Number four of my blog series which is mainly about writing. As I write thrillers, packing the action in is an important ah, element of writing a successful book. This may very well be true of any sort of book, or play, or film, or whatever, depending on the way we mean “action”, but if people are reading a thriller it stands to reason they want a thrill. Or two, or possibly even many. Tension and then release and then tension and release, and finally release, with maybe a tiny frisson of the tension that is going to go on in the story even though the book has actually concluded.Most of this involves violence or the threat of violence.
Well, I don’t know. I have never – to my knowledge anyway – murdered anyone. The idea that somehow one should know what something is like to write about it falls at this hurdle for most though not all writers:There are exceptions. A Dutch thriller writer was arrested and convicted for the murder of his wife many years after the fact, having written a novel describing it. A New Zealander whose murderous exploit as a child was made famous in a Peter Jackson film was not all that long ago unmasked as an elderly mystery story author living in a village in Scotland.
For almost everybody else, the violence they portray on the page relies for success on “imaginative understanding”, coupled with research. “Imaginative understanding” raises questions about one’s personality, at least a little bit. Research? Well, established writers can do research that wannabes like myself can’t hope to do unless they are very lucky – visit crime scenes, attend post-mortems, and so on.
Of course technical details not only give at least a patina of verisimilitude but are essential for it. According to me, however, much of the “authenticity” of highly detailed grisly murder scenes mistakes the gruesome reality for the moral nuance that is the point of writing about this stuff in the first place. Murderer X may chop his victims into tiny pieces, lightly fry them in olive oil, and wolf it all down with greasy fingers while watching porn on the telly, but so far as I am concerned it is the watching the porn on the telly part that matters most, with the greasy fingers an accomplice, even though all of these elements may be served up to the reader in different ways to emphasise the writer’s point.
My first book focused on a serial killer whose favourite but not only method and tool was the garotte. To ensure his crimes were really authentic, I went to the Manchester Public Library and discovered an old book on forensic medicine that described, for the assistance of pathologists, the effects of virtually every means of murder, saving me from making the mistakes that might confuse mere strangulation with the hands with the effect of a fast-acting and altogether different garotte. This involved a few paragraphs in an account whose emphasis was always on the moral nuance of the killer’s murders. People were horrified by the method, without doubt, but more by the madness that made for them.
Since then, I’ve tried to emphasise this in my books: the sickness that underlies “my” murders is what matters, not the reality of death. Death comes for us all anyway, and I mean to talk about this in another post. It’s the senselessness of a murder, the powerlessness of the victim, the madness of the perpetrator, the evil of it, that fascinates me and is the mainspring of most of my violent characters. In Evilheart, my second novel and the earliest of them to make it to the public, one of my murderers used fists and drugs (heroin overdoses), while three others used knives. Each had an evil all his own, and a madness too, that was unique.My later books have used knives, guns, explosives, strangulation, and even a good old fashioned push off a cliff, and I hope I have managed with all of them to give the violence a realistic feel. But it is the motive, the moral nuance, that makes each what it is, or I hope so.
Some of the nuance is ambiguous. Is the villain in Demented really all that demented? And if a man discovers his father is a serial killer, and murders him, is it justice, or justice denied? I don’t necessarily know the answer to these questions and am more keen on posing than resolving them: These kinds of moral dilemmas help make fiction worth writing, and one hopes worth reading.If you’ve got to the end, give yourself another star on top of the four I’m awarding myself.