The fascination of crime fiction

clint-mckoy-5gJKQhkzO2g-unsplash

Foxglove: one of the poisonous plants featured in Agatha Christie’s novels. Photo by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

Crime and mystery novels rank among the most popular of fiction genres today. The many subdivisions – for example the traditional, police procedural, psychological thriller, cosy mystery, historical crime – almost always have murder as central to the plot. Why do so many people, most of them of them pleasant and law-abiding in real life, enjoy writing or reading about this gruesome topic? Whereas cruelty towards animals in books and films is widely considered unacceptable, and rightly so, cruelty towards humans is seen as fair fodder for entertainment.

An obvious reason, though perhaps not the most important one, for the appeal of crime fiction is the intellectual challenge of solving a puzzle. This is clearly so for the old-style “whodunnit” which often involves the discovery of a dead body in a closed setting, such as a country house hotel, where each of the people present is found to have a motive for murdering the victim. One or more other deaths may follow. A detective, amateur or professional, eventually nails the culprit – usually the most unlikely suspect – with the aid of clues which have been scattered through the text, along with a few “red herrings”. The solution must not be too obvious but, in theory, a clever reader should have been able to work it out. The story will have a neat resolution, with the truth being revealed and justice restored.

Variations on this basic formula are still used by some modern crime writers but the trend is for longer books with more subtly and complexity . In psychological thrillers, the interest lies not so much in solving a mystery as in exploring the criminal’s character and motivation. Sometimes the murderer’s identity is obvious from the start, though there will usually be a surprise twist at the end.

Crime fiction appeals on the emotional level well as the intellectual one. Perhaps it offers an acceptable channel for expressing feelings that in civilised society are usually suppressed – for example jealousy, greed, hatred, desire for revenge, obsession with evil and death. PD James said that all the motives for murder are covered by four Ls: Love, Lust, Lucre and Loathing. Whereas in real life the majority of crimes are committed by men, it is notable that many writers and readers of crime fiction are female, including some highly respectable mature women. Maybe crime fiction offers them a “safe space” to express the shadow side of their personalities.

Is crime fiction just harmless entertainment, or does it influence readers’ attitudes towards murder, whether acting as a deterrent or even encouraging the occasional person to commit one themselves? Novels at the lighter end of the spectrum, by presenting a sanitised picture of unnatural death and treating its investigation like a game, tend to trivialise the topic. More serious ones, which provide graphic forensic detail and authentic descriptions of police and court procedures, might help anyone who is planning a crime to select a method and escape detection. Similar concerns apply to crime movies and TV shows, which reach a wider and less discriminating audience than most novels do. But leaving such concerns aside, I continue to enjoy reading, writing and watching stories about crime.

***

Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel  You Yet Shall Die is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords.com and other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries. A selection of comments from readers:

A wonderful book which I learnt a lot from as well enjoying immensely.

Both intriguing and unusual. I could hardly wait for the story to unfold as family secrets, crime and murder came to light – the ending was totally unexpected. An absorbing read.

I couldn’t put it down. I was wondering about the twists and turns all the way through. I’m not a cat person and thought I was going to be put off by all the cats, but no …

The way the story was told from all the characters’ personal viewpoints made the story deeper and more exciting. The twist at the end was great.

Well done, it was superb. Great twist that you didn’t really guess.

A revelatory read.

I loved it! I really liked the characters and the sense of buried secrets gradually coming to light. And the twists were excellent, very clever!

Loved your book.  Enjoyed it right to end (including ending).

Twelve books for Christmas

susan-yin-2JIvboGLeho-unsplashA few ideas for holiday reading: mostly crime and mystery novels plus a few books in other genres, listed alphabetically. (Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash)

A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley: The film Lion was based on this book. An Indian boy from a poor village gets trapped on a train, is taken into an orphanage far from home, adopted by an Australian couple, and then in adult life manages to reconnect with his birth family. An extraordinary true story, sincerely told in simple prose.

