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Books: Kate Rhodes' crime novels are coming to TV

About to be turned into a TV series by the production team behind The Fall and Line of Duty, Kate Rhodes’ Ben Kitto books - a series of murder mysteries set on the Scilly Isles - have won both critical acclaim and a huge fan following. As volume three publishes, she tells Alice Ryan why “these are the books I want to write”

“If only Chris Hemsworth could stop being Australian and start being British. Or we could stick Ben Whishaw’s face on someone else’s body. . .” Author Kate Rhodes is contemplating the casting of Ben Kitto - the brawny-yet-bookish detective who solves her acclaimed Scilly Isles mysteries - in the upcoming TV adaptation.

Formerly a member of the London murder squad, like any TV detective worth his or her salt, Ben’s got serious baggage. But he’s got an equally serious soft side, too; his sidekick is a loping rescue lurcher, Shadow. It’s not an easy brief to fulfill. “Casting might take some time,” laughs Kate.

She’s just published the third in what’s set to be a 10-book Ben Kitto series. “I know some authors fall out of love with their characters when they’re writing a long series, but I’m on book five and there’s no sign of that happening. As time goes by, in fact, I become more and more sure these are the books I want to write.”

Kate Rhodes, Burnt Island (34078799)
Kate Rhodes, Burnt Island (34078799)

That’s good news for fans and critics alike: Hell Bay, the first Kitto story, was shortlisted for 2019’s Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and hailed “beautifully written and expertly plotted. . . a masterclass in ‘closed world’ crime fiction” in The Guardian. Each instalment is set on a different Scilly island; the latest, Burnt Island, takes place on the tiny outcrop of St Agnes.

Kate fell in love with the Scillies as a girl on family holidays and now visits at least once a year on research trips. Island communities are beguiling for a crime novelist, she adds, being a scaled-up version of the famed ‘locked room’. “Only 80 people live on St Agnes and, if the weather turns, there’s no getting off the island,” she explains. Thrown together by geography (St Agnes is a mere mile wide) and subjected to unique stresses (water supply is already running low on the Scillies), it’s easy to imagine fissures opening in relationships.

Each murder is inspired by the island it takes place on: in Burnt Island, a bonfire-charred body is discovered on the night of St Agnes’ famous firework festival; in Devil’s Table, the book Kate is writing now, “you can expect a flower farm to feature: it takes place on St Martin’s, known for its pinks and narcissi”. New plot ideas are run past the librarian on St Mary’s, an expert on local history who, over the course of her many visits, has become the author’s friend. “I can tell from the expression on her face whether it’s going to work or not,” says Kate.

Novelist Kate Rhodes (34078791)
Novelist Kate Rhodes (34078791)

The books have been optioned by independent production company Two Cities, the brains behind juggernaut crime dramas The Fall and Line of Duty. Just prior to lockdown, scouts were on the Scillies looking for locations; if all goes to schedule, filming will take place early next year and series one, a three-episode adaptation of books one and two, will air in the autumn. “It’s so nice to work with people who really know their craft,” says Kate. “And writing is a solitary business, so it feels nice to come up for air.”

Raised in Greenwich, Kate’s first job was as usherette at her local theatre. But then she decided to go to university as a mature student, going on to get a PhD and becoming a teacher. It was giving creative writing lessons which prompted her to put pen to paper herself: “Whatever task I set, I found myself joining in. That’s really when I realised I was a frustrated writer.”

Initially writing alongside her teaching job, Kate was first published as a poet, winning a Bridport Prize and twice being shortlisted for the Forward Prize. Then came her first crime series, the London-set Alice Quentin thrillers, before Ben Kitto was born in 2018. “Most thrillers give you a moral resolution at the end, which is very satisfying. The good guy usually wins out and evil is vanquished. We all want a bit of that in our lives, especially when the world is so complicated.”

Kate lives in Cambridge with husband Dave Pescod, an artist and short story writer, but says she’s never tempted to set a book in the city. “There are so many great writers - Alison Bruce, Penny Hancock - who set thrillers here; we don’t need any more. Plus I love the Scillies. I never tire of going back.”

Praised for her deliciously twisty plots, which always come to a cracking conclusion, Kate admits “there can be a lot of twisting and turning to get there. I’ve been known to change my mind about the killer. I heard Ian Rankin on the radio not so long ago, saying he once got to the last page and changed his mind about the murderer’s identity, so I’m not alone! I even keep myself guessing. . .”

Burnt Island is out now in hardback, published by Simon & Schuster and priced £20. Books one and two in the Ben Kitto series - Hell Bay and Ruin Beach - are both available in paperback, £7.99.

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