UVic Torch -- Spring 2003

Spring 2003,
Volume 24, Number 1

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Photography by PERRY HASTINGS  A Cambridge Crime Story
Photography by PERRY HASTINGS

“He loved me so much that he stood outside our home for hours on end. He pressed up against the front door, as if trying to hear what we were doing inside. He didn’t offer any violence, not explicitly so; but his hulking presence was always a threat. We couldn’t enter the house or leave without confronting him. We couldn’t let the children out.”

CRIME WRITER MICHELLE SPRING, BA ’68 is used to describing taut scenarios like this in her popular series of Laura Principal detective novels. But the stalking incident, from an account she wrote for the London Sunday Telegraph, was real. Spring was the victim. And while the 18-month ordeal was deeply disturbing, it was also the catalyst for her transformation from successful academic to award-winning novelist.

Now based in Cambridge, England, Spring was born in Victoria and spent most of her childhood in Nanaimo. At UVic, she began in education but was soon diverted by sociology, which she recalls as the “first subject that talked about people like me, from a working-class background.” Spring remembers hanging out with friends in the campus bar, reading Hermann Hesse and the occasional horror book, and writing “nothing more creative than shopping lists.” After graduating, she married and eventually moved to Cambridge, 80 kilometres north of London. In 1971, after working as a part-time researcher, Spring began teaching sociology at a Cambridge adult education college.

Specializing in the sociology of education, Spring combined teaching with graduate research, producing an influential study in the field. “At the time, sociology had an important impact and you could work in areas that you really cared about,” said Spring, who used the surname Stanworth from her first marriage throughout her academic career. By 1983, she was guest lecturing at Cambridge University and in 1989 she became professor of sociology and women’s studies at her college, now Anglia Polytechnic University.

A popular instructor known for her friendly disposition towards students, Spring felt she could help the troubled individual who turned up at her office in May 1990. “He was moving along the corridor against the wall, like he was in the SAS. He seemed a bit strange but I felt sorry for him. I thought he needed as much help as I could give but I suppose I was the first person to show him any concern.”

She wrote letters to tutors and counselling services on the student’s behalf and listened to his problems. But the positive attention provoked a dangerous response. He began calling Spring’s home day and night, eventually insisting he would kill her family so she would marry him. “I became increasingly frightened, and sneaking around feeling afraid all the time was incredibly wearing. But the worst part was not knowing when it would end.”

Police and psychiatrists barely helped, believing a crime had to be committed before serious action could be taken. Then, 18 months after meeting him, the stalker called Spring to say that “Nick” was coming to see her. Even now, Spring doesn’t know if Nick was real or a dangerous alter ego, but Nick phoned soon after to inform her of the violence he had in mind. Within minutes, the stalker was at the door claiming Nick was with him. Her husband away, Spring called the police and locked herself in the bathroom, clutching her children and a large kitchen knife.

After they endured a terrifying hour under siege, the police finally arrived and removed the stalker from outside the family’s home. He was taken to a psychiatric hospital, where he remains.

Finally free of their ordeal, Spring’s family took a four-and-a-half month trip to California and Vancouver. She had intended to write some fiction during the break—she planned a family saga —but the stalker ordeal came tumbling out in a fictionalized tale. “I had to get it off my chest,” said Spring. The story’s central character became Laura Principal, a cool-headed, bookish head of the Cambridge branch of Aardvark Investigations.

With no plans to publish the story, Spring took her time finishing the book alongside her teaching over the next two years. Once it was completed, she decided to write a second novel for possible publication, using the first manuscript to hook an agent who convinced Spring of the stalker story’s potential. It was promptly sold to Pocket Books and Every Breath You Take appeared in stores in 1994.

Quickly starting on book two, Spring again centred the action on Laura Principal. For a while, she balanced her academic and writing pursuits, finally realizing in 1997 that she had developed a greater passion for fiction. “I cried when I made the decision to leave behind my academic career. It was saying goodbye to an important part of my life as well as the regular salary. But from the moment I handed in my notice, I knew it was right. And since I went full-time (as a writer), I can more wholeheartedly dedicate myself to writing and the books have improved.”
Growing to five tightly-plotted suspense novels, the Laura Principal series has dealt with contemporary issues such as children who kill and the links between privilege and prostitution. In 2002 Spring won the Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada for her latest book, In the Midnight Hour. The prestigious award is named after the nom de travail of Canada’s official hangman. Past winners of the “Arthur”—a figurine with a noose around its neck that dances when a string is pulled—include Carol Shields, William Deverell and Nora Kelly.

Fellow “Arthur” winner and best-selling crime writer Peter Robinson has known Spring for more than 10 years. He believes she has several key qualities as a novelist. “Michelle writes a fine story,” said Robinson, “with believable situations that come from her personality. And she writes well about social issues, but not in a preachy way.”

Joe Blades, vice-president and executive editor at New York-based Ballantine Books, the Random House imprint that now publishes Spring’s novels, is impressed with her characterizations and sense of place. “I’ve always been very taken with Laura Principal and Michelle’s supporting characters. And the tale of two cities—London and Cambridge—is attractive to North American readers.”

Blades believes Spring’s greatest writing successes are still to come. Her next novel—about a night lawyer—could be “a bigger leap into the marketplace.” For Spring, the new story is a chance to stretch as a writer. “It’s more difficult than I thought but I’m trying something more ambitious.”

She’s also planning a novel centred on Venice Beach, California and another set in BC’s northern backwoods. And she wants to tackle the short story genre and even write song lyrics. But she hasn’t abandoned Laura Principal. The popular stories were recently optioned for TV, and Spring is plotting her next novel in the series, this time tackling the theme of neighbour rage. “I’m happy to work hard, but I want to work on things I care about. I feel I’m still working at all this, but if I wasn’t developing, I wouldn’t be interested in doing it at all.”

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