In Commemoration of Mo Hayder

A tribute to the late British "Queen of Fear".

Feb 10, 2023
Dimitris Passas

"It is a kind of obsession... I have this kind of compulsive need to wriggle my toes in life's gutters. I'm sure a lot of people think it is a prurient interest which is a bit destructive, but for me it is about getting rid of ghosts". (Mo Hayder in an interview with E. Jane Dickson for the "Independent", published on December 11, 1999)

"I guess we are all made up of dark and light and if I can exorcise the dark parts of my nature by writing, then it's probably a good thing". (Mo Hayder in an interview to Raven Crime Reads blog on March 30, 2013)

The news of her untimely death at the age of 59 shook the crime fiction readership at a world scale, as it signaled the definitive silencing of a distinctive voice that dared to stretch the boundaries emanating from the conventions and compromises of a certain literary category, exploring its covert potential throughout her career. Mo Hayder was born Clare Damaris Bastin on January 2, 1962 in Essex and died on July 27, 2021, with her last few months spent in agony as a result of the symptoms caused by the motor neuron disease, or ALS as it is widely known. ALS is a grave, neurodegenerative illness that progressively leads to the loss of an individual's motor neurons which are responsible for controlling voluntary muscles in the human body, eventually resulting in the sufferer's demise. Mo was survived by her husband, Bob Randall, and her daughter, Lotte. Her last book, The Book of Sand, the science fiction epic that took Hayder four years to finish was published posthumously by Century on January 6, 2022. Prior to her diagnosis which she received on December 2020, Hayder had stated that she felt enthusiastic over the release of her new work. In her own words: "I'm delighted that I am no longer killing people off in scenarios bitter and twisted", a claim that sounds reasonable considering the nature of her past oeuvre comprising of 7 extremely graphic and disturbing thrillers in the notorious Jack Caffery series and three standalones of the same genre (Tokyo, Hanging Hill, and Pig Island).

Mo had lived an uneven life, mainly due to her unique temperament that, during her childhood, was manifested through her involvement in fights with other children and other antisocial actions in what she herself described as "a wild child phase". At the age of 16, she abandoned school and pursued a career in modelling, an aspiration destined to be fulfilled as in 1982, she won the Miss Nude pageant, under yet another pseudonym, Candy Davis. As she reached her 25th birthday, and after the termination of a short-lived, utterly failed marriage, she emigrated to Japan where she spent some time switching between jobs, working as an English teacher, a waitress at a nightclub, even as a wannabe filmmaker. Her rootless, nomadic existence led to a type of self-torture as she recounts: "When I lived in Tokyo, I lived a very austere, isolated life of self-imposed poverty, living in one room and only going out to work. I think I was torturing myself, a kind of self-punishment for all those years of not really getting my act together" (Independent interview). However in another tête-à-tête with a journalist, she admitted that despite her deprived life there, she now feels nostalgic of these days. As she puts it: "But with a lot of things you only know what you've got when you've lost it". While her rebellious nature seemed to be tamed as she reached her thirties, Mo remained a blazing, audacious persona whose spirit was reflected in her subsequent body of work.

Hayder had explicitly stated that being a writer was not a childhood dream and that "the author thing just sort of bubbled up out of nowhere in my late thirties". In 1999, the British scribbler entered the literary arena with the publication of her debut novel, the first installment in the Jack Caffery saga that would enthrall readers around the world for the following years, Birdman by Transworld Publishers. Despite its gore and explicit descriptions of violence, Birdman became an instant bestseller and Hayder won both the readership's full attention as well as critical acclaim. The Guardian hailed Mo as "a young writer in touch with her dark side and a major new talent" while the novel is still today considered "a tautly structured tale of unravelling horror", as Nina Bhadreshwar aptly summarizes in her article Mo Hayder- Siren of Suspense Writing (click here to read) regarding the essence of the author's work. As far as the reception of her debut work by both the publishing industry and the readership, Hayder had said: "Birdman went into a bidding war, and from there it just spiraled. One minute I was doing a minimum wage job, scribbling away on my first novel, the next I was flying first class around the world (...) I am still horrifically warped by the experience" (Interview to Ali Karim for the Shots Online website). Her reputation was further expanded with the second volume in the J. Caffery series, The Treatment, which was also adapted into feature film by the popular Belgian director Hans Herbots in 2014, featuring Geert Van Rampelberg in the role of the detective-protagonist. The film is an exception to the rule dictating that novel adaptations into television or cinema always lag behind the original source, translating the text's horror into the cinematic language in a highly effective manner.

Hayder's trademark authorial traits are centered around an impeccably structured main plotline that leaves room for the main characters to develop in a plausible way while, in terms of mood and tone, her work is closer to the most extreme sampleσ of thriller fiction, with graphically detailed scenes of extravagant violence, sometimes even oriented to minors as in the case of The Treatment which was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "a disturbing journey into the pedophile mind". Furthermore, Hayder created one of the most terrifying villains that ever appeared on page, Ivan Penderecki, Jack's arch-nemesis and the man responsible for Jack's brother, Ewan, abduction several years earlier. I cannot think of a character reaching the level of Penderecki's viciousness, even though I remain an avid reader of crime fiction for the last many years. Mark Billingham, another respected British crime fiction author, has said about Hayder: "As a writer, she was unique and fearless, with that rare ability to nudge a reader's imagination into places that were genuinely terrifying and to conjure images that would linger and continue to disturb" ("Mo Hayder Obituary"- The Guardian), adding that there are scenes from The Treatment that remain embedded in his mind, even if he read the book two decades earlier. Selina Walker, a publisher and editor at Century as well as a longtime collaborator of Hayder, spoke out her mind about the talent and skills of her deceased friend as follows: "She had an extraordinary knack of making ordinary things, often in a domestic environment, strange and creepy (...) She was the bravest writer I knew, but she was also fun and funny, someone you always wanted to spend time with".

