Category Archives: Fiction

The Trolley Problem

A runaway streetcar is hurtling down a track and will kill a group of five unsuspecting people in its path. If you could pull a lever and divert the trolley onto a track where only one person will die, would you do that?

Or would you do nothing?

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Alternatively, if your only other option was to push a very large man off a bridge into the path of the trolley, knowing that he would die but the trolley would stop, would you do that in order to save five people?

Most people say they’d pull the lever but not push the man off the bridge. But is that the right decision?

And what if the five people were children and the large man very old: would that make a difference?

The ‘Trolley Problem’ is a philosophical problem originally devised in 1967 by Oxford philosopher Philippa Foot and developed further by Judith Thomson at MIT. Among many questions it raises, it asks whether, if moral decisions are about outcomes, we need worry about the manner in which we achieve them; whether a passive decision is less culpable than one requiring action; and whether we take certain decisions because they are ‘right’ or only because then we feel better about ourselves.

The Trolley Problem is an excellent exercise for a crime writer, and expresses the kind of dilemma that DI Grace Fisher has to resolve in my new novel Shot Through The Heart.

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On the naming of names

Beginning a new novel means dreaming up new characters. Some will play very minor roles, others may evolve to carry the heart of the story, but they all need names.

This will be the third book in a series featuring Detective Inspector Grace Fisher, following on from Good Girls Don’t Die and Shot Through the Heart (published March 2016). When a name for a new character popped easily into my head, but then felt rather too familiar, I realised that I needed to make a list of all the character names I’ve already used – and was amazed to find there are already well over fifty on the list just for these three books.

If I look back over five novels and almost fifty screenplays for film and TV drama, that’s a lot of people I’ve dreamed up. Enough to populate a small village.

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Some I can barely remember. Others still feel as vivid as friends or colleagues I’ve lost touch with but who nevertheless remain a part of my life, of me.

Naming characters is an odd business. Often a name just doesn’t sit right, which seems to prevent the character quite coming into focus. When that happens, finally hitting upon the right one feels satisfying and important.

When the police have to name an operation, they apparently consult a list compiled from dog breeds, American rivers, English coastal towns or exotic birds. I have used names connected with Shakespeare’s Globe or Victorian watercolourists, and also, when setting something in Manchester, pulled out a class list for a long-ago school reunion. Once, when requested, I named a character in memory of a friend’s mother: it took a while to find a minor character whom I felt really deserved her name.

Quite often I’ll look at lists of pop, movie or sports stars who were in the news the year a character would have been born – the kind of associations meaningful to my character’s parents – and choose something that helps me to keep in mind the world they were born into, the style and aspirations they were brought up with.

As Alfred Hitchcock is said to have remarked, you have to know what your characters keep in their cupboards (dead bodies, skeletons and all). Their name is what has to be written on the door.

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Lies, damned lies and data

At the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate last weekend, I gleaned two very interesting and significant insights into two of my earlier posts –  Which novels ought we to like? and Cooking with data.

The first concerns the data released by Kobo that seems to suggest that the winner of the 2015 Bailey’s Prize, How To Be Both by Ali Smith, was only finished by 34% of readers. However, in print, readers would purchase one of two versions of the novel, each with the book’s two parts in alternate order. Yet someone from Apple told me that digital platforms include both versions, in which case the figure of 34% is highly misleading – and very unfair.

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The second insight came from the Harrogate Festival’s amazing interview with screenwriter Paul Abbott. Asked how subscription channels such as HBO or Netflix affected the way he works, he said that Netflix’s policy was to commission work (presumably on the basis of their viewing data), hand over the money, and then not interfere until the drama or series was delivered. Get it wrong, and they’ll never use you again – fair enough. But presumably Netflix are confident enough of the winning combination of their data and the experience and track record of the talent they commission to stand back and not second-guess the creative process. Which supplies one possible answer to the question of what kind of expectations will be placed upon writers by the growing influence of data.

Screenwriter William Goldman is famous for saying of Hollywood that nobody knows anything. But that was before this kind of data meant that subscription channels do know certain kinds of things. If the Netflix approach becomes the working model for commissioning – in film, TV or fiction – then bring it on.

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Why is crime fiction addictive?

