Stella Darnell is the detective’s daughter. Her dad, Terry Darnell, a CID officer with the Met police, was keen for Stella to follow his footsteps. But Stella believes The Job got the best of her father and is determined it won’t get her too. She starts Clean Slate and devotes herself to her favourite occupation, deep cleaning.
I saw the similarities between a cleaner and a CID detective. Both roles explore homes, offices and public spaces, peer into the darkest corners and meet all sorts of people. A cleaner and a detective notice detail or spot changes in detail. They arrive into chaos and restore order. A cleaner, I decided, would be my unofficial detective. Stella was conceived.
In book one, The Detective’s Daughter, the police inform Stella that Terry Darnell has suffered a fatal heart attack. She collects his valuables from the hospital and, treating it as another task, will expedite and move on.
Stella’s character develops over the eight novels. In Terry’s attic, she finds photocopied case files for the unsolved murder in July 1981 of Kate Rokesmith. Stella, then aged 15, remembers the case. Terry cancelled their outing to rush to the crime scene, a scrap of shingle by the river Thames at Hammersmith. The teenager resented the dead woman for stealing her father. Now in her forties, Stella recognizes this is absurd. Doggedly, she prepares to shred the papers, but instead she starts to read – and the cleaner becomes a detective.
A key idea came when I was driving home from work one day in 1992. The radio news announced the murder of a mother on Wimbledon Common. Rachel Nickell’s toddler son was found beside her body. I was shocked. Later, dwelling on this, I projected forward to wonder what kind of man a little boy who had experienced such a trauma would become. After years of mulching, I came up with Jack Harmon – he changes his name to keep the media at bay – a thirty-three-year-old London Underground driver who, after his shift, walks the night-time streets, avoiding cracks in pavements as bad luck. Jack is searching for his mother’s killer. He thinks of this man – or woman – as a True Host. Jack gives himself the right to slip into the homes of those he believes are psychopaths or potential victims to prevent or expose murder.
Jack and Stella are chalk and cheese. Jack sees ghosts, hears voices in subway tunnels and reads portents in car registration plates. Stella, a woman of action that she maps out on spreadsheets stares reality in the face. But as an investigative team, they solve Kate Rokesmith’s murder. Over the series they solve murders in places such as Kew Gardens, a neolithic burial chamber and Tewkesbury Abbey.
Stella and Jack influence each other. As I write The Mystery of Yew Tree House, the next in the Detective’s Daughter series, Stella is reflecting on her feelings and understanding others. Jack no longer roams the streets and even compiles spreadsheets.
However, murder always finds them.