Earlier this year, an article in The Spectator investigated a death. The death of murder. Crime rates are dropping, not just in Britain, but all over the world. A good thing, surely? Yet as Andrew Taylor says, pity the poor crime writers.
But the article got me thinking about the difficulties of crime writing in a world of forensics & DNA, cameras & mobile phones, political correctness and terrorism. Has writing crime got harder? I rounded up some of the usual suspects for interrogation. This is the second in the series of female crime writers on contemporary crime-writing.
Modern technology undoubtedly makes it easier to catch criminals. But does it help or hinder the crime writer?
I think it very much depends on the period you set your work. Agatha Christie novels, and something like Grantchester set in the 1950s, were no less entertaining because of the lack of DNA evidence for example. There are times I yearn for the simplicity of that style of writing if I’m honest. Where intelligent characters and clever plots were more at the forefront. However, that said I’ve embraced everything modern day crime detection has to offer in my own work. It does mean more work, more research, more specialist knowledge but that’s part of the job.
I’ve written as an expert pathologist in one book and also a ‘dodgy’ pathologist in another and so took a forensic pathology course to give my writing, and my character, real gravitas. A lot of the DNA information was beyond me, but it gave me an overview, and means I have some excellent research books on hand too. I’ve also used the whole social media aspect for tracing suspects, following lines of enquiry through automated banking and vehicle tracking devices etc. So, I guess my honest answer is it neither helps or hinders – there is definitely room for both. And there should be.
Which areas of police procedure or criminal use of technology have you needed to research? And how did that influence the plot?
Pathology mostly. And also legal procedurals. I have had to check facts and figures, and make sure I have my legal processes were generally correct. In terms of police procedural, I do have an expert on call (ex armed police) who answers anything really technical. But in terms of influencing the plot, I don’t think it ever would. I feel my books are more character driven, and the people who read my books are, I think, probably more interested in the setting on Anglesey or Dara’s latest female escapade! I think it is obviously important to be knowledgeable and competent in your writing, but I don’t lie awake at night worrying that I may have used a wrong phrase or forgotten to put on overshoes at a crime scene! Fiction is fiction, and I don’t really write complex police procedurals in that respect, and if we aren’t serving police officers we have to use our imagination and intelligence in much the same way as we aren’t serial killers (I hope!) so can surely be forgiven if we fail to get everything single tiny element perfect!
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?
Yes, I would. Obviously I am from the Agatha Christie school of crime writing. I think crime fiction through the ages would be good. Roman murder plots, Tudor poisonings, right through to a WWII espionage plot. There has always been crime, so there’s plenty of scope!
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 it’s linked to reader expectations, and again as I mentioned this is fiction. Readers do not want to see a serial rapist walk free from court on a legal technicality even if that can and does happen in reality. So, maybe we are guided by the market in that respect. That said, I have always been a bit of a rule breaker, and my last novel, False Lights, did break the ‘happy ending’ formula.
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 don’t think I could name a British crime writer that attempts the same kind of style as Scandinavian crime. I’m not sure what that says about us Brits – that we aren’t interested enough in politics to bother? Or that we leave it to the espionage writers, the Le Carres and Archers, to worry about politicians and society in general. I’m not sure I would say it is more focused on the individual, I think it’s maybe more focused on character and plot of each standalone story and doesn’t venture out into the bigger picture.
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?
I think we have to be careful in our writing, again because we are trying for the most part to please our readers. I wouldn’t tame down bad language that suited the character or scene, but my rule of thumb is that if two or more of my beta readers have an issues with something then it has to go. I’m not here to break down barriers or take a stand against anything, that’s not what my writing is about.
Finally, when writing a series featuring the same main character, would you ever do a Reichenbach Falls and kill off your hero? Or are you afraid of the Annie Wilkes effect?
I will have to be a bit cryptic and say I don’t think so but I haven’t really made my mind up yet. I have plans to kill off one or more characters that appear throughout the series, but as I haven’t a concrete plan of how many books there will be, or how the series will conclude … then I think I will have to wait and see if my lead character annoys me enough!
About Gillian Hamer
Born in the industrial Midlands, Gillian’s heart has always yearned for the wilds of North Wales and the pull of the ocean.
She splits her time between Birmingham and a remote cottage on Anglesey where she finds her inspiration and takes long walks on deserted beaches with her Jack Russell, Maysie.
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