All sorts of ‘rules’ can be bent or broken when writing genre fiction except one: that the story must confront the genre’s greatest fear. In romantic fiction, for example, it is that love cannot prevail. In crime fiction, it is that the riddle may go unsolved.

All sorts of novels can encompass murder, or be about unlocking the past, confronting secrets, pursuing justice, righting a wrong, revenge, investigating current social and moral concerns, but a crime novel must also solve a puzzle. ‘Perhaps,’ wrote Kate Summerscale in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, ‘this is the purpose of detective investigations … to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away.’

Certainly two other great crime writers would agree. Raymond Chandler described the detective story as a tragedy with a happy ending, while P.D. James spoke of the detective taming the outrageous breach of nature that is crime and restoring society to order and stability by unraveling complexity and containing irrationality. Sometimes the pattern is reversed, and we identify with the perpetrator and wait to see whether we will get away with it. Either way, in choosing crime as a favourite genre, we seek the frisson of risk that the breach will not be resolved, that evil will escape unpunished and we will not be safe.

Our anxiety is pleasurably channeled into how we as readers collude in arriving at the solution to the puzzle. It’s vital that we actively experience that heady mix of transgression, anxiety and satisfaction that makes crime so popular, whether in books, film or television: the question ‘How will all this turn out?’ has to be made to matter to us. The settings, characters, social issues and means of detection will always change, but what must remain is the addictive gratification of teasing out the riddle in tandem with the teller of the story.

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It’s clear from the long and distinguished tradition of series protagonists – Holmes, Marlowe, Marple, Warshawski, Rebus, Salander – that readers also desire the satisfaction of repetition. Freud thought that we enjoy the compulsion, conscious or unconscious, to re-live events that were traumatic because, in doing so, we can gain mastery over them. As readers, we have the reassurance of knowing that a familiar central character will crack the riddle while simultaneously we can believe that we’re working it out for ourselves – and maintain the illusion that we might fail.

The crime writer’s ability to never quite let us in on the secret, to create suspense, anxiety or dread by crafting hooks, twists and unexpected reversals or by scattering false leads and withholding information, and in the end to allow us to feel as if we have uncovered the truth for ourselves, is not a matter of superficial puzzle-solving cleverness but of truly understanding the primal pleasure of reading crime fiction.

For, after all, the riddle to be solved is not only ‘outside’: it is also within ourselves. Our greatest fear – glimpsed through the flaws of the greatest detective protagonists – is that we ourselves might not be either safe or good. As in the classic whodunit, we’re all guilty until the killer is unmasked.

This post was originally written for the Crime Readers Association National Crime Reading Month, June 2015.

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Which novels ‘ought’ we to like?

Does it matter if a majority of readers give up before they get to the end of a novel that wins a prestigious literary prize? It’s a pretty harsh question, but one raised by the data collected by Kobo and – I can only assume – other ebook retailers.

shortlist Last month I took part in a debate on Amazon and the Civil War for Books with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Erica Wagner and Andrew O’Hagan as part the National Conversation, a series of events organised by the Writers’ Centre Norwich.

We all agreed that telling and hearing stories – regardless of the form in which they are told – is intrinsic to human nature, and that perhaps the most pressing current concern is to ensure that everyone, especially new readers, has access to the widest possible range of stories.

I’m particularly interested in how the stories we tell – and how we tell them – will come to be influenced by the data gathered from digital platforms – the Writers’ Centre Norwich invited me to blog about it here. Amazon is reticent about sharing the data they glean from how people use their Kindles, but today’s Guardian carries fascinating data from Kobo about how readers are getting on with the Baileys Prize shortlist (the winner will be announced tonight).

The data shows not merely which of the six novels was the most purchased, but also how some failed to hold their readers’ attention to the end, while others proved un-put-downable. The Bees, a debut novel by Laline Paull, proved the “most gripping”.

I know from many walks on Hampstead Heath with Laline that it was always her intention to write a thriller set in a beehive, and she must be delighted that not only book sales but also the data analytics demonstrate the success of her literary instincts.

Kobo’s data on these six particular novels show that the number of sessions it took to finish reading varied from 17 to 36. This in itself doesn’t matter – whether I want a slow or a fast read is a combination of taste, reading environment and my desire for variety – but data on why (and at which point in the story) readers might abandon a book altogether must surely be of huge interest to publishers and authors. It certainly would be to me.

