Clare Mackintosh – Does authenticity matter in crime fiction?

I was a police officer for more than a decade, and although I didn’t try my hand at crime writing until after I’d left the service, I have always been an avid reader of crime. I’ve read everything from Peter James and Val McDermid, to Patricia Cornwell and John Grisham; books where the research is meticulous and the crimes chillingly real. I’ve also read a fair number of books I’ve wanted to hurl across a room, when once again fiction has parted company with reality to such an extent that credibility isn’t just stretched, it’s snapped beyond repair.

But how important is accuracy when writing crime? If the point of fiction is the escapism of a good story, does it matter if the police procedure is slightly askew? After all, the readers won’t know… will they?

The plethora of crime series on television, and the continued surge of affection for crime fiction (long may that last!) means that everyone is an armchair detective. We know what ANPR is (automatic number plate recognition – but I don’t need to tell you that, do I?) and we know fingerprints are more likely to be found on a smooth surface than a rough one. We’ve seen enough ITV dramas about missing children to set up our own detective agency, and we can recite the police caution verbatim, even though The Bill slammed its cell doors almost five years ago. The point is: readers DO care. Readers know enough about contemporary police procedure that if their favourite detective secures a DNA identification simply by holding a cigarette butt up to the light, he’ll find himself thrown across the room faster than you can say ‘you have the right to remain silent.’

Once you’ve lost your reader, with even the smallest inaccuracy, it’s hard to get them back. Like a court case lost on a technicality, the judge-and-juror reader becomes suspicious, wondering what else in the book might be wrong. If he can’t trust the author to get the procedure right, he thinks, how can he trust him to write characters he believes in; to come in with with a killer twist he doesn’t see coming? The reader might finish the book, but they will never be truly signed up to it.

I take the same approach to accuracy in crime novels as I do to grammar. You have to learn the rules before you decide which ones you’re happy to break. When I start a sentence with ‘and’, or ‘but’ it’s not because I’m ill informed; it’s because I want to achieve a particular effect. Similarly when I allow my detective to get a forensic result in 24 hours that I know full well would take weeks to come through, it’s because the story demands a much faster turnaround. As a former cop myself, I know the rules well enough to break them.

And break them we must. Believe me, a crime novel that stuck slavishly to the truth would be a dull read indeed. Who wants to hear about Detective Inspectors stuck behind desks all day? About the shift officer who couldn’t take a witness statement for two days because there weren’t enough pool cars available? Who wants a book so hide-bound by accuracy that the story becomes lost in procedure and bureaucracy?

I don’t. And I’ll bet you don’t, either.

Biography: Clare Mackintosh is an author, feature writer and columnist. She has written for the Guardian, the Daily Mail, Sainsbury’s Magazine, Good Housekeeping, The Green Parent, WI Life and many other national publications, and is a columnist for Cotswold Life and Writing Magazine. She is the founder of Chipping Norton Literary Festival and lives in the Cotswolds with her husband and their three children. Clare spent twelve years in the police force, working on CID, in custody and as a public order commander, and has drawn on her experiences for her psychological thriller I Let You Go. She is currently writing her second novel.

Find out more on Clare Mackintosh’s CRA Profile.

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