London Food & Culture

Without Trace: why you always remember the bad reviews

Screenwriter turned author Simon Booker on the perils of unleashing a debut novel into the online stratosphere

Simon Booker:
Simon Booker: ‘I have zero expectation of winning any literary prizes.’ Photo: PR

So you spend a year writing your first psychological thriller. It gets rave reviews and is mentioned in the same breath as Gone Girl and Girl On A Train. The turnout at your Waterstone’s Islington launch exceeds expectations (hi, Nigella!). The cupcakes are iced with a picture of your book jacket and taste delicious. You’re cock of the walk. What can possibly go wrong?

Answer: one snotty Amazon review. The reassuring, warm glow from fifty (fifty!) five-star reviews wiped out in a nanosecond thanks to two ‘meh’ lines posted by someone you’ll never meet and is most likely a knuckle-dragging misanthrope with halitosis and a bad case of book-envy.

OK, maybe he simply didn’t like it. Fair enough. Tastes vary. And it’s not like he gave it a one-star review. No, he awarded it three stars, which is still pretty cool. So why does it feel like a kick in the cojones? Because we’re too thin-skinned for our own good.

It’s not as if this is my first rodeo. Without Trace may be my debut novel, but I’ve been a professional screenwriter for a gazillion years, working from a succession of homes around north London, from Belsize Park to Crouch End, from Gospel Oak to Kentish Town, and now, Stoke Newington.


I’ve written prime time drama for BBC1, including The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Holby City and The Mrs Bradley Mysteries, starring Diana Rigg and Neil Dudgeon.

I’ve penned psychological thrillers for ITV, such as The Stepfather, starring the brilliant Philip Glenister. And I’ve even managed to crack America, with a couple of films including Working Title rom-com Perfect Strangers in which Rob Lowe (yes, his eyes really are that blue) falls for Anna Friel, even though they live on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

There have also been some well-received adaptations, including Just William for BBC1, a film based on a YA novel by Nina Bawden, and The Blind Date, a ratings-busting ITV psychological thriller adapted from the best-selling novel by Frances Fyfield and shot in parts of Highgate, Archway and Muswell Hill.

Over the years, I’ve amassed a wall-full of posters for my office, more stellar ratings than you can shake a stick at and an ego-boosting pile of nice reviews, safely stashed in a drawer.

But the one I remember? The only review whose headline I can quote from memory? A piece in the Daily Mail the morning after one of my murder mysteries aired in the coveted Sunday night slot on BBC1. Other critics loved it, but the three words that stick in my mind are these: ‘Murder Most Boring’.

Cupcakes iced with the sleeve of Booker's new novel. Photo: PR
Cupcakes iced with the sleeve of Booker’s new novel. Photo: PR

With my debut thriller, Without Trace, now out, I’m braced for the first less than complimentary review in the papers. My surname is a hostage to fortune. Surely at least one critic will be unable to resist the temptation to sniff, ‘No prize for this Booker’.

Truth is, I have zero expectation of winning any literary prizes. Crime fiction may sell by the bucket load (forty percent of all books sold in the UK) but it’s a genre seldom acknowledged by the so-called ‘great and good’ of publishing. And if I have to choose between highbrow critical acclaim and writing a popular page-turner I know which way I’ll jump. (Come to think of it, if I ever need a nom de plume, Paige Turner will do fine.)

Without Trace is the first in a series of psychological thrillers featuring Morgan Vine, a single mother and investigative journalist obsessed with miscarriages of justice. When her daughter goes missing under mysterious circumstances, she’s forced to question everything she knows.
A strong sense of place is crucial to crime fiction. Rebus’s Edinburgh. Morse’s Oxford. Maigret’s Paris. As well as a Kentish backdrop that includes Margate, Dungeness and Deal, the book contains scenes set in some of my favourite London stamping grounds.

One particularly sleazy character lives within sniffing distance of the vast recycling centre and rubbish dump that pollutes the air around Holloway Road. And, as an ex-Kentish Towner recently relocated to Stoke Newington, I’ve just written a scene for book two in the Morgan Vine series in which I describe my (beloved) Stokey as ‘full of sharp-elbowed yummy mummies queuing for quinoa or asserting the divine right of the double buggy’.

Without Trace has recently been optioned for TV and if I’m allowed to write the scripts I’ll have no one but myself to blame if the adaptation doesn’t turn out the way I hope or if the critics are sniffy. If that day comes, I’ll comfort myself by browsing through those five-star Amazon reviews. My favourite so far: ‘enough red herrings to open a stall at Billingsgate’. Thanks ‘Breakaway Reviewers’, whoever you may be. I’m feeling better already.

Without Trace is published by Zaffre (£7.99 ) Simon appears at Literary Death Match, South Bank, July 25th. Tickets:

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