The publicity given to literary prizes plays a vital role not only in marketing books but also in telling us what books we ‘ought’ to like. Once the cascade of this kind of data really gets underway, should those who award literary prizes start to pay attention to how readers do actually read? It’ll be an interesting, scary and brave debate.

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On being a door-to-door salesman

On Saturday I took part in the awesome KillerReads CrimeFest15 organised by Sam Missingham, Head of Audience Development at HarperCollins. Bloggers, former cops, ex-offenders and dozens of crime and thriller authors – including such legendary names as Ian Rankin, Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid – all took part in online events on Twitter and Facebook and also in store at Waterstones.

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My Q&A with Sarah Hilary centred on writing for TV versus writing fiction. The pace on Twitter was fast and furious, and got me thinking about what the most fundamental difference actually is between the two.

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And I reckon it’s this: before a script gets anywhere near production, it has to be a sales document in a way that a proposal or first draft of a novel very seldom is. Between a first verbal pitch and the first day of principal photography a screenwriter is grilled many times by different people on what the story is, who the characters are, why they do the things they do, why an audience will engage, etc etc. In other words, a script is a strategic document designed to convince other people it’s a good idea to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds – if not millions – making it, and then to motivate a small village of other highly skilled people to devote months of their time, often far away from home, to bring it to life.

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The process has its drawbacks: way too many cooks … As much can go wrong as can go right, but when it all comes together, it’s magic.

And, by the time I deliver a final shooting script, every single line, scene and end-of-part hook has been tested to destruction. As have I as a writer.

In contrast, the freedom and autonomy of fiction, feels – to quote the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell – like the deep, deep peace of the double-bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue. I’m loving it.

And am now working on the follow-up to Good Girls Don’t Die featuring detective Grace Fisher.

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House of Cards and the Fourth Wall

In honour of today’s launch House of Cards Season 3 on Netflix, this post is brought to you by Frank Underwood, a master of how to break the Fourth Wall and get away with it.

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Kevin Spacey’s sly looks to camera (and of course those of the late Ian Richardson in the original BBC series), and his asides to us, the viewers, all add immensely to our appreciation of the character. It means that we, too, have directly experienced his charisma and been seduced by it.

House of Cards has proved that, on screen, breaking the Fourth Wall can deliver big results. But if the viewer is ever reminded that they’re merely looking at a TV set, then the magic is destroyed. Frank Underwood’s audacity lies not only in his invitation to collude but also in the huge risk he runs that our suspension of disbelief will be shattered, bringing the whole meta-fictional house of cards tumbling down: we feel what it’s like to walk that political tight-rope.

In prose fiction, a deliberately unreliable narrator can add suspense and mystery or, as in Wuthering Heights, a complexity of sympathy and interpretation. Get it wrong, however, and an unintentionally slippery point of view quickly induces queasiness in a reader.

Some writers creatively exploit the possibilities of a first-person narrative, others find it constricting, but either way it removes any confusion about what other characters know or might be thinking. In a third-person narrative, however, it’s all too easy to jump in and out of different characters’ heads, sometimes even between paragraphs, breaking the Fourth Wall and leaving the reader unable to settle down and identify with, or care about, any of them.

Point of view needs to be tightly patrolled. On screen, POV is constructed by who the camera is looking at while dialogue or action is happening, and can radically alter the meaning and intention of a scene. We identify most strongly with the person for whom there is something at stake. I think there’s a fundamental weakness in the opening episode of House of Cards Season 3, for example, (I saw it last night at the gala preview in London) because we share the POV of Doug Stamper far more viscerally than that of either POTUS or the First Lady.

That vital emotional investment in a character has to be there on the page, too. If a reader can effortlessly stay with a character, and get to know them by understanding what they notice and how they think – hopes, fears, self-delusions, denials and all – then they’ll be there, walking that tight-rope right along with them.

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A conversation with an about-to-be-published author

A young woman about to publish her first novel recently asked me if I still got excited – as excited as she clearly was, and jolly well should be – whenever I receive a copy of my latest book. I answered honestly that, while I can clearly remember the physical thrill – like a lightning bolt – I felt in the moment when I first saw my name on a book I had written – non-fiction – in the window of Rizzoli’s in New York thirty-odd years ago, I don’t anticipate the same buzz as I write my tenth book.

