Hilton's novel tipped to be next big thriller

By Stephen Jewell

Lisa Hilton’s new novel is tipped to be the next big thriller, writes Stephen Jewell.
L.S. Hilton.
L.S. Hilton.

With her debut thriller, Maestra, proclaimed as "the new 50 Shades of Grey," Lisa "L.S." Hilton admits she has been disappointed by the inevitable comparisons made between it and E.L. James' best-selling erotic series.

For while the novel's lead character, Judith Rashleigh, is voracious and sexually free-spirited, the extraordinary journey the lowly clerk-turned-audacious art thief undertakes is closer to a cross between Gone Girl and Ocean's Eleven.

"The British press has been universally obsessed with sex," says Hilton. "That's all they've wanted to talk about, whereas the French, Italians and Germans have asked slightly more interesting questions such as 'is it about the revenge of the intelligent against the privileged?' or 'is it about class or feminism or even a satire on the noir genre?'"

Describing it as "quite fantastical," Hilton says Ian Fleming's 007 was another touchstone.

"Someone said that the only thing that's unconvincing is that she's almost got superpowers, but then so does James Bond. We want our escapist heroes to be larger than life, and everything in the book is kind of in glorious technicolour, and it's all shiny, bright and really loud. It's like a Quentin Tarantino movie, where the body count is really crazy but we're not meant to believe in the deaths in quite the way we would if it was a serious French film.

"There's a slight comic book energy to his films, and the same is true of this book, as I don't intend for you to take it completely literally."

A noted historian who is already the author of several historical biographies and novels, Hilton was initially inspired to embark upon Maestra after her previous agent suggested she try penning some erotic fiction.

"I wanted to write something that reminded me of what it was like when I was a teenager to read books like Shirley Conran's Lace," she says. "It was all a bit fabulous, as everything was very glamorous, the clothes were beautiful and the locations were exotic."

However, she insists that the frequent and often very explicit sex scenes are an integral part of the narrative.

"It actually drives the plot, and it also shows what sort of character Judith is. She's not a reliable narrator, but you get a sense of her true self - such as that is - in the sex scenes. It's connected to her character as a whole in that she's emotionally distant since she doesn't have strong feelings.

"She's quite clinical and that spills over into her attitude towards violence and ambition. To me, it seems to be a coherent part of her character, not just something I stuck in there to titillate readers."

The subject of a ferocious bidding war in both the book and movie industries, Maestra was eventually bought by Bonnier Publishing's new fiction imprint, Zaffre, and the novel has been optioned for a film by Amazing Spider-Man producer Amy Pascal. Pascal has commissioned a script from screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who also recently adapted Paula Hawkins' The Girl On The Train for the big screen.

It's interesting that women writers are often put in a position of having to speak for their gender in a way that male writers often aren't.
L.S. Hilton

But although Maestra has been included in the current trend of female-led thrillers that started out with Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and also encompasses The Girl On The Train, Hilton believes all three novels are very different kinds of books.

"There is a hunger in the market for strong female-led books but it's a pity that they are often lumped together because those three heroines actually share nothing but their sex," she says.

"The Girl On The Train doesn't feature a powerful, clever female lead, as the girl herself is drunk, vulnerable and greedy, so she just falls into this murder plot by accident. Amy Dunne in Gone Girl is extremely manipulative and clever, but what she's doing is exorcising her childhood demons in pursuit of suburban happiness with her husband. While I suppose Judith is a more conventional thriller character who is only out for herself."

With her constant scheming, Judith shares a certain ruthless mindset with Amy Dunne; leaving Hilton open to the same accusations of misogyny that were levelled at Flynn after the devious plans of Gone Girl's central protagonist were revealed.

"They're both characters in a book that is meant to entertain," she says. "It's interesting that women writers are often put in a position of having to speak for their gender in a way that male writers often aren't. Nobody asks Ian Rankin whether Inspector Rebus is indicative of a crisis in masculinity.

"There's also a long and honorable tradition of bad girls in fiction from Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair to Madame Bovary, Raymond Chandler's bad-ass blondes and the girls of St Trinian's. We're all fascinated by wicked characters, and it's one of the things that we look for in fiction as it allows us to explore the darker sides of ourselves."

As she commits numerous brutal acts and her actions become gradually harder to justify, you have to wonder how the reader continues to sympathise with Judith. Hilton acknowledges it was a challenge that intrigued her.

"People have made the comparison with Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley, as Tom Ripley is not a hero, he's really bad, but you want him to get away with it. Although it was not a model for the novel, it was a kind of subconscious influence, as it's an interesting book technically.

"I had to work out how to keep the reader wanting her to win even though she's pretty despicable and unscrupulous. They just have to keep turning the pages because they want to find out what happens to her."

The first instalment in a projected trilogy, Hilton promises that several familiar supporting characters will return for next year's follow-up but it won't be the same adventure repeated in different circumstances. She says readers should closely study Maestra's denouement for hints of where Judith is headed next.

"I've told you before that she is an unreliable narrator, and there's something that happens in the first book, but what she thinks has happened is not at all what has actually happened. Basically, she makes one mistake and that mistake is what drives the next part of the story."

- Canvas

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