Is crime writing getting harder?
Earlier this year, an article in The Spectator investigated the death of murder. Crime rates are dropping all over the world. A good thing, surely?
Unless you’re a crime writer, argues Andrew Taylor.
The article got me thinking about the difficulties of crime writing in a world of forensics & DNA, cameras & mobile phones, political correctness and terrorism, and the responsibilities of female crime writers. I rounded up some of the usual suspects for interrogation.
Here is the first in the series of Murder, She Wrote.
Welcome to Chris Curran, author of Mindsight.
Modern technology undoubtedly makes it easier to catch criminals. But does it help or hinder the crime writer?
Crime writers are inventive folk and in the same way that cyber criminals will use technological developments to inspire new crimes, I think many novelists also find they can spark fresh ideas. Our stories come to life when we give our characters obstacles to overcome and modern technology can help us by providing different challenges.
I write psychological thrillers so I have greater freedom than authors of police procedurals in choosing what to use and what to avoid. One thing that is a problem is the speed with which technology changes – often doing so in less time than it takes to write a novel! For example in my first book, Mindsight, the protagonist needs to trace witnesses to the accident she was imprisoned for causing. Originally I had her using the Friends Reunited platform to do so, but the site was more of less defunct by the time the book was ready for publication so I had to look for something else.
Which areas of police procedure or criminal use of technology have you needed to research? And how did that influence the plot?
Clare, the protagonist of Mindsight, has already been been convicted and imprisoned for a crime before the story begins so her involvement with the police is over, but I did have to research sentencing guidelines for her particular crime. The internet is a wonderful resource for this kind of thing and I can’t imagine how time-consuming it must have been to find out stuff like this in the past.
It was the day-to-day details of life for women in prison that demanded most research and I did this by trawling through the (very few) research papers and personal accounts I could find.
That was both upsetting and fascinating and influenced at least one major plot strand as well as helping enormously to enrich the character of Clare.
Today’s world of school shootings and suicide bombers seems a long way from country house killers and dastardly butlers. All of you write contemporary crime – would you ever consider writing historical crime, ie, before fingerprinting and DNA?
I’ve already done so! My next novel, Her Turn To Cry, which is due out at the end of June, is set in the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s within living memory and fingerprinting was obviously around, but it was still a very different world as far as policing was concerned. The whole story hinges on the disappearance of my main character’s mother and I realised how much easier it was then for someone to go missing without a trace. I hate to think how many serial killers must have gone undetected in the past.
I began writing the book before most of the revelations about the prominent people who got away with sexual abuse in those days came out, but that is one of the novel’s themes so despite the setting it turns out to be very relevant today.
In the majority of crime novels, the culprit must be brought to justice. It’s rare to see one get away, which is the opposite of reality. Are we tied to the formula of a ‘happy’ ending?
I think one reason for the popularity of the crime genre is that people crave the kind of full resolution that is unusual in real life. Having said that, I don’t think the ending must be happy and a certain amount of ambiguity can be even more pleasing than a neatly tied up solution. And as writers we have the luxury of showing what happens outside the justice system. So it’s possible to allow a criminal to apparently get away with it, but to reveal that they suffer a different kind of retribution.
An ending that gratifies me as a reader is one that gives a satisfying answer to the question the author has posed. One of my favourite writers, Tana French, leaves a major crime unsolved in her first novel, In the Woods, and apparently that annoyed some readers. But for me it worked perfectly because I don’t think that particular novel asks who or why dunit, but sets out to explore some of the long term effects of a violent crime on a young victim.
Ian Rankin observed how Scandinavian noir is politically engaged and makes a comment on society at large. Do you think British crime is more focused on the individual?
I imagine Rankin is thinking of Scandinavian police procedurals like the Martin Beck series and Henning Mankell’s Wallenberg. So I’d be interested to hear the opinions of those of you who write about the British police.
My books are classified as psychological or domestic noir and this sub-genre definitely has the individual experience at its heart. However we often tackle important subjects that affect society as a whole. To mention just two of my recent reads: Claire Kendal’s, The Book of You, confronts the issue of how violence against women is perceived by the general population, including juries. And, although Gilly Macmillan’s, Burnt Paper Sky, begins with the abduction of child, the main theme is victim blaming in the media.
In our lifetimes, there’s been a major shift on what we can and cannot say. Certain terms are taboo and using stereotypical clichés of race, gender and sexuality can result in a critical backlash. How far do you ‘police’ what you write so as not of offend?
This can be tricky because readers sometimes see characters as the author’s mouthpiece and assume that their utterances reflect the writer’s own views. Her Turn to Cry has two characters who are caught up in the purges against homosexuals during the 1950s. Attitudes were very different then and even well-meaning people might use terms we would now consider unacceptable. I would never want to appear to condone any kind of prejudice, but I’ve recently read a couple of books set in the same period that go so far in their attempts to avoid offending modern sensibilities that the attitudes seem anachronistic. So it is a balancing act, but above all I try to be true to my characters and to the demands of the story.
Chris was born in London but now lives in St Leonards-on-Sea near Hastings, on the south coast of England, in a house groaning with books. She left school at sixteen to work in the local library and spent an idyllic few months reading her way around the shelves. Reluctantly returning to full-time education she gained my degree from Sussex University. Since then Chris has worked as an actress, script writer, copy editor and teacher, all the time looking forward to the day when she would see her own books gracing those library shelves.
Images courtesy of Chris Curran and Carlos ZGZ – Creative Commons