Despite the fact that Mo has been nominated for and won some of the most prestigious awards of the genre, she avoided the public eye, perhaps due to her -rumored- inherent shyness and intense stage fright. Her most prominent distinction took place in 2012 when she won the illustrious Edgar Award for her novel Gone (Jack Caffery #5). A year earlier, she had also won the Crime Writers' Association Dagger in the Library award for an overall "outstanding body of work". She didn't even attend the customary events which are always organized by the publishers when launching a new book, thus acquiring a reputation as an introvert. Mark Billingham was the one to always prompt Mo to make a public appearance in literary festivals and for that reason the late author was calling him her unofficial "wrangler", a label that still makes him laugh. Her first ever appearance among a crowd of her peers was in a literary festival held in Manchester, shortly after her first novel was published. From then on, as Billingham says "sightings of her in the flesh were few and far between", clearly implying that Hayder kept on rejecting invitations until the end of her days. She preferred to express her glaring intellect through her writing that became more and more refined with each new novel. In my opinion, the seventh and last installment, titled Wolf and published in 2014, in the series featuring Caffery as the protagonist is an exemplary piece of crime fiction and the most mature work created by the author, the only exception -perhaps- being the exceptional standalone Tokyo (or The Devil of Nanking), a story which was founded on a real historical event known as the "Rape of Nanking" and drew its wonderful descriptive parts from Mo's personal experience of living in The Land of the Rising Sun as a young woman.

Hayder used several different pseudonyms in the course of her life, though she is internationally known as Mo Hayder, a name inextricably linked with some of the most enticing and chilling thrillers of the last decades. As a model she opted for Candy Davis, while in the later stages of her career as a fiction writer she adopted the mask of Theo Clare, the nom de plume under which she published her final novel, The Book of Sand. S. Walker has said that this book was intended to become the first in the series of a science fiction grand epic saga and she even revealed the title for the sequel, The Book of Clouds which sadly won't ever see the light of day. Mo Hayder's death left a conspicuous void in the crime fiction universe and there is only a handful of contemporary authors who would be safely deemed worthy of continuing her distinctive writing tradition. Her contribution to the genre was groundbreaking due to the fact that she found its clichéd tropes unsatisfying and was daring enough to introduce a personal, inimitable style that will act as a beacon for prospective authors aspiring to create arresting crime stories all over the world. More importantly, Hayder's novels reminded us of things that we have the propensity to overlook such as the fact that there is no such thing as a "black-and-white" notion of morality and that we all have a dark side concealed underneath the disguise we wear during our everyday interactions with the others.

Mo's obsession with violence was developed partly due to her personal, though indirect, contact with atrocious acts. In her interview with Ali Karim, she confessed: I had a friend in London who was murdered in a horrific, ritualistic attack (...) Quite soon after that, a friend was attacked in Tokyo, and the shock for me was how random it was". These experiences maybe contributed to the shaping of violence as a concept in her mind and was subsequently expressed through her work as an author. Moreover, in a question addressed to her regarding what inspired her to create the character of DI Jack Caffery, Mo relayed another experience from her childhood that became a critical factor in crafting the fictional portrait of her protagonist: "I wanted him to be flawed and I trace this to an incident that happened when I was about 12. The policeman who lived in the house backing on to ours killed his wife and buried her in the garden (...) I couldn't believe one of the 'good guys' could behave like that. It made me think about the common ground that all of us inhabit, whatever side of the law we think we're on". This personal confession to the interviewer, Ali Karim, indicates that the thematic of moral ambiguity as an intrinsic human characteristic led her outlining of Jack. In another interview, given to Julian Maynard-Smith for Crime Time (read here), she had clearly stated: "I think of that a lot when I write Jack Caffery, this confusion about morality and right and wrong". That perspective on ethics heralds a rather cynic opus where the classic dipole of ("good guy" Vs antagonist/villain) is eliminated and all characters move within the grey terrain of moral relativity. There are touches of pessimism, a mode of thinking most often associated with the school of the Cynics, in the J. Caffery books, however, the author always reserves a profoundly cathartic finale which restores the moral equilibrium within the story's fictional universe.

If you haven't already become acquainted with Mo's pen, I urge you to pick up one of her novels, which one doesn't even matter, and brace yourselves for an unforgettable ride. Below, I cite a list with the totality of the author's oeuvre and the date of publication.

Jack Caffery series

The Treatment


Tokyo (2004)- Also known as The Devil of Nanking
Pig Island
Hanging Hill

As Theo Clare

The Book of Sand (2022)- Posthumous publication.

Join the Discussion