just be detrimental.”
“Widows” kick-started her career and it also rejuvenated it, she says. In 2015, she had a bruising experience during the making of “Prime Suspect: 1973”. La Plante wanted a different direction of the origin story of her most famous detective, Jane Tennison, but clashed with ITV bosses. ITV got its way, as La Plante had sold the rights to the Tennison character to the company “when I was young and didn’t know what I was doing”, so she left the production. But then she met a superfan in Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, who told her he had wanted to make a film version of “Widows” for years. She said: “It really saved me because I had been so knocked down by [‘Prime Suspect: 1973’].”
Perhaps not unpleasingly for La Plante, “Prime Suspect: 1973” was cancelled after a poorly received six-episode run. Meanwhile, McQueen’s “Widows”, with its updated present-day America setting, a largely African-American cast and a screenplay by McQueen and Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, was a huge hit. La Plante adds: “Then, and this is Bonnier being clever again, they said ‘Why don’t you have another look at the Widows book?’ So I polished it up, updated it and it gained a whole new batch of readers. The movie, Bonnier, the whole experience was manna from heaven, really.”
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