Bestselling author who sets her dark deeds in St Albans

St albans Cathedral

The Fall centres on a death at St Albans Cathedral - did he jump or was he pushed? - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Bestselling crime writer Rachael Blok sets her dark deeds in St Albans. With the cathedral at heart of her latest plot, Louise McEvoy asks what is it about the city that draws her? 

'There is an endless list of fascinating facts about this beautiful place but it’s also haunting and the perfect place for intrigue.' 

So says Rachael Blok about St Albans - the backdrop to all four of her psychological thrillers. A best-selling novelist, she reveals she long-harboured a dream of a career as an author before finally taking the plunge.

'I was an English teacher, and I’m convinced all English teachers want to write a book,' she laughs. 'I had a few goes at it, but I was so busy with work I didn't get far. 

Thriller writer Rachael Blok

Rachael Blok says of her protagonist: 'I liked the idea of a matter-of-fact Dutch outsider cutting through the St Albans niceties' - Credit: Rachael Blok

'When I was on maternity leave with my son, I took the opportunity to write while he was sleeping. I was writing in snatches, so it was slow going, and it took two or three years to write my first novel.' 

Rachael, who lives near St Albans with her husband and two young children, decided to invest in a creative writing course, which she says proved instrumental in her eventual success as a full-time writer. 

'It was an evening course, for two hours one night a week, and it really helped. It taught me how to edit and consider the book as a commercial piece of writing, rather than something I had written for myself.' 

Rachael's first novel, Under the Ice, was published in 2018. 'It took about a year to find an agent and then a few months to get a book deal,' she explains. 'I sent a sample of my book to three agents and all of them asked for the full manuscript which was very exciting. Agents have different ideas and make different suggestions for changes but Eve White, the agent I went with, was on exactly the same page as me and didn't want to change anything.' 

The reason her thrillers, Under the Ice, The Scorched Earth, Into the Fire and new novel, The Fall - out on April 14 - are all set in St Albans is because 'it's the perfect place to set murders and hide crimes,' she says. 'The stunning city and Roman history make it such an interesting landscape for dark deeds.'

Sculpted head on St Albans Cathedral, Hertfordshire, UK

Sculpted head on St Albans Cathedral, a witness to a deadly crime? - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

'My first novel is set near the lake, the second in Ayot St Lawrence and St Albans, and the third near the Roman theatre. The fourth novel is set in the cathedral and the mental health hospitals in St Albans that closed at the end of the last century.' 

The changing treatment of women is a central theme in The Fall (spoiler alert - the fall of the title is one from the cathedral's tower), particularly surrounding the fictional mental health hospital Hill Barnes - an amalgamation of the former St Albans' Cell Barnes and Hill End hospitals.

'One of the most distressing aspects of researching the novel was reading many diary entries of patients of mental health hospitals over the last century. Less than 100 years ago, women could be sent to these hospitals for being pregnant out of wedlock, or for disagreeing with their husbands. As women’s rights have developed, so has the way medicine has treated women.' 

The protagonist in all four stories is Detective Chief Inspector Maarten Jansen, a no-nonsense Dutch family man. 'My husband is half Dutch and we've spent a lot of time in Holland,' Rachael says. 'I liked the idea of a matter-of-fact Dutch outsider cutting through the St Albans niceties to investigate crimes. I tend to split the narrative between Jansen and the main characters because I like the contrasting viewpoints on the same story.' 

When it comes to getting the words on the page, discipline is key. 'I write about 2,000 words a day while my children are at school and I have to really stick to it, to make sure I meet the submission deadline. 

St Albans Cathedral tower interior, United Kingdom

Looking up at the 11th century great tower of St Albans Cathedral, scene of a dreadful fall - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

'I aim to write 80,000 words for my novels, and every 20,000 words I look back to see if anything needs chopping out. There are always parts I write that I don't like but I have to push through it and keep going because it's a job and there's a deadline. I have looked back and sliced 30,000 words when I only had 40,000. Sometimes you just need to rethink things.' 

She says she's not quite a 'pantster' - writing by the seat of her pants - but she's not much of a planner either. 'I know where I’m going with a story and I know what happens at the end. I have a feel for the main characters, in terms of their flaws and vulnerable aspects, but other than that I really struggle to plan. When I’m writing, that’s when the ideas spark.' 

With critics' positive reactions to her work 'overwhelming at times', she is already 40,000 words into her next book, not this time set in St Albans. 'It will be a standalone story set on a cruise liner. I'm taking a break from Marteen, for a change of scene, and this story is told from one person's perspective, in the first person, which feels like a real treat.' 

Rachael Blok will be at a Chorleywood Bookshop event with fellow thriller writer Tony Kent on May 4 from 7pm (£12), and at 'an evening of crime' at Books on the Hill in St Albans with authors Harriet Tyce and Sam Holland on May 10 from 7pm (£10)