Bernard Carpinter catches the fictional crime wave.
Have you ever met a serial killer? No? Strange – judging by the content of our bookstores, you’d think there’d be one in every street. The serial killer is the bogeyman of contemporary crime and thriller writing. Unlike the bogeyman, the serial killer does exist, but in such minute numbers that when one is operating or gets caught he (it is almost invariably a he) makes news around the world. Yet when any writer sets out these days to produce a book that will bust a few blocks, the first ingredient is a massively maleficent serial killer. Which is some initial evidence for the case I am trying to make here: that crime fiction is a curiously unrealistic form of writing.
So why are serial killers bizarrely over-represented in contemporary fiction? Well, for a start they make a great plot device. They have already killed and they are planning to kill again. Can our hero(es) catch them before they do? And serial killers kill because they are twisted and evil, not for banal motives such as greed or revenge. That guarantees extra frissons. They could kill anyone – perhaps even you, dear reader.
Crime and thriller writers try to outdo one another to create ever more evil serial killers that do ever more nasty things to their victims. I even read one American book where the author had decided that one serial killer was not enough these days, so she had one mega-evil serial killer recruit three others to form a murderers’ club. The other three were already practising serial killers but the author did not even try to explain how the mastermind had found them when the police had obviously failed to. No need for such tedious attempts at realism.
So fictional serial killers are way over the top; but really they are just a logical development of a long-running trend. Sherlock Holmes still makes wonderful reading, but it’s not exactly kitchen-sink drama; it’s fairly fantastical stuff. Then there was the era of the whodunit, when the crime novel was more like a crossword puzzle than a slice of real life. The reader had to play the game of separating the real clues from the red herrings, and try to find the killer before Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.
In these whodunits, especially the British ones, the murder was usually clean and neat – nothing messy, like real murders. In a way this tradition has continued, in that for most crime novels the murder tends to be a plot device rather than an event that causes terrible suffering for the relatives and friends of the deceased. Perhaps the rampant inflation in the number of fictional murders has caused a devaluation of the murder itself. A notable exception to this generalisation is Minette Walters – she really thinks her murders are horrible, so her novels have extra emotional impact on the reader.
But if you really want to see how unreal crime fiction is, just spend a morning in the district court. It will become instantly clear that virtually all crime is committed by sad stupid messed-up people doing sad stupid messed-up things. Most of the accused don’t even say anything apart from a mumbled “Guilty”. Their crimes are mostly spur-of-the-moment thoughtlessness, usually fuelled by excessive amounts of alcohol or drugs.
I once interviewed Australian crime writer Kerry Greenwood. She is a very nice writer, with one series starring art deco-era Melbourne socialite Phryne Fisher and a newer one featuring Corinna Chapman, a plump baker in contemporary Melbourne. Greenwood was originally a lawyer and still does some legal work. She regards crime fiction as something completely different from actual crime and is frustrated by the low standard of her real-life defendants. She recalled one pair accused of vandalism. When she asked them why they had done it, they said: “The bus was late.” Not much of a novel in there.
The high court isn’t much better. The crimes are more serious, but usually it’s just more of the same stupidity. Criminal masterminds are conspicuously absent. Even murders are not usually planned; they most often result from an outburst of rage. Virtually all New Zealand murderers get caught, most of them quite easily. And don’t expect any rapier-like wit or thundering denunciations from the lawyers either. The legal brigade speak slowly and haltingly; they do not entertain. Nor do they bring in last-minute surprise witnesses to change the course of their case. On TV it’s all over in an hour; a real-life trial can take weeks, and very tedious weeks they will be too.
To add some verisimilitude to their books, some writers – especially in the thriller genre – like to put technical details in their stories. Presumably the idea is that if readers see cold hard specialist facts in the book, they will be more likely to believe the fictional side of it. A thriller writer might explain in irrelevant detail how a particular weapon works; Patricia Cornwell or Kathy Reichs might go through gruesomely convincing explications of forensic work, in which they are genuine experts. But the writer needs to make sure the details are correct; a reader who spots a factual mistake will probably think the whole book is crap.
I certainly get upset if a writer says a car has the wrong engine or makes a character drink “a Bordeaux chardonnay” (they don’t grow chardonnay in Bordeaux and even if they did they would not be allowed to call it Bordeaux).
Crime fiction can even be funny, very funny indeed in the case of Carl Hiaasen, for example. He hijacks the crime fiction genre to the cause of satire, aimed at the scumbags who are despoiling the environment of his beloved Florida, and he can scathe like few other writers in any genre. In New Zealand, Paul Thomas’ three Tito Ihaka novels are very funny and very enjoyable. But it is hard to find anything to laugh about in real crime.
The most realistic crime novels are probably the police procedurals, where the detectives stumble along for lengthy periods, knocking on doors, slowly gathering information, eventually getting a lucky break. But unless the writer is particularly skilled at characterisation, dialogue or social comment, these are also the least entertaining.
I’ve been reading crime fiction since I was a lad, snaffling the Agatha Christies my mother brought home from the Christchurch Public Library, and I have no intention of stopping now. I must admit I get increasingly annoyed with the more implausible examples, but then I seem to have an unusually high threshold of disbelief. There is some very fine writing within the genre, and even when the writing is not at that lofty level, there is still a lot of good solid entertainment to be enjoyed.
Murder gives a novel that extra edge – it’s literally life-and-death stuff. It also sets up a ready-made plot structure and provides readers with a good reason to read to the end; they need to know who done it. Within that framework, writers can do all sorts of things, and good writers do good things. I can live with the knowledge that most crime fiction is unrealistic. One can have too much reality and, so long as the writing is good, I am prepared to be entertained, informed, even amused. And I only occasionally have nightmares about serial killers.