Appropriately enough for the author of one of the most horrifyingly compulsive thrillers you’ll read in 2021 – I stayed up until 2am to finish it, and then reread the ending in the morning because I’d read it so fast in my terror – Will Dean is talking to me from his cabin deep in the Swedish woods.
The Last Thing to Burn, out on 7 January, opens as Dean’s narrator, Thanh Dao, is trying to escape Lenn, the farmer who has kept her imprisoned in a grim charade of married life for years. As she sees his Land Rover approaching across the fenland fields, she knows she’s going to be punished for her disobedience. She has four possessions left, and he will burn one: “My ID card. My photo of my parents. My sister’s precious letters. My book. My, my, my mine. Not his. Mine.”
“Ain’t nobody to blame but yourself, Jane,” he tells her. “My name isn’t Jane,” Thanh Dao thinks to herself, as she hands over the photo of her parents.
The scene came to Dean in 2016, one night as he lay awake in bed. “I was in that strange time between wakefulness and sleep, and I saw very flat, featureless fields with a little tumbledown cottage. Then I saw a woman there,” he says. “She looked like she was living a fairly normal life there, but I knew she couldn’t leave. I wanted to understand why, and I wanted to understand her story. That night between midnight and 6am, the whole book came to me.”
Thanh Dao, Dean’s narrator, is a young Vietnamese woman who came to the UK on false promises of a good job, and found herself sold to Lenn. She cannot leave for various reasons: the vastness of the fields that surround her, an injured ankle and the safety of her beloved sister, Kim-Ly, who is also in the UK.
Dean found the idea of an individual being controlled in every aspect of their life – their medication, what meals they eat, where they sleep – “really disturbing, in a quiet, menacing way”.
“The idea is horrific. Lenn is kind of eroding her identity, layer by layer, by burning her possessions,” says Dean. “I’m not a very intellectual writer, I really feel my way through stories. So I was uncomfortable for her and worried for her all the way through. And the hope that she saw all the way through the book got smaller and smaller.”
Having grown up in the East Midlands, Dean depicts the huge skies and endless flats of the region through the eyes of Thanh Dao, to whom it is a “flatland hell”. “I do love it. I find it quite eerie and bleak, but it is quite beautiful,” he says. “I like bad weather and bleak landscapes. Where I am in the forest, the sun won’t rise above the treetops for the next two or three months. My friends freak out, and think that sounds awful, but I quite like it.”
Dean is the author of the excellent Tuva Moodyson series, in which young, deaf reporter Tuva digs into various crimes in the wilds of Sweden. Like The Last Thing to Burn, the first book in the series, Dark Pines, came to him as an image – a huge forest, much bigger than the one he lives in.
“I saw this gravel track and a pickup truck, then looked through the window and saw a woman with hearing aids. I knew she was my main character, but I didn’t understand her at all. I knew I wanted to write a small town, Twin Peaks-type book. And when I started writing, her voice flooded out.”
Dean met his Swedish wife in his first week of university in London. An “awkward, shy, weird, bookish kid”, he’d decided to study law at London School of Economics because “that’s the thing you do if nobody in your family has been to university before – you study something that leads directly to a job”.
He ended up working in finance, but it didn’t suit him. He’d loved his visits to Sweden with his wife, and when he came across an old listing for a boggy clearing in the middle of a forest, he persuaded her to fly with him to check it out.
“I think the real estate agent was so shocked that somebody would want to come and see this bog that he picked us up from the airport,” says Dean. They drove as close as they could, but needed to walk the rest of the way. “It was snowy, in February, we had to hike like five miles. And then we found it, and I said immediately, ‘I want to live here. I really like the feel of this.’”
Dean built their home himself, making money with a sideline in repairing vintage watches. Keeping the idea to himself, he began thinking about writing.
“It didn’t feel brave at the time. It would have felt more brave staying in London, to be honest,” he says. “Being on the tube at 6am every day, we just didn’t want that any more. And I craved more time to read and write, and to take that seriously. I never thought I would be a writer and never imagined it until I was in my mid-30s.”
Then Tuva came to him. Dark Pines was picked up off the slush pile. His publisher Oneworld “took a real chance on it”, he says, “because nobody knew who I was. And it’s kind of an unusual book – a British writer writing a Scandinavian setting, a man writing a deaf woman. I think they had very modest expectations for it, and then luckily that word of mouth thing happened.”
Dean is not deaf himself, and doesn’t understand why Tuva, who has now appeared in three crime novels, with more to follow, came to him in that way. “I wish I understood these things better. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing, and I had gleaned that I hadn’t seen many deaf characters,” he says. He still researches extensively into life with hearing loss, and says he was “worried and concerned” about how deaf readers would receive Tuva. When a deaf reader tells him his writing feels authentic, it means everything to him.
One of his deaf friends reads the Tuva books before they are published, while a Vietnamese friend read The Last Thing to Burn in its early stages.
“All writers have to do their best. If you write from a place of maximum empathy, and you really care about your writing, and your storytelling, then that’s all you can do. I always try to research as well as I can and to be as sensitive as I can to my characters, and to do them justice, whoever they are,” says Dean. “It’s my job to tell the story, and it’s other people’s job to critique it. And that’s fine.”