The Last Room  opens with a harrowing, hardly-bearable-to-read description of a pregnant woman being raped  in the Cote d’Ivoir e in 2005. I started the novel on 10 June, the first day of the Global Summit to End sexual violence in war , so this short chapter was immediately topical.
“When I wrote the book, I had been reading about the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire ”, remembers author Danuta Reah . “It seemed to epitomise what we have since become more aware of. I wanted to make a victim of this kind of appalling sexual violence (and I was by no means as graphic as I could have been – I’m very aware of the danger of tipping over into gratuitous or titillating description) real to readers, to see her as a real woman and have some conception of what it must be like to suffer something like this.”
Although centre stage in the first two pages, Nadifa, the woman raped, only assumes a secondary role in the story. When the plot starts in earnest, she is an asylum seeker in Britain, married to a man recently deported for links with al-Qaeda, and mother to Sagal, a child recently murdered by a paedophile.
That murder, as well as the apparent suicide of Ania, a forensic linguist and expert witness in Sagal’s murder trial, accused of falsifying the voice evidence she used to convict the presumptive paedophile, are at the heart of The Last Room. Yet despite her integration of female characters, Reah often gives them second, passive roles. The real actors are the two men investigating Ania’s, and by extension Sagal’s, deaths: Will, Ania’s bereaved father, a disgraced retired policeman living in Scotland and Dariusz, her Polish fiancé. Both are convinced she would never have jumped willingly.
In their attempt to understand what happened to Ania, they encounter more men: Ania’s boss, policemen in Poland, Will’s former colleagues in the UK, a professor and a guard at the Polish university where Ania worked…
Reah says writing a story dominated by men wasn’t the plan but rather “the way the story worked out. I wanted both Ania and Nadifa to be women who had faced terrible adversity, and in a way they both survived. Ania dies, but she dies defending what she believes in. She isn’tdefeated. At the end, I wanted her actions to be a model for Will who has lived so much of hislife in bitterness and despair – she’s shown him another way. I couldn’t write from Nadifa’s perspective for long – I haven’t been through what she goes through, and I didn’t want to put words into her mouth. Also, she is marginalised exactly as women like her are marginalised all the time. Ania, was also a literary device.
I wanted to show her from the different perspectives the men in her life had, and then finally, as a full person.”
As a female writer in the male-heavy crime fiction genre, Reah knows something about evolving in a field dominated by men. A few years ago, with fellow female crime writersLesley Horton , Priscilla Masters  and Zoe Sharp , she set up LadyKillers , a joint alliance topromote their novels. Although it doesn’t operate much anymore, the need for it is still there.
Reah’s audit of the inequalities in the crime writing landscape echo those female writers in any genre face: their books get reviewed less, and they are invited to speak on panels less. “Women still don’t get their fair share of reviews as opposed to male writers”, she regrets. For instance, in 2012, all genres combined, the London Review of Booksfeatured  210 books by men and 66 books by women.
Panel underrepresentation doesn’t just mean that female writers voices aren’t heard, it also means that their names are less known. “I went to a conference in London called Queens of Crime , about women in crime fiction and it was fascinating. I got the names of several writers I hadn’t heard of who I plan to catch up with. At events and on panels, women are usually very generous with time and with to-ing and fro-ing in discussion, and asking questions about other writers’ books. Men can be more inclined to focus on their own work, though I have worked with many who are not like this. The worst panel hogs I have ever witnessed have been men.”
For all those disparities in terms of promotion and recognition, Reah doesn’t believe there is much difference between how both genders write crime fiction, though she reckons she would have said different a few years ago. So why the evolution? “I think men are still more represented as writers of fast moving action thrillers and women more in psychological crime fiction. However, there has been a marked increase in the number of women writing extremely graphic violence towards women . This makes me uneasy, especially as this kind of writing sells very well.”
In addition to championing women’s crime writing, Reah is teaching the next generation of female and male writers. One of the courses she’s taught focuses on setting up the all-important plot in a crime novel, so I asked her how she had structured the plot for The Last Room, inspired by a trip to Lodz  for a Forensic Linguistics  conference.
Ania’s character was the inception of the book.
“I started with the idea of an expert witness being accused of falsifying evidence and apparently committing suicide. I then let the threads of that story run – had she in fact falsified the evidence? If she did, why? If she didn’t, what had happened? This is how I like to work – telling the story to myself as I go. I thought about the reactions of the people close to her. The intensity of Will’s grief and guilt gave me the idea that he would embark on a quest to find out what happened, and that he might even believe this was what Ania wanted – that she would talk to him and guide him. I was also curious about the concept of ‘the greater good.’ Are we ever justified in doing things for some undefined greater good that can destroy an individual’s life?”
Taking place between the United Kingdom and Poland, The Last Room includes a strong European dimension. For instance, Will is able to speak to the police team investigating his daughter’s death in Lodz thanks to a recommendation from his former boss in the UK. The novel also includes multiple details on the history of Lodz. One in particular has stayed with me: the description of open grave pits in the Jewish cemetery  where Ania and Dariusz met. They were dug on Nazi orders by Jews tasked with killing fellow Litzmannstadt Ghetto inhabitants. The graves were meant to be theirs, however the Russian army’s progress panicked the Nazis, and they fled before killing the men.
Mixing European travel, collaboration and horrific history is an effective way of reminding us why the European Union was built. Reah thinks herself “as European. My father was Polish and my mother was half-Irish. I think Europe is a wonderful continent and one we are part of, even though it can be troubled, with a very dark side. We’ve spent centuries knocking seven bells out of each other (and Lodz has some sobering reminders of what happened in continental Europe and what could so easily have happened here, less than 100 years ago). We haven’t had a war since we became more united, and I would hate to see that go.”
From the horrors of rape as a weapon of war to the usefulness of a European union, Reah has succeeded in constructing a story that isn’t just a page-turner, but also an example of how fiction can carry a message of progress and peace.
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