Normal People by Sally Rooney: this novel about the on-off relationship between two young adults in Ireland has won several prizes, but the reviews on Amazon are mixed. Like a number of other readers I found myself losing interest in the story halfway through, but appreciated the original writing style.

Platform Seven by Louise Doughty: A psychological thriller told from the viewpoint of a ghost who haunts Peterborough Station. Although this literary device didn’t quite work for me, the back story of a controlling male-female relationship is convincingly portrayed, and the account of a railway suicide and its effect on observers is chilling.

Red Joan by Jennie Rooney: A novel loosely inspired by the life of Melita Norwood, a British civil servant and Soviet spy. An elderly widow living quietly in London is arrested by MI5, and interrogated about the events that followed her meeting with communist sympathisers when she was a naive and idealistic student in Cambridge during the 1930s.

Sleep by CL Taylor: A modern variant on the country house murder mystery. Anna, traumatised by a car crash and unjustly blamed for the death of one of her passengers, leaves London to work in a hotel on a remote Scottish island but finds the guests are not what they seem.

The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter: A lucid explanation of basic statistical concepts, illustrated by published research studies in the medical and social fields.  The results of such studies are sometimes misinterpreted, for example the health risks of eating bacon have been widely exaggerated in the media.

The Dragon of God by Earl Thor: An intelligent and fast-paced American thriller involving serial killings, religious fanaticism, near-death experiences, reincarnation, and the romance between a theology professor and a neuroscientist. It reminded me of Dan Brown’s novels and was just as good.

The Secretary by Renee Knight: Highly efficient at her job but unfulfilled in her personal life, the secretary in this novel is obsessively devoted to the charismatic but unscrupulous businesswoman who employs her. Eventually her devotion is exploited too far and she determines on revenge.

The Sound of her Voice by Nathan Blackwell: This crime thriller, clearly informed by the author’s former career as a police detective, is set in the Auckland region close to where I live. It’s an absorbing story, and highlights the mental and physical trauma experienced by frontline staff dealing with violent deaths. It contains some graphic descriptions of the murder of young women, and a lot of swear words.

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay: My own experience as an NHS junior doctor in the 1970s was hard enough, but what Adam Kay went through in the early 2000s sounds far worse. His book, based on extracts from the diary he kept during obstetrics and gynaecology training, uses black humour to convey the stress of managing an impossible workload with inadequate facilities. In the end it became too much, and the medical profession lost a skilled and dedicated doctor.

Where Rowans Intertwine by Margaret Grant: This long historical romance is set in the island of Mona (now called Anglesey) off the coast of Wales, almost two thousand years ago. The story charts the relationship between a young Druid priestess and a surgeon from the occupying Roman army. The author explains that the book took ten years to write, and was the product of detailed research combined with spiritual inspiration.  

You Yet Shall Die by Jennifer Barraclough: And lastly my own latest novel, a story of family secrets and a long-ago crime, set in rural England. 

 

Biographical writing

I am editing my husband’s memoir, to be published shortly, covering the years from 1933 to 1964. It is compiled from various essays that Brian, with his vivid memory and fluent style, has written over the years. Focused mainly on his medical career, the book contains first-hand information about the history of psychiatry in New Zealand and the UK. It also includes sections about topics of general interest such as being a patient in a TB ward, having a bad trip on LSD, and tramping in the Mt Cook region (photo by Florian Schulte on Unsplash).

Working on Brian’s book has made me think about biographical writing in general. I doubt that I will ever write my own autobiography, although I have often drawn on personal experience for my novels. I have forgotten a lot about my earlier life; many of the things I do remember would reflect badly on myself or others if they were published. And as I haven’t achieved anything remarkable, or had anything remarkable happen to me, I don’t think the content would be of interest to anyone else.

One reason for autobiographical writing is of course the wish to understand and come to terms with one’s past, a sort of do-it-yourself psychoanalysis. To quote from the finale of the musical Candide: “And let us try, before we die, to make some sense of life.” However the lyrics of the same song, Make our garden grow (which I enjoyed singing in a New Zealand Opera workshop last year), go on to imply that longterm satisfaction is best sought from simple domestic activities – easier than writing autobiography.

