Lynda La Plante: In her Prime

Image credit: Gemma Day

At 81, Prime Suspect creator Lynda La Plante shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, she’s feeling more inspired than ever. Armed with the prestigious Diamond Dagger award for her contribution to crime literature, she speaks to Rosanna Spence ahead of her appearance at CrimeFest this month.

Lynda La Plante’s forensic literary genius has helped define the crime genre since the late 1980s. But rather than sit back and soak up the glory of her decades-long success of first acting, then writing and producing some of the most famous crime series of the 20th Century, she’s tearing up the octogenarian rulebook – instead throwing herself into new projects with more infectious fervour than ever.

July will see the Whole Life Sentence published, the final novel in her 10-strong ‘young Tennison’ series that follows the early career of DCI Jane Tennison – arguably La Plante’s most notable character – up to the point where her trials and tribulations in the Prime Suspect series begin. If that weren’t enough, La Plante’s tour-de-force is also in the middle of penning her memoir Getting Away with Murder, due to hit the shelves in September.

Oh, and she’s just jointly scooped the most prestigious accolade honouring her lifelong contribution to crime writing – the Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association – with James Lee Burke. Both will be appearing (though Burke through video link) at the upcoming CrimeFest literary convention, taking place at the Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel from 9-12 May.

A novel question
La Plante owes a lot to her readers, who she loves hearing from at this type of convention during Q&As: “I’ll always be asked a question that’s absolutely brilliant,” she says. “I would never have created Detective Jack Warr and written Buried (the first novel in that series) had a woman in a Q&A session not asked me what happened to Widows character Harry Rawlins’ illegitimate son. On another occasion, one reader asked me, ‘What was Tennison like when she was young?’

“You wonder how she became Detective Chief Inspector while maintaining that calmness and ruthlessness. That question kicked off the series of novels about young Jane.”

Getting to know ‘young Jane’ has been a 10-year endeavour for La Plante, who says that reaching the final is “quite sad having lived with a character I’ve taken from just 21 through to her late 30s.

“But it’s been fascinating to resurrect the characters who feature in the original Prime Suspect stories and get them ready for the final, like creepy Detective Sergeant Otley, who hates her, and the discrimination even then is full blown.”

Confronting institutional sexism by highlighting it through Tennison’s fictional career has always been important for La Plante, and even though her tales are set in the 1980s and 1990s, she notes change is slow even in today’s policing system.

“It’s still there,” she explains, “you read over and over again in the newspaper about an ex-policewoman saying that discrimination and sexual harassment made her leave the force. But it is getting better. Thankfully, there are far more women in the force than there were before, but it’s still a very frightening position to be a high-ranking policewoman. You’ve got to have eyes in the back of your head.”

La Plante points to real life high-ranking officer DCI Jackie Malton as a classic example – script consultant Malton is said to have inspired Tennison’s character – who now enjoys a successful TV career since retiring from the force, having interviewed the infamous serial killer known as ‘The Serpent’. “We were both speaking at a crime festival, and she came up to me, gave me a big hug and said: ‘You changed my life’, which was a really nice feeling. I suppose Jane Tennison changed my life too…”

Two strong women
With La Plante and Tennison’s lives so entwined, with deep roots both in pages and on screen, is it inevitable that some of her real personality is written into Jane’s fictional one?

“Not really,” La Plante notes. “I keep her at arm’s distance, because if I really delved into myself all the time I would find it extremely depressing – like I’m draining myself. Though like an actor who thinks he’s playing characters, he will only ever really play himself. You’ll see the same hand gestures, the same eye movements. The reality is, obviously, there are glimmers of me in Tennison. My Liverpudlian humour does creep in too.”

I’ve already started to build a new character and a new novel”

La Plante and Tennison may be parting ways as one of Britain’s most famous female DCI’s story comes full circle, but a new character is already being formed, ready to step under the crime scene tape. Her ability to prolifically craft worlds filled with fascinating people committing intricate crimes is delightfully relentless.

“I’ve already started building a new character and a new novel. I’m an insomniac because the stories start in my head, so I’ll wake up after a couple of hours’ sleep and say, ‘Oh my God – the letter’s in the suitcase! I’d better get that down’. The ideas are running through my head all the time.”

La Plante’s commitment to forensic and procedural accuracy means she spends a lot of time with victims of crime, sensitively listening to their experiences and reactions, and is also heavily dependent on thorough police research – her writing methods remain faithful and can consume a great deal of time and energy.

“I didn’t even realise how old I was, because I get so excited by what I’m doing and I thankfully have the ability to still do it (plus people still want it).

“Although crime is a puzzle that I enjoy working with – making sure I don’t give the plot away to the reader by chapter two – at the same time, the development of each work that I do is quite lengthy and emotional,” she explains, before gleefully adding, “But I do like it.”

Lynda La Plante will be appearing at CrimeFest, taking place 9-12 May at the Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel. Joining La Plante across the weekend are guests including James Lee Burke (via live video link), Laura Lippman, Denise Mina and Cathy Ace. For full details of the crime literature convention’s programme and information on tickets, visit
Whole Life Sentence will be published on 4 July and is available to pre-order now via