Author Q&A:
Alice Clark-Platt

The Flower Girls (Raven Books, £12.99)

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For sisters Laurel and Primrose their summer game of make believe goes tragically wrong one day when they lure a toddler away from her mother in their local park. Moving between their childhoods in the 1990s and the present day, when one of them has spent 20 years behind bars, the other has a new identity, and another child has gone missing, The Flower Girls is a tense and thought-provoking thriller.

Tell us about your work as a human rights lawyer. Did your background help shape The Flower Girls?
I’ve always been interested in the way that legal findings impact on real life – in both criminal and other scenarios. When I worked in Arusha, Tanzania for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal, which was set up to prosecute the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, I was fascinated by the way in which evidence could be presented to argue a particular position. The plot of The Flower Girls really allowed me to delve into these thoughts and how seemingly arbitrary boundaries – for example, that under the age of 10 a person cannot be held responsible for any crime – can affect real people and have a huge and lasting impact.

Why did you choose to reference and draw on many real-life cases throughout the book?
I wanted the story to be authentic and rooted in real scenarios. I read many books about crimes concerning children as perpetrators and victims and the old adage is certainly the case – that truth can be stranger than fiction. As a crime writer, my job is try and work out why people act in the way they do within a believable and exciting plot line. I wanted to get inside the heads of some of our country’s notorious child murderers and that’s why their stories often seep into the plot of The Flower Girls.

Max tells Hazel at one point that people only believe what they are told to and that public opinion is more important than the truth. What are your concerns around media coverage of big cases such as that of the flower girls?
It’s a fascinating point. People have been obsessed with true crime since the days of Madame Dufarge knitting at the gallows. The public will always demand information about these shocking kinds of crimes. But it’s a fine balance between keeping a readership happy and ensuring that a fair trial proceeds. I think the influence of the media on readers can’t really be underestimated. Thus, they have a huge position of responsibility to ensure that the information they provide is unbiased and accurate.

In 2019 is trial by social media not a bigger concern than trial by a traditional media that as least understands what can and can not be reported?
Yes, I’m sure it is – for the reasons above. The fact that there are no real checks and balances on social media mean there is a real danger that misinformation can be treated as the truth. We live in a culture of fake news nowadays, it seems, and we have to be careful of believing in sources that have agendas other than merely relaying the truth.

Do you believe children can be evil?
I’m not sure I really believe in evil. It seems an emotive word designed centuries ago to explain things beyond comprehension, and also to control people within a certain morality. So, no, I don’t think a baby comes out the womb evil. I think a child’s moral framework and experience can absolutely dictate their responses to situations however. And, in the context of children committing crimes, I think there is a large area of neurological science which needs to be taken into account. The brain is extremely fluid and malleable up until a certain age – hence why it’s easier to learn a different language when you are young. As you pass that milestone, neural pathways harden and it becomes harder to combat the lessons that have been taught beforehand. Added to that, it’s also interesting to study behaviour from a psychological (and sociological) context and the markers at different ages in those arenas. So it’s not a simple question! Which is why labels such as evil don’t really help explain what’s going on, I don’t think.

Laurel goes into the justice system at 10 years old and becomes the picture of the hardened criminal. Are there fundamental problems with the way we deal with child criminals?
There are many people who work within young offender institutes that do fantastic work. The problem in the scenario in The Flower Girls is that the media and public opinion have been allowed to dictate the parameters of Laurel’s sentence. And as she says in the book, there’s not much to offer her outside prison if she were to be released, given her total lack of experience as an adult in the outside world. I think this is a specific situation and really raises more questions about trial by media than it does about the issues involved with long-term incarceration.

At the end of the book there are suggestions of involvement from peripheral characters that are not fully explained. Did you intend to leave the reader with questions?
I think the ending is quite clear! Without giving anything away, I think the book describes two scenarios where the influence of one person in a relationship becomes the controlling mechanism for everything else that takes place. I suppose readers will always have questions because they come at stories from their own perspective. But that’s good. A good book should leave you thinking about it after you’ve turned the last page!

Alice Clark-Platts speaks at Waterstones, York, 30 January at 7pm, and Waterstones, Durham, 31 January at 12.30pm

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