'I didn't set out to write crime fiction," says Louise Phillips, "but pretty early on I realised my writing tended to inhabit darker places." Never judge a book by its cover, they say. Neither should you judge one by its title. Anyone expecting Red Ribbons, the debut novel from Irish writer Louise Phillips, to be a frothy chick lit concoction with the ribbons wrapping a Cupid's bow around the latest forgettable romance is in for a shock.
Here, the red ribbons are braided into the hair of dead schoolgirls discovered in makeshift graves in the Dublin Mountains. The novel is not based on any specific true crimes, but the storyline can veer at times uncomfortably close to reality.
"I think the fear of 'the bad man', whom ever he might be, and how we can recognise him in all his many guises, has changed considerably in modern Ireland," says Louise. "This is one of the central themes in Red Ribbons. In Ireland, we're all too aware of the sins of the past, but even in today's world, where the protection of our children has never been more to the forefront, are we really equipped to recognise this danger?"
It is in the asking and answering of such questions that novels are born.
"I think writers and readers are often drawn to crime fiction for the same reason," says Louise, "a desire to understand those who live by a different set of rules to our own. It is far more than macabre curiosity, or exploration for exploration's sake. Crime writing at its best doesn't simply look into the dark. It inhabits both the light and dark within all of us, asking big questions. Like, how would we cope given a particular set of circumstances?"
Dr Kate Pearson is a criminal psychologist called in by the gardai to profile a possible serial killer who is targeting young girls. To ensure Pearson rang true, Louise engaged in extensive research before beginning to write.
"I studied behavioural psychology as part of a marketing degree a long time ago," she says, "but when it came to inhabiting Dr Kate Pearson's world I needed to know a lot more. So I sought out the work of people who do this for a living, people like criminal psychologists Paul Briton and David Canter.
"I read as much material as I could get my hands on until I felt comfortable bringing this fictional character to life, and not simply within her role as a criminal psychologist, but also as a well-defined being on the page. Someone readers could relate to." As a mother of three, Louise's own deepest fears were in part an inspiration for her novel. So too was her environment, the Dublin Mountains.
"Certainly the fear of something dreadful happening to my children at the hands of a stranger was a major part of how the story came about," she says.
"The novel is partly based in the Dublin Mountains, where I live, which is an area of great natural beauty, but it can be unforgiving too. In harsh weather and on dark nights, you're left with no doubt as to who is master. The mountains have a habit of keeping their secrets safe, and we all know the tragic stories of Ireland's missing persons. I've been deeply affected, like most people, by the sadness surrounding those tragedies."
She may be a debut author but Louise Phillips displays admirable ambition in Red Ribbons. Not only does she take on the challenge of creating a particularly chilling serial killer, she also finds a voice for Ellie Brady, a mother institutionalised 15 years before the story begins for the murder of her young daughter.
"For me, one of the biggest surprises was the emergence of Ellie Brady's voice," says Louise, "the woman who stopped talking when everybody stopped listening.
"In my teens I worked as a volunteer visiting women in long-term institutionalised care. In part, the voice of Ellie Brady comes from them.
"But she is also the voice of you or I, should we ever be unfortunate enough to find ourselves in a place where the world has left us behind."
The most difficult character of all to inhabit, of course, was the killer.
"To write Red Ribbons I had to go to a place which wasn't easy for me," she says. "If the killer was to be believable, I had to get inside his head. I wanted to avoid creating just another stereotypical fictional killer. He had to appear real, and therefore he had to be someone who may seem psychopathic to the reader, but also be someone who seems perfectly sane and reasonable to himself.
"I don't think any writers should ever forget that we are in the business of telling stories, and telling them well. If a novel is engaging, entertaining and encourages the reader to suspend belief for the period of time they are reading the novel, then the writer has done their job well."
Red Ribbons by Louise Phillips is published by Hachette Books Ireland (€12.99)