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I immediately regretted that my reply might take the shine off her pleasure, and tried to explain that it doesn’t mean that I don’t love writing or publishing any the less. The writing itself gets harder, more complex, more challenging, more deeply satisfying. And – I suddenly realised – what really gives me a thrill, thanks to Twitter, to Amazon reviews, to taking part in literary events, is the connection to an individual reader.

It’s also what I loved about journalism. When I wrote features for newspapers and magazines, once in a while an article would garner a response that showed it had hit a nerve, communicated, shared, perhaps even comforted.

Knowing that, once in a while, one of my novels does the same is very, very exciting.

So thank you for reading!

Ask an expert

Accurate research is a vital part of writing crime fiction. I am spoilt rotten in that I have a recently retired Home Office pathologist in the family. He is incredibly patient and generous about answering my questions, which means that I do try very hard not to ring him up every other sentence. However, I did ask him to read the chapter in Good Girls Don’t Die in which the police and a forensic pathologist attend a murder scene. He talked me through exactly what he would do, and was quite happy for me to omit or bend the procedure for dramatic purposes, but he had one total and absolute sticking point: there was no way the pathologist would drive a Volvo.

When my brother was at his busiest, with sometimes only two forensic pathologists covering several counties, he spent far too many hours in his car, sometimes arriving home past midnight from one job only to get another call and immediately have to drive a further hundred or more miles to another crime scene, and then home again, on his own, eating a service station sandwich and working out what would go in his report, what he’d have to think about when he started the post mortem, and what cruelty or tragedy he’d just seen.

So I rewarded my fictional pathologist with a gold Porsche Panamera.

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I’ve been privileged, writing television crime drama, to have hung out with quite a few serving and retired police officers, from a former head of the Vice squad to beat officers, from detectives on a dedicated ‘burglary artifice’ squad to Jackie Malton, the DCI who inspired Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison. I’ve been out in vans responding to 999 calls and followed officers into people’s homes; been out in the area car that would have been the first on the scene (and I mean, the first) should there be any kind of incident in Downing Street; I’ve watched proceedings in both a coroner’s court and the Old Bailey (even lunched with the judges); played the ‘criminal’ in a CID interview training exercise; and visited an identification parade suite.

And yes, I learnt an enormous amount about process and vocabulary and how things work, but the most valuable lessons lay in gleaning some understanding of what makes people in such professions tick.

Although writing fiction seems horribly trivial in comparison to the responsibilities that those who work in frontline services face every day, nearly everyone has been kind, patient and open-minded. Only once did I witness how easily one bad apple can generate untold mistrust and resentment within a south London community.

What has really helped me feel that I’m writing with some vague authenticity is not so much the accuracy of the physical details as the jokes, the attitudes to life, the food, and the everyday frustrations, like finding a parking ticket on an unmarked CID car. Frontline humour is shockingly black – far blacker than it would ever be possible to reproduce when the context is merely fictional – and so is the intense and apparently bottomless empathy for victims.

Years ago, when I was writing half-hour, stand-alone episodes of The Bill for ITV, I grabbed a story from one of the full-time police advisors on the show. A fairly hard-bitten retired sergeant who quite enjoyed making the writers’ lives difficult, Malcolm told me about a night when an old man on a Zimmer frame had been brought in. The old man had had a suicide pact with his wife, killed her but lacked the physical strength to finish the job on himself. It had been Malcolm’s role as custody sergeant to lock him up and then check on him every half hour.

The story for me was not the old man’s, poignant though it was, but that of the cynical custody sergeant who, by the end of his seemingly endless night shift, could no longer hide his emotion. For me, that story said everything about The Job, about the protective armour that officers grow and about what it takes to pierce it.

Which is why I understood why it was important for my fictional forensic pathologist to drive a flash car, for reasons both obvious (speed, comfort, safety) and more subtle – a different kind of safety, perhaps, a protective cocoon both on the way to a scene and on the way back?

Growing up as the only non-medic in a family of four hospital doctors, I’ve always been interested in what attracts people to frontline jobs, and in how the rules, values and responses to the pressures of such exceptionally intense professions gradually become an unconscious part of who they are. So, while it’s been amazing to have experts willing to explain the nuts and bolts of ballistics, DNA or the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, I’ve also realised that such details are seldom of primary interest to them. I always try to watch out for the ‘tells’ that explain what is in it for them, why they first decided to do what they do, what it takes to be the job, and how they feel about the effects of their work on their everyday lives and their families.