***

Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel  You Yet Shall Die is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukSmashwords.com and other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries.

Cat poems

Watching the movie version of Cats prompted me to look out the few pieces of doggerel (catterel?)  that I’ve written to various feline companions over the years – not up to TS Eliot’s standard, but cat-lovers may enjoy them.

THE GINGER TOM

This is dedicated to Orange Roughey (O.R.) who was rescued as an aggressive stray living wild on the mountain behind our house, and after a long and tumultuous period of rehabilitation turned into a cuddly domestic pet.

The ginger tom is curled up on the bed
He dreams of catching bird and mouse and rat
He purrs when loving owners stroke his head
A life of bliss for the domestic cat

Orange Roughey cropped

FOR FELIX

This is a sentimental poem written after Felix, a much loved black and white cat, died from an undiagnosed illness.

We loved one another for fourteen years
Remembering you now brings back my tears
You came as a fragile rescue kitten
As soon as we met my heart was smitten
Although you and I were perfectly matched
Other admirers would often get scratched
I was the mother that you never had
Nursed you with care when your health became bad
Although the vets were so clever and kind
They could not help as your vigour declined
Why you were so sick nobody could say
Sadly I watched as your life ebbed away
One night when I lay awake on the bed
A cold breeze told me your spirit had fled
I laid you to rest in a garden tomb
Where irises and sweet violets bloom
Passage of time will perhaps dim the pain
Till on the Rainbow Bridge we meet again

Felix on flowerbed

TRIOLET TO RESCUE KITTEN MAGIC

Magic, also black and white, was abandoned under a hedge as a young kitten and came to us in a fragile state. A triolet is a short poem of eight lines, containing two rhymes repeated in specific places.

Your fur is black with specks of gold
Your eyes like spheres of jade
Once left to die out in the cold
Your fur is black with specks of gold
Now you live safe within our fold
No need to be afraid
Your fur is black with specks of gold
Your eyes like spheres of jade

Magic in box

HAIKUS FOR THREE CATS

Daisy is no longer with us, but Magic and Leo are alive and well. The three-line haiku format originated in Japan.

Magic soft as silk
Black and white ballerina
Light as a feather

Magic on cyclamen bed

Leo chunky boy
Loving his cuddles and play
Mackerel tabby

Leo on flowerbed

Tortoiseshell Daisy
Sleepy purring dowager
In her sixteenth year

Daisy with flowers

***

I think my novels are better than my poetry and the latest one You Yet Shall Die (available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords.com and other online retailers), a story of family secrets and a long-ago crime, features several cats.

Should friends review each others’ books?

If a friend or acquaintance who has published a book offers to give you a free copy in exchange for writing a review, should you accept?

It’s a compliment to be asked, and the arrangement can work out to mutual benefit if you enjoy reading the book and can honestly give it unqualified praise and a 5-star review. Most authors will also be happy with 4-stars, though others will be disappointed.

But what if you think the book is mediocre, or worse? I would never insult the author by posting a negative review (I still find it hard to forgive the person who posted a damning verdict on the book I had gifted her via a Goodreads Giveaway). Nor would I feel comfortable with “forgetting” to review it, pretending not to have time, or posting an untruthful positive review. Sending a private message to the author, explaining your reservations, can be the best option. They may appreciate your comments and even go on to revise their book, but may feel hurt or offended.

To avoid such potentially awkward situations, I suggest asking to read an excerpt from your friend’s book before agreeing to accept a review copy. This gives you the option of declining in a way that saves face on both sides, for example on the grounds that you are not sufficiently familiar with the genre or subject-matter to make a fair assessment.

I understand that Amazon can block reviews if they discover that author and reader know each other. If there has only been a distant email acquaintanceship this would seem unduly harsh, but in other cases reasonable enough to avoid the problems outlined above, and to discourage the practice of “I’ll review your book if you’ll review mine”.

Except in special circumstances I don’t give free copies of my own books to friends, for fear of putting them under an obligation to say they like them even if they don’t. I do tell them when I’ve published a new one, and am very pleased if they choose to buy it and, better still, write a good review of their own accord.

