Crime novelist Mo Hayder dies aged 59 from motor neurone disease

Clare Dunkel, who was diagnosed only months ago, wrote 10 thrillers under the pen name and has been remembered as a ‘ferociously inventive’ presence

British crime novelist Mo Hayder, whose dark, shocking thrillers won her the title of “queen of fear”, has died at the age of 59 after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease in December.

Hayder was the pen name for Clare Dunkel. Her death was announced by her publisher Penguin Random House, which said she had “fought valiantly” since her diagnosis on 22 December, but that “the disease progressed at an alarming rate”.

Dunkel left school at 15 and worked as a barmaid, security guard, film-maker, hostess in a Tokyo club and teacher of English as a foreign language in Asia before bursting on to the literary scene in 1999 with her debut novel, Birdman. Shockingly graphic, it followed DI Jack Caffery’s investigation into the horrific ritual murder of five young women in London; the Guardian hailed her as “a young writer in touch with her dark side and a major new talent”.

She followed Birdman with The Treatment, which opens with the discovery of a husband and wife found beaten and restrained at their home, their young son missing; the Observer called it “a bleak, powerful story of child abuse”. Dunkel went on to publish 10 novels as Mo Hayder – her seventh, Gone, won the Edgar Allan Poe award and her 10th, Wolf, is being adapted by the BBC. She won the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger in the Library award for an outstanding body of work in 2011.

Her fellow authors praised her as a writer who pushed the limits of the crime genre with her terrifying thrillers.

“Mo was a ferociously inventive writer who saw the conventions of the genre as a challenge rather than a constraint,” said Val McDermid. “I remember reading Birdman with a real sense of excitement, that this was a fresh and distinctive voice which also promised so much more to come. She continued to surprise me with her work. I’m so sad we’ve lost not only a fascinating presence but also the books she had in her head.”

“She was just incredibly different,” said Mark Billingham. “Crime/horror mash-up is quite an established thing now, but there were very few people working in that genre when Mo came along. She just had this ability to put images in your head that would not go away. There are some, especially from The Treatment, which are still in my head 20 years later. Her books are properly frightening and properly disturbing.”

Jenny Colgan wrote on Twitter: “She never watered down a thing – her books were neat and chokingly strong – such an absolutely blazing talent,” while Harlan Coben called her “a tremendous talent, a true original, and, well, really cool”.

Dunkel’s agent, Jane Gregory of David Higham Associates, said she was “a brilliant writer and a wonderful, extraordinary, unique human being”.

“Her books were astonishing and innovative,” said Gregory. “Clare was charming, entertaining, caustic and always great company. It was a privilege to work with her and an honour to have become her friend.”

Her editor Selina Walker at Century said Dunkel was “never afraid to push the boundaries of the conventional crime novel”.

“Her best scenes were always terrifying,” said Walker. “She was the bravest writer I knew, but she was also fun and funny, someone you always wanted to spend time with. I am heartbroken that she’s been taken from us so soon.”

Century said Dunkel had started writing a new series under the name Theo Clare. The Book of Sand, set in an alternate universe, will be published in early 2022. Dunkel had taken four years to write the novel, and had described herself as “so happy to be writing fiction set in an entirely imaginative universe of my own creation”.

She is survived by her daughter, Lotte, and her husband, Bob.

  • This article was amended on 30 July 2021, to correct one of Dunkel’s pen names, Theo Clare.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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