An excellent post by Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me to thinking about the way crime fiction writers may seem if you only read their novels and the way they really are. Crime novels can get ugly – really ugly. They are often violent and sometimes deal with difficult topics. But that doesn’t mean that the people who write them enjoy violence or revel in blood. It’s one thing to write about people killing other people and quite another to contemplate actually committing horrible violence or being involved with it. Seriously. Just take a look at some fictional crime fiction authors and you’ll see what I mean.
For instance in Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, Christie’s fictional detective Ariadne Oliver finds out how dangerous life can really get and how different it is to fiction. Oliver’s friend Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who says she may have committed a murder. She doesn’t give him any details, not even her name. But he’s curious about what she’s told him. It turns out that Oliver has actually met the young woman, whose name is Norma Restarick. She helps Poirot to track down Norma’s family and flat-mates and surprisingly, they tell Poirot that Norma’s not been seen in several days. By chance Oliver spots Norma and her boyfriend David Baker in a café and when Baker leaves, Oliver decides to follow him. As she herself says, she’s written more than once about one person tailing another but has never done it. Baker catches her in the act and invites her into his studio. All goes well enough until Oliver leaves the studio and ends up in real trouble. She’s often written about being in danger but this time the danger is quite real.
Dorothy Sayers’ detective novelist Harriet Vane has a similar brush with reality in Have His Carcase. In that novel Vane decides to take a hiking holiday and ends up near the village of Wovercombe. That’s where she finds a man lying on the beach. At first she thinks he’s asleep but when she gets closer, she realises he’s dead with his throat cut. Despite the fact that she’s written more than one novel in which people kill each other Vane still feels sick to her stomach and shaken by the experience. She manages to get to the nearest village and raise the alarm and the dead man is soon identified. He is Paul Alexis, a professional dancer who works at a local hotel. Lord Peter Wimsey travels to Wolvercombe to help in the investigation and between them he and Vane find out who killed Paul Alexis and why.
Martha Grimes’ Polly Praed is also a detective novelist. She’s got a keen interest in crime and a vivid imagination. In fact in The Anodyne Necklace we learn that one of her pastimes is inventing different ways to murder Littlebourne’s local squire Sir Miles Bodenheim and the members of his family. They’re all heartily disliked and Praed has thought of lots of ways to do them in. But then in The Deer Leap Praed has an all-too-real experience with murder up close when she takes a “road trip.” She stops to make a call and is directed to the nearest call box. That’s when she discovers the body of postmistress Una Quick. Quick’s death seems to be related to the disappearance of several local pets including Praed’s own beloved cat Barney. Now that Praed has to deal with real crime that touches her personally, she can’t maintain her usual detached interest.
Kate Atkinson’s Martin Canning has a rude awakening as it were in One Good Turn. Canning writes a “clean-scrubbed” mystery series featuring PI Nina Riley, who always catches the “bad guy.” Canning himself remains far removed from the ugliness of everyday life and in fact prefers his own imaginary world. One day though he’s pulled into real-life grittiness when he witnesses a car accident. Then the driver of one of the cars involved in the accident gets out and attacks the other driver. Canning throws his laptop case at the attacker thus saving the other man’s life. Despite his usual tendency to stay aloof from others Canning feels an obligation to make sure that the injured man gets hospital care. That’s how he’s drawn into a mystery involving murder, theft and more. The experience of being at such close quarters with ugliness drives Canning to some bizarre behaviour and it’s interesting to see how he tries to cope with having to deal with “blood and guts” for the first time.
There’s also Camilla Läckberg’s Erica Falck, a true-crime/crime fiction writer who returns to her hometown of Fjällbacka after several years in Stockholm. In the course of the series that features her, Falck reunites with local police officer Patrick Hedström. They develop a relationship, marry and have a family. Falck’s relationship with Hedström means that she learns about local crimes the police are investigating. Falck also runs into her own share of crime; for instance in The Ice Princess she is one of the people who discover the body of a former friend whom she only thought she knew. In The Hidden Child Falck unearths some dark local secrets when she discovers a Nazi medal among her mother’s possessions. When she’s writing Falck can maintain a certain amount of detachment. But when crime touches her own life matters are quite different. She’s still curious and still has the drive to want the crime solved but it’s much more difficult for her.
Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long has to make the leap from murder-on-paper to murder in real life in Strictly Murder. Long is the personal assistant/researcher to well-known and highly-regarded crime novelist Kathleen “KD” Davenport. One of her jobs is to research true crime stories that Davenport adapts and uses in her plots, so she’s used to reading about crime. And although she herself doesn’t do the actual writing, Long is used to crime, violence and bloodshed. But then one day she has to deal with the real thing. She’s looking to move and goes with a house agent to view a likely place. That’s where she finds the body of famous TV presenter Jaynee Johnson. Long is badly, badly shaken and she soon realises that she could be considered a suspect. So she decides to find out who the killer is; after all, she is involved. It’s not long though before she gets a rude lesson in reality. The closer she gets to finding out the truth about Johnson’s murder, the clearer it is that someone doesn’t want her to discover it. As the novel goes on we see that for Long, there turns out to be a big difference between writing about crime and being involved in it.
And see? That’s the thing about crime writers. You may think we relish blood and murder, violence and ick. But we don’t. We really are only dangerous when we write…
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone.