So now that The Caretaker has been out for a couple of months, it’s probably a good time to discuss its biggest twists, reveals, and character journeys.
The best place to start would be Charlotte, a character who I was a little nervous about leading up to release. For the simple fact that I was once again writing a young woman on the run, but one seemingly without Maggie’s ruthless, decisive resourcefulness. Given that I know how much Maggie means to so many readers, it was hard not to fret about unflattering comparisons.
And look, there were certainly reviews that said Charlotte didn’t stack up to Maggie, as I knew there would be. Others didn’t mention the ‘M’ word but still expressed frustration at Charlotte's fearfulness and refusal to act.
But overall, Charlotte has been received really warmly. Quite a few readers have told me they actually like her more than Maggie for the simple fact that she’s so much more human. Maggie is more of a John Wick/Jack Reacher type, somewhat divorced from recognisable reality, but Charlotte, despite the heightened circumstances she ends up in, is a more relatable kind of anti-hero. Hearing this from so many is, of course, a big relief because my hope was always that readers would empathise with her despite her often terrible decision making.
Which of course brings me to the gradual reveal that Charlotte isn’t as far from Maggie as she might initially seem. She’s resourceful when she has to be, setting all kinds of traps to waylay her pursuers – traps that eventually save her life. And while her refusal to kill or harm others might look, at first, like the biggest point of difference, we of course come to learn that the very reason Charlotte avoids killing so desperately is because she did kill someone, for reasons she thought were right at the time but came to understand were very wrong. And where Maggie, who learned from a very early age how brutal and uncompromising the world can be, will generally shoot first, ask questions later, feel guilt never – Charlotte isn’t cut from that same cloth. Her act of murder has left her permanently scarred, unable to move on from the act that split her entire life and understanding of herself in half.
To me the question at the heart of The Caretaker is not whether Charlotte can be redeemed, or whether she deserves her freedom. I don’t think that question means much in real life, where people do the most terrible things for the most empty reasons and never seriously consider redemption or retribution. The question The Caretaker asks is twofold – can she learn from it, and can she live with it?
Charlotte’s refusal to directly harm anyone, even in the most seemingly impossible circumstances, is exactly what frees her at the end. She won’t kill Anders even as John makes it clear that doing so is the only thing that will make him spare her life. She refuses even though Anders, a cold blooded hitman, would happily have turned her over to her hunters. And once she has led John into the trap that seemingly (we’ll get to that) kills him, she saves the injured Anders – and in return gets a promise that he will tell those trying to find her that she is dead. The fact that saving Anders even when she shouldn’t have is what saves her, is what Charlotte needs in order to accept that she is not a ghost waiting to be finally vanquished, but a human being with an ugly past who has grown and changed and become more capable because of it.
I get asked a lot if Charlotte will be back. The answer is probably yes, but not in any kind of sequel. Her backstory coincides with another book I hope to write one day, and Charlotte would be a major character in that book – although her appearances would all be set before the present day timeline in The Caretaker. In terms of where she goes from here? I have some vague ideas, but nothing I think constitutes another book, at least not right now. I’m quite happy to let her escape to a peaceful future.
The other major characters are a very different story. First, John, the smiling, strangely avuncular serial killer who believes he’s helping Charlotte become ‘actualised’. It’s now that I can fully and officially confirm that John is, of course, none other than The Driver from my Audible Original The Hitchhiker, a character I enjoyed writing so much that I gave him a starring role in this novel. John will be back early next year in The Lodger, the direct sequel to The Hitchhiker – although in reality The Caretaker is essentially a de-facto middle chapter to the trilogy.
So yes, John survives his final fall in The Caretaker, just as he survived being stabbed at the end of The Hitchhiker. I promise I won’t keep employing these fake out deaths for him, but I do kind of like the idea that he’s maybe mildly supernatural, that he somehow always lucks out in surviving the seemingly unsurvivable. That’s not canon, by the way, I just enjoy the notion that John – or Paul, or The Driver or, as he’ll be called in The Lodger, George – is somehow other.
