West Sussex thriller writer explores Walking Corpse Syndrome

A thriller about a serial killer with Cotard Syndrome, otherwise known as Walking Corpse Syndrome, is the latest book from Chichester author Helen Fields.

Helen Fields
Helen Fields

The Shadow Man is published by HarperCollins, available from Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Amazon and independent bookstores.

Helen, aged 49, said: “ It’s a terrifying but real condition that makes the sufferer believe they’re either dying or already dead. In the most extreme cases, patients believe there’s no point continuing to eat, drink and even that they no longer need oxygen. The results are devastating, and recorded cases have ended in death by starvation. The idea for the book came when I was reading about this illness, and I began wondering just what someone might be capable of if they truly believed they were already dead and therefore had no limits at all.

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“The results are quite scary! I write thrillers because so many people like to be scared – at least in a safe, controlled way. Crime books give us an outlet for seeing the darkness in the world through a secure lens. I love exploring the psychology of damaged and dangerous people, so Cotard Syndrome was absolutely fascinating to me. In my previous career I was a criminal barrister, and whilst none of my books are about real cases, some of my characters are reflections of the interesting and, at times, disturbing people I dealt with.

“Having lived in America for the past three years, I made some interesting new friends, one of whom put me in touch with a real FBI profiler. After a period of security clearance, I was able to send her my notes for the book which the supervisory special agent worked like a real case.

“After that, I had a long telephone conference with her where we went through how she would have drawn up a profile for my killer, and explained what she made of Cotard Syndome. I have to admit, I was fan-girling a lot! FBI profilers are selected from the very best agents after years of training and vetting. To have one work on this book with me was incredible.”

“I’ve been writing a Scottish detective series for a while now, and I wanted a chance to develop some new characters. I’m very interested in profiling and forensic psychology. In almost all my books, I write a number of chapters from the perspective of the killer. It’s a great opportunity to explore the darkness of human nature and to try and hear those voices in an authentic way – how they think and feel, how they recognise and justify what they do, what their vulnerabilities and worries are. This book, like my previous series, is set in Edinburgh, a city I love. I hadn’t written a profiler character before, so I chose an American forensic psychologist – Dr Connie Woolwine – and paired her up with a reserved English police officer who specialises in kidnapping cases.

“The two of them are polar opposites but with a common goal, and writing their dialogue was great fun.

“Connie Woolwine has her own backstory, and I was thinking about her character for a long time before starting to write. She’s an achromat, which means she can only see in black and white, following a head injury when she was 18 years old. Connie sees the world differently and has a very unique style of trying to get into the heads of both victims and killers.

“At one point, she’s found curled up on a mortuary table, whispering to a body. Connie drives the story, but we also see what’s happening from the perspective of three kidnapping victims. I love writing books that have multiple perspectives. For me, it keeps the writing and the story fresh. I’m hoping this will appeal to people who love reading crime novels, thrillers or psychological suspense, but also those people with an interest in true crime and psychology. Or just anyone who likes feeling a bit scared!”