Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending New Zealand’s first crime writing festival, Rotorua Noir. I’d been invited to take part in a panel session called “Digging into the Past”, which was a surprise because my novels are set within my own lifetime and I had not previously thought of them as historical. But of course they are, because the world has changed such a lot in recent decades. Writing about the recent past, which I will arbitrarily define as covering the 70-odd years following World War 2, is somewhat different from tackling more obviously historical settings such as medieval England or Ancient Rome.
Human nature doesn’t change much and nor do the basic motives for murder. PD James summed these up as the four Ls – Love, Lust, Lucre and Loathing. To these might be added Lunacy, although that is an outdated term and it would be a cop-out to use it as the sole explanation for a fictional crime. Only a minority of murders in real life result from the delusions and hallucinations of mental illness. Most murderers do however have some or all of the personality characteristics which are labelled psychopathic, and psychopaths have always existed.
So, the main challenge for writers of historical crime fiction is getting the background right. Checking on the dates of major events is easy enough. It is harder to capture the subtle cultural changes – when did certain behaviours, attitudes and terms of speech that once were commonplace start to be regarded as outdated or inappropriate? Social attitudes have changed considerably, with the advent of political correctness and greater acceptance of minority groups. Then there are the practical details of everyday life, for example: When did the use of computers and mobile phones become widespread? When did the contraceptive pill became available to unmarried women? When did gramophone records give way to cassettes and CDs? What clothes were in fashion, and what songs were in the Top 10? What did people have for breakfast? While most readers might not pick up inaccuracies about such matters, a few will delight in pointing them out.
How should the writer deal with those historical aspects which might cause confusion unless they are explained? “Show not tell” is the ideal. Overloading the text with facts, in the style of a history lesson, is to risk boring and patronising the readers. A better way to convey information is through the characters’ speech and behaviour, which demands considerable skill, or by including explanatory notes at the beginning or end of the book.
My own long and winding path to becoming a fiction writer illustrates these points. During the 1980s I wrote three novels based on my experiences of working as a doctor in England: Overdose set in a psychiatric hospital, Fatal Feverfew in an alternative health retreat and Unfaithful Unto Death in rural general practice. Having previously found publishers keen to accept my medical books, it was a shock to find that fiction publishing was a different ballgame and after a few rejections I gave up. I put my typescripts away in a box, and almost forgot about them.
In 2000 my husband and I moved to Auckland, and having retired from medicine I had time to take up other interests and decided to have another go at fiction. I wrote three linked short novels: Carmen’s Roses, Blue Moon for Bombers and The Windflower Vibration, set between England and New Zealand with flashbacks to the characters’ earlier lives as far back as 1940. Self-publishing had become a viable option and, feeling that I was getting too old to spend time waiting for responses from traditional publishers, I decided to try the indie way and thoroughly enjoyed the freedom it conferred.
Wondering what to write next I remembered my 1980s novels, though I wasn’t even sure if they had survived the major decluttering process which preceded our move. I managed to find the faded typescripts and read them again. Some of their content seemed old-fashioned and rather shocking – arrogant doctors who disrespect their patients, accept lavish hospitality from drug companies, drink alcohol before driving, sexually exploit junior colleagues – such behaviour