The third main character of the novel is probably my favourite. Anders, the droll Swedish hitman, was a character who originally came about as a suggestion from my publisher that Charlotte needed someone to talk to throughout the book. The original pitch was a partner or a child, but that wasn’t right – Charlotte had to be alone and isolated without allies. So to that, I figured the ideal compromise was a hired gun who she managed to overpower and then, due to her unwillingness to kill, was forced to keep captive in the basement.
I liked writing Anders a lot. I found his dry, deadpan, disinterested personality a fun contrast with the desperate Charlotte and happy-go-lucky John. I also enjoyed his growing curiosity towards Charlotte, the way he gradually realises the many ways he has underestimated her.
This is why I didn’t kill him off, as I’d originally planned to. The more I wrote the more I realised that there was a lot of mileage left in this guy, that down the line he could appear in other stories, maybe even get his own eventually.
So Anders too will be back – going head to head with Jack Carlin and Maggie in High Rise, my next adult thriller for HarperCollins, which I’m currently outlining. High Rise will be set post The Caretaker and The Lodger (which will also feature Maggie and Jack), but likely won’t have any direct references to either of them. Still, not to pre-empt too much, you can bet that Anders’ experiences in Caretaker, physically and emotionally, will have seen him somewhat changed.
I think. Look, it’s always tricky to make promises about books you haven’t written yet. Stories change so much in the telling, and things you believed to be certainties can slip away almost the second you start writing. That happened as recently as The Lodger, which at almost every turn revealed itself to be not the novel I’d planned – to the point where I can barely even remember the meticulous plot I spent weeks cobbling together. But for now, I feel pretty sure that Anders will have a major part to play in High-Rise.
I guess the other thing to talk about here is pace. A LOT of reviews have mentioned how much slower this is compared to The Hunted or The Inheritance – the majority cite this as a positive or at least a shift that works, others have complained about it. Which is par for the course; I’d never want or expect to please everyone but pleasing most, as The Caretaker looks to have done, is certainly not something I’m ever going to complain about.
I don’t think a slowed down pace is either better or worse than the other books by default. It’s a different story with a different character and that means a different approach. Maggie’s books are fast, bruising and punishing because, well, she is all those things. Charlotte didn’t suit a story told in that style. So instead of relying on action or shock twists, here my main tools were creeping tension and the gradual reveals of simmering mysteries that hopefully upend and complicate your allegiances at various turns. Even if The Caretaker had bombed catastrophically, I still would have been glad I took these risks.
One chapter in the book, as I spoke about a lot pre-release, was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever written in my life. Of course, that’s the chapter where we learn, through the fractured memories and hallucinations of Charlotte losing consciousness as she flees in the snow, that the person she murdered was her godfather 'Uncle Mac', after she learned he was a major crime lord gunning for her partner Dominic.
I knew early on this chapter would be the centrepiece of the book. I also knew that it couldn’t be just another flashback, because this is the event that defines who Charlotte is now, the moment she went from bystander to perpetrator, the moment she stepped fully into a world she’d previously benefitted from but always managed to keep blind to the realities of. The moment that shattered her, that turned her alcoholic and erratic and illogical until she made the choice to run away and separate herself from it all.
So I tried something I never had before. Four timelines, flowing into each other, all written in present tense unlike the rest of the book. With the same characters appearing in multiple timelines, many beats could be taking place in any of them. I wanted it to be blurry and discombobulating and still somehow clear at every turn what it meant and what was happening. It was the only way I could think of to convey what Charlotte went through and how entirely it transformed her. I wrote it in two days. I couldn’t write anything else for a long time afterwards. I wasn’t sure if it was the best or the worst thing I’ve ever written.
Of course, you can’t really define that for yourself, just like you can’t define for yourself what’s good or bad about any of your writing. All you can ever speak to with any authority is what you like about what you do, not its objective quality – if there even is such a thing.
So what I will say about that chapter is not that it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but that it’s my proudest moment as a writer. I didn’t think I could write like that until I did. But then, I didn’t think I could write a book like Caretaker until I did, and once it was done and on its way into the world, I still wasn’t sure any of it had landed.
So to everyone who read it, who wrote me emails or messages or approached me at events, who reviewed it or posted about it – thank you for letting me be proud of one of the biggest risks I've ever taken.
Writing words about writing words.