‘Kenwood Killer’ stars in novelist Tammy Cohen’s latest thriller

The Bounds Green author tells Rhiannon McGregor about her initial writing doubts, her journalistic approach to novel-writing and why she dreams of a shed.

In her capacity as a journalist Tammy Cohen has written for publications including The Times, The Guardian and Marie Claire, but fiction writing has always been her passion.

Despite her success as a journalist, she was unable to overcome the sense of self-doubt that plagued her when penning her own fictitious creations. She tells of thousands of wasted words, having started numerous novels and then getting to a certain point, “around 10,000 words in and then the doubts would set in”.

At the age of 47, the Bounds Green resident finally overcame these trepidations and with the encouragement of an agent, who saw commercial potential in her work, her first novel, The Mistress’s Revenge, came to fruition.

If you search for Cohen’s oeuvre online, the term ‘psychological thriller’ occurs frequently, but it’s an expression that doesn’t sit comfortably with the author. “I don’t know whether this counts as a psychological thriller,” she says of her latest novel, First One Missing. “I keep wondering if it does because it’s such a nebulous term – no one really can define it. Look at books like Rebecca, would that be a psychological thriller if it were written now? I don’t know if this book – about a serial killer, not set in a domestic setting, and with a big cast of characters – conforms to the definition of a psychological thriller.”

The idea for First One Missing grew out of a radio interview in which a woman was describing her intense sense of isolation following the murder of her daughter. The mother recounted how the unique nature of her bereavement left her feeling completely isolated because not even other parents who had lost their children could fully relate to the peculiarities of her story. Inspired by this, Cohen decided to explore whether this loneliness would be diminished had the killer claimed more than one victim; would the families support each other through their loss?

Within the novel Cohen takes a two-pronged approach to the plot, which she describes as both “a traditional whodunit, whereby we’re trying to find out who the killer is before he can strike again, as well as an exploration of grief and the dynamics between the families”.

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She employs a variety of voices, narrating the story through the mother and brother of a victim, a reporter and a family liaison officer. As much as this variety of perspectives is used as a plot device, Cohen readily admits it also provided her with some important respite during the writing process of such an engrossing but gruelling subject matter. “When you’ve got a few viewpoints you can switch between, it makes it flow a lot more easily because you’re constantly having a change of pace, a change of tone.”

Her background in journalism aided the research process for the characters, as she had interviewed families suffering the kind of bereavement she describes in First One Missing. In addition, Cohen has penned a lot of non-fiction true crime books, which contributed to her dynamic visualisation of the murderer, dubbed ‘The Kenwood Killer’.

So where does an author with such an impressive writing repertoire put pen to paper? “Like a lot of people, my adult children have come back from university and are living at home now, so what was my office has turned back into a bedroom. So at the moment I’m a sort of nomadic writer with no particular writing space – I dream of a shed!”

Rhiannon McGregor

First One Missing by Tammy Cohen is published by Doubleday for £14.99