Rachel Bennett is a Manx writer of Crime and Thrillers whose debut novel The Flood came out in September with Avon Books. The novel takes places in a flooded town where a death in the family unspools into a dark tale of past and present mysteries. Here she talks to us about her career in the Isle of Man's criminal courts and pathology department, her work with the Manx Lit Fest, and her love of classic horror.
Rachel, you’ve had some interesting jobs, tell us a bit about them.
For ten years I was working in the criminal justice system; my posh job title was Clerk to the Deputy High Bailiff; she was the first female member of a Manx judiciary so that was pretty exciting, on the same level as a magistrate. I was working in the criminal courts and in the lower criminal courts.
And what did you do there?
You know in movies when you see a stenographer in the court typing away? They do a recording now; it was my job to press ‘record’. And it was all the paperwork that goes along with that. I never personally sent anyone to jail, but I had to complete the paperwork to send people to jail!
So witnessing the daily comings and goings of petty crime?
Yes exactly, we’re such a small jurisdiction you see the same folks coming in all the time and you get to know faces and names and we also worked quite closely with the prison and probation service and everything so I got to know a little bit about the rehabilitation of criminals side of things; I wanted to pull some of that into a book if I could.
So you heard about some interesting criminal stories I imagine?
Certainly, one particularly memorable one was when a farm accidentally released a load of slurry into a river, killing 28 fish and one eel – but the advocate representing the farm insisted that although 28 fish had indeed died, the eel later recovered. This was despite us being shown a photo of the (definitely dead) eel pinned to a board! The eel became known as Lazarus and was forevermore a long-running joke in the office.
Oh right, some pretty off the wall stuff then…
Yeah just have a google of Manx news. I’m not sure if it’s just being on an island that we’re particularly susceptible. And we have our own laws and our own government and everything…
That throws up quite a few interesting linguistic quirks doesn’t it? Isn’t there a law for ‘Furious Driving’?
Yeah there is a charge of ‘Furious Driving’. We’ve got one called ‘Provoking Behaviour’ too, anything that would provoke a reaction you can charge it under ‘Provoking Behaviour’ and get done for it.
Sounds like the kind of open-ended law an authoritarian dictatorship would love(!)
Yeah it’s not an offence you can go to prison for but if someone’s being a bit drunk and shouty, or having an argument with the neighbours, or doing something else weird…
…I’m being provoked!
You are doing an action that would provoke a reaction from me therefore…
Any other funny words or phrases that come to mind?
Yes, we’ve got Deemsters instead of Judges. When they swear them into office they have to take an oath that they will take the law as straight and impartial ‘as the backbone lies within the herring.’
Yeah in the court building there’s a big metal statue of a herring and you can see its backbone down the middle, isn’t that neat?
And along with courts, you’ve worked in Pathology too, is that right?
Yes, before I started in courts I was in the Department of Pathology for about ten years. I was in the office and I typed up post-mortems and stuff.
Yet another great job for someone who wants to write crime books…
The main thing it taught me is that pathologists will not leave their office for anything. When you read a crime book and it’s like ‘the pathologist went to the crime scene’, oh no he didn’t!
So not just an insight into pathology but pathologists too.
It gives you a real insight into the many terrible things that can happen to a human body and how they can fail, stop working, come apart and all that sort of thing – but you do become a bit blase about it.
You have to develop a detachment I suppose?
Yeah I’m not sure how healthy it was, everyone there was quite mad in their own personal ways. But it was very interesting and it definitely got me writing about that sort of thing and the forensic side.
Working as a fly on the wall in pathology and criminal courts, you couldn’t be better placed to write a crime novel!
It’s meant that I’ve had access to people. The number of times I said to someone ‘can I ask you a million questions about your job?’. There are some very nice people on the Isle of Man Constabulary Force who I owe a lot of beer to for some very random questions(!)
Let’s talk about your latest book The Flood. Where did you get the idea to set a novel in a flooded town?
Just from watching it on the news. I’ve fortunately never been in that situation but I’ve always really liked the idea of a locked, enclosed location like an isolated place, and watching the news and seeing towns that are properly cut off; it’s a setting I’ve always wanted to use. I had tried to use it a few times and it didn’t take off… this book came very close to having killer eels in it.
