Tag Archives: crime 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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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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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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