Sunday, January 27, 2013

The truth about crime fiction

Realism would be 1,000 pages long and crushingly dull, admits top writer

What relation does crime fiction have to real crime? Only a passing resemblance, judging by a panel discussion that brought together three authors last week at the British Library, chaired by Barry Forshaw and accompanying its new exhibition, Murder in the Library. "Your first duty is the story," said Mark Billingham. "It's not realism, it's heightened. If you wrote realistic crime novels, they'd be a thousand pages long and crushingly dull."

Robert Ryan agreed, citing a failed attempt at authenticity in which he learned to play the trumpet to empathise with a musician character. However, the Guardian's crime fiction reviewer Laura Wilson seemed less eager to renounce realism without caveats – understandably, as her period novels draw on detailed research. And in making her series sleuth DI Stratton sober and married, she pointed out, she was challenging the fantasy stereotype of the boozy loner.

As for real, celebrated crimes, how much freedom you have depends on "how long ago it was and how much people feel they 'own' the crime", said Wilson, who found many felt they did when she put the serial killer John Christie into a book. Ryan recalled getting a faintly menacing phone call from train robber Bruce Reynolds about his novel recreating the 60s heist, but cautioned that what comes from the horse's mouth is not necessarily truth, as memories fade and coppers and crooks alike may be intent on myth preservation.

The authors disliked the vogue for graphic violence, deploring publisher pressure to make books "gritty" (although Wilson said she was "only squeamish about violence to dogs"); and Billingham denounced "the forensic detail in Kathy Reichs, about things like the difference between cat hair and dog hair. I don't care!"
As they were broadly agreed that their novels were artificial constructions, dismissing other writers' work as wildly unrealistic might seem a tricky manoeuvre; but they also had no difficulty in rubbishing corpse-filled TV series and novels lazily dependent on brainy serial killers. The body counts can be "completely ludicrous", and these bogeymen "let us off the hook, when in reality a killer like Fred West is next door," argued Billingham.
Questions from the audience elicited a Billingham bombshell in which he named Jack the Ripper (or, at any rate, the person visitors to the Black Museum, the police's private collection, are told committed the crimes) as Aaron Kosminski; and ended with the slain bodies of Stieg Larsson, Stephen King and Colin Dexter piling up next to Reichs's, as panellists gleefully murdered their reputations – an awkwardly bloody denouement for an event complementing a celebration of crime-writing.


Susan Malter said...

I see the same heightened reality in stories about family life and love. Real life and love takes time and lacks excitement for the most part. To make it a story worth reading or telling a writer must skip the real but boring parts.

Some readers will take the boring aspects of life as a given. Others will believe that their lives would have been exciting if only they had become detectives or if only they had found the right mate or had other children.

The fantasies of fiction can be wonderful but disturbing to someone who uses fiction to window shop for an actual change of life.

I am enjoying your blog.

Elaine Housby said...

I'm interested to hear that these panellists dislike the trend to ultra graphic violence. I have almost completely given up reading and watching murder mysteries because of this. I once went to a talk by Val McDermid, whose work I find fairly unreadable, where she said she couldn't understand why people complain about the violence in her novels when much worse things happen in real life. Of course that's true but it's rather missing the point. We don't want real life horrors turned into pure entertainment, we want novelists to try seriously to understand why they happen.