Same setting, some of the same characters, killer eels.
No way! What happened to them? Don’t tell me Leslie made you cut the killer eels?!
No, no, I grew up reading pulp horror like Guy N Smith. My first big love is always going to be monsters and ridiculous scary stuff. It was honestly a real departure to try and write about the real world. It’s relatively easy when there’s zombies or killer eels because if you get stuck you can make a monster appear and they do the hard work for you.
Right! You get to play by your own rules. The reader reads it on your terms. Who are they to say what your killer eels should be doing? You made them!
Exactly: they’re mine! They do what I tell them! I am the Queen of the Killer Eels!
So it sounds like a lot of the details came from different imaginative processes and ideas you had.
Yeah and stealing bits from everywhere to be honest, I’m a terrible pick pocket when it comes to ideas, and things that I’ve seen in various places. I try and write down everything because my memory is terrible. I put everything into my notebook and then I’ll steal bits like a magpie, and try and smoosh them all together into a cohesive story. And sometimes it works and sometimes it really doesn’t. Fingers crossed it seems to have worked ok so far.
Well it has certainly worked for The Flood! Have you enjoyed having the book out?
It’s been great! Everyone’s been so nice about it. People keep talking to me about it and it’s so weird to have something that’s been inside my own head for years, and now suddenly people are talking about it *like it’s a real book*; where they’re up to, which bit they’re reading now, what they think is going to happen. It’s a bit of a surreal experience. I’m very much enjoying it though!
In September you were a part of the Manx Lit Fest, is that right?
Yes, the Manx Literary Festival is our local lit fest and I squirmed my way onto the committee a few years ago. I coordinate their Writers’ Day which is aimed at aspiring authors. It’s been very successful – we’ve just had our eighth year. It’s lead to quite a few success stories from our local authors. Elizabeth Brooks had a book out last year called ‘Call Of The Curlew’, Rona Halsall has just had her fourth book out on Bookoutre, and they all found literary agents through coming to our events!
That’s great to be cultivating local talent.
Yeah we’re so proud of our local authors, there’s a shocking amount of home grown talent over here.
So what’s next for Rachel Bennett? How’s the future looking?
Looking rosy! Book two is with the copy-editor at the moment. Actually it’s just come back from the copy editor, I’m supposed to be doing edits right now, but I’m putting up Christmas decorations and things, I’ll get around to it very soon! They’ve sent me the cover it looks fantastic. Due for release end of May next year, so that’s very exciting. I’m trying to get ahead with book three as well.
Any monsters on the horizon?
Not quite… I’m trying to stay in my lane with this for a moment, I’m trying to stick to the crime and thriller thing, that seems to be what people would like at present.
We’ll see how book two does, and maybe if the publishers get desperate we can pull out the fantastical monsters.
Well, if you need a back catalogue of ridiculous monsters attacking Birmingham I’ve got us covered!
And organising the Manx Lit Fest for next year?
Yes, we’re in the throes of planning it at the moment. We haven’t announced who we’ve got next year but between you and me, [REDACTED]’s coming over next September.
Woah my gosh that’s incredible!
We do quite well to be honest; for such a small festival we’ve had some pretty good names – we got Martina Cole last year. She made everyone come back to the hotel and sit in the bar getting drunk until two in the morning! She kept buying everyone drinks and wouldn’t let them leave, she was an absolute star.
What a legend! Anything else on the horizon?
I’m in a new job now, I’m now a librarian which is amazing and I’m working in the mobile library side of it as well, which means I get to go out in a bus full of books, drive around, it’s like Postman Pat you just go around and distribute books to people.
What a great CV you’ve got, you must never be short of anecdotes!
Yeah I’ve got a lot of stories, I’ve just given you a sample, but I have a lot more. If we ever end up in the pub I’ll tell you some of the others.
Save it for the lit fest after-party!
Definitely. We’ll see if we can get someone like Martina Cole to buy our drinks⬛️
Thanks very much to Rachel for chatting to us, and the pleasure of being her literary agents. Interview edited for clarity.