So when you talk to an expert, never mind the facts: find out what car they drive, or get them to tell you a joke. That’ll show you what they really do.

 

This piece first appeared in Red Herrings, the members’ magazine of the Crime Writers’ Association.

Dead Women Sell Books

I was recently invited by Shots Blog – the blogspot for Shots Crime & Thriller Ezine – to write a guest post. Here is my piece, continuing the debate started five years ago by Jessica Mann about the levels of violence against women in crime fiction, especially in novels written by women. Others who have written about women’s voices in crime drama and fiction are Boris Starling and Nicci Gerrard.

 

DEAD WOMEN SELL BOOKS

GOOD GIRLS 1A girl is missing … a vulnerable woman is being stalked … a girl is found brutally murdered … Dead women sell books.

So should I really be adding to a genre that glamorises the violent and sadistic victimisation of women?

My answer is ‘yes’ because the fact that dead women DO sell books is very interesting.

Good Girls Don’t Die, my first crime novel, centres on the tense relationship between the police and the media during a big murder enquiry, and – as happened at Soham and Ipswich – the additional pressure that a highly competitive, 24-hour rolling news industry places on a police investigation.

Dead women, of course, also sell newspapers: the more lurid, titillating, gruesome and voyeuristic the details, the better. So, woven through my story is how and why dead women get served up by the media for avid public consumption.

On television, believe it or not, far more men get killed than women, just as they do in real life. But male characters tend to be blasted, blown away, the fallen comrades of either side. And they will almost certainly die fully clothed. When a man is the prey, he’s likely to be hunted down because of something he wants or has done, not simply for his male body. Female victims are presented very differently – as they are on book jackets – with the camera lingering over separate, helplessly exposed, body parts. Blood, bruised flesh, torn garments, sprawled limbs: why?

Perhaps it’s partly because, on a good day, only about 25% of TV writers (of which I am one) and directors are women. It’s even worse in film. Which means that, on screen, more than 75% of the time, men are left to speak for and about women. No wonder that so few Hollywood movies pass the Bechdel Test, which is that two female characters have to be in at least one scene where they talk to each other about something other than a man.

It matters that a balance of women’s voices is heard, especially when it comes to violence against women: thankfully, the gender mix in crime fiction is very much healthier.

Mary Beard has talked about the public voice of women, showing how, since the Odyssey, women have been told to shut up. Mary and I were undergraduates together (at an all-women college where she is now Professor of Classics) and we are of the generation who fondly believed that we had earned the right to be heard.

And of course we have. But this year Mary was targeted by online trolls making disgusting and extremely violent personal threats against her simply because she voiced her opinions. Assertive female executives still report being labelled as shrill, bossy or up-tight ball-breakers. Rape victims are asking for it because they dare to wear short skirts or get drunk. The message is clear: Good Girls Don’t Die.

I also wanted to write about the men who victimise and kill women. Murderers are seldom singular and intriguing serial killers; all too often they’re just sad blokes who suck up a misogynistic culture and assume that women should shut up and do what they’re told. Or are too inadequate to know how else to express their desperate need of women except by aggressive blaming and shaming.

I wanted to explore what such misogynistic attitudes really express; what kind of fear of – or longing for – women they conceal; what miseries they cause to both sexes. And what it’s like for women to be expected to play roles dictated by a culture in which glamorised dead women provide entertainment.

I also had to work out how to give my central detective character, Grace Fisher, a compelling and attractive voice. The noir tradition of male detectives decrees that a brooding, wounded, hard-drinking loner is per se rugged and noble. He can rescue or avenge women and children simply because he’s a man, while a female detective’s motives are more closely examined, and her vulnerabilities risk making her either a recovering victim or just a bit sad and flaky.

I wanted to show how well, or badly, Grace Fisher deals with the difficulties she encounters, with the labels used to shame her, when, as a police officer, she can’t or won’t shut up.

Excitingly, an organic tradition of modern female detectives is now evolving thanks to all kinds of crime writers of both sexes, and I’m thrilled to add to their characters’ wonderfully different voices.

 

 

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