How violent do you like your unlawful deaths to be? That is the question which crime fiction authors and readers have to ask themselves.
Or perhaps I should pose the question differently: ‘how graphic do you like your unlawful deaths to be?’ A woman being poisoned is not obviously violent, but if the writer takes you inside the victim’s head as the agony of the poison strikes home, then the intrinsic violence of that death becomes more unavoidable for the reader.
The wild success of Scandinavian noir is just one clear example that the body found dead in the library or a person clubbed to death by a blunt object are somewhat passé as far as many readers and writers are concerned. I have just been reading one where graphic descriptions of splitting people’s heads open and the pouring of acid into the eyes of a pinioned man set a very unsettling tone. Another (British) writer of huge commercial success has centred one of her books around extremely nasty sexual tortures. (I don’t care to go into the details here – sorry!)
I guess the moral of those two writers (both of whose books have been made into TV films) is that many readers round the world love to read about very nasty modes of death and they like them to be graphically described.
That sort of crime fiction is not something I feel comfortable writing. I do not particularly want to live inside the head of a serial killer. Does that mean I am in the wrong business (or in my case it’s more of a hobby)? Possibly.
I accept, however, that murder is an act of violence and as a writer I should not skirt round that truth. I do, however, feel it is easy to fall into the trap of glorying in the violence, where the bizarre manner of the death distracts the reader from the fact that a person has lost his or her life, with all sorts of consequences for others.
I was particularly struck by a recent TV film, Code of a Killer, which told the story of the deaths of two Leicestershire teenagers and how their killer was brought to justice by the new technique of DNA profiling. It was crime fiction based closely on fact and that affected the way the story was told (i.e. with restraint and respect). What was most striking to me was the way in which the second murder was documented. We see a teenager going off in the daylight and we know instinctively that she is going to her death. She is reported missing. After two days her body is found. She has been raped and strangled. We are led to the dead girl through the eyes of DCI David Baker. We see him arrive at the gate which leads onto the murder site (a field). He moves in slow motion across the grass. In front police colleagues move silently out of his way, barely able to meet their boss’s eyes. Their expressions and body language tell us all we need to know – and more. In the end all we see of the girl is a glimpse of her body which is largely obscured by the DCI’s legs. There are no graphic close-ups. And yet I was profoundly moved by this whole scene. It was a masterpiece of visual story-telling. We feel Baker’s terrible emotional pain. The next scene is again a brilliantly understated performance as the DCI and colleagues tell the parents the grim news. Again, we feel their pain intensely.
I came away from the programme feeling both challenged and humbled. How do I as a writer achieve that sort of affect without dwelling on the physical detail of violent death? How do I depict brutality without exploiting it? If I were to achieve that, it would be something to be proud of, but I have no high hopes of doing so.
Peter’s public writing career got off to a flying start with an article for a military modelling magazine for the grand sum of £20. Further articles were gladly received and published by the magazine, but no further cheques arrived in the post. It was his first harsh lesson in the economic vagaries of publishing!
In the 1980s, Peter wrote The Modern Mercenary, which was a major book club selection both sides of the Atlantic.
It was only in the new millennium that he turned to fiction. He has so far written three crime novels in his Blood in Oxford series. He has been praised for the authenticity of his Oxford (‘He has a wonderful gift of creating geographically factual settings for his fictional characters’ – Oxford Times) as well as the pace of his stories (‘deliciously thrilling and wildly unpredictable’ – Oxford Today). He writes a regular column for Mystery People and regularly gives talks at festivals, libraries, U3As and even one of Her Majesty’s Prisons.
He has recently turned his hand to screen writing, and two of his scripts have been turned into short films in the last year.
Find out more at Peter’s website