Don’t kill the dog … or cat, or horse

In a blog post called Don’t Kill the Dog, crime writer Tess Gerritsen describes her fans’ outrage over the killing of animals in her fiction. The death of a cat in a novel about the Holocaust, and the death of a dog in a horror movie that also featured mutilated human bodies, provoked a tirade of anger and distress. The suffering of the people portrayed in these works did not arouse protest. She advises “…you must never, ever kill a pet in your novel. You can torture and mutilate any number of human beings. You can slice and dice women, massacre men on a battlefield, and readers will keep turning the pages. But harm one little chihuahua and you’ve gone too far. The readers will let you have it.”

Why do so many of us get upset about animals being hurt in books and films, while caring much less about the people? Although this response may seem difficult to justify, I can empathise with it. seldom feel distressed about the fate of the human characters in the crime novels I read, though I do dislike anything too graphic or violent, preferring “cosier” murder mysteries and psychological thrillers. But I cannot tolerate the idea animals being abused or killed. I have perhaps become more sensitised to animal cruelty in recent years through voluntary work at the SPCA, having seen some of the appalling things that people can do to their so-called pets, whether as a result of ignorance or through deliberate sadism.

Animal abuse in the media is bad enough when it is fictional. Far worse is the suffering of real animals involved in the film industry. For example, countless horses died during the making of Western movies during the 20th century. The situation is better today, with some modern films using CGI animals rather than live ones, and in some countries with monitoring by organisations such as the Humane Society of America. Such monitoring cannot always prevent accidents, or control what may happen off set. The disclaimer “No animals were harmed in the making of this film” can be difficult to believe.

Depiction of animal cruelty in the media is not only unpleasant, but can convey the message that this is a trivial issue, and a valid topic for entertainment. I will not knowingly go to see any film that contains scenes of animal cruelty. If such a scene unexpectedly turns up while I am watching I close my eyes, then sometimes leave the cinema. If I come across animal cruelty in the middle of a book I stop reading it, as recently happened with an Icelandic thriller I had been enjoying up to that point. These individual protests make me feel better but probably have little wider effect.

Having said all this, I have to admit that the plots of two of the novels that I wrote some years ago involved the accidental poisoning of a cat and a dog respectively. Even though both animals had made a full recovery by the end of the stories, I rather regret it. There is no animal cruelty in my latest novel You Yet Shall Die, but the plot does feature a rescue kitten modelled on my own pet Magic.

Magic jumping

       

Beating post-publication blues

One of the sections in my little ebook Wellbeing for Writers draws some fanciful parallels between writing a book and having a baby. There may be feelings of depression following publication (“birth”), and a time interval before being able to conceive another book (“child”).

Some writers manage to avoid such problems by keeping two or more books in different stages of completion on the go at any one time. I have never managed this myself, preferring to focus all my energies on a single project. I felt quite euphoric after my latest novel You Yet Shall Die had been published and received positive reviews. But my mood slumped after the initial peak of sales had subsided, because I did not have another novel in mind.

However, knowing that the best remedy for post-publication blues is to keep writing, I asked my husband Brian if I could edit some of his autobiographical essays and collate them into a memoir. So that is what I am working on now. Brian grew up during the 1930s in what was then a downmarket seaside settlement on Auckland’s North Shore. His ambition to become a doctor was inspired by an inpatient stay in a tuberculosis unit when he was 18. He graduated from the University of Otago, and having decided to specialise in mental disorders, obtained a training post at the Maudsley Hospital in London. During his three years there he worked for some of the most eminent psychiatrists of the day, and had experiences ranging from daily psychoanalysis to taking LSD. After leaving the Maudsley, Brian joined the Medical Research Council’s unit in Chichester, to study the clinical and epidemiological aspects of suicide.

Another remedy for the post-publication blues is to take a break from writing and do something completely different. Outdoor activities here in Auckland are a pleasure now that spring has arrived; the flowers are in bloom, and it is (just) warm enough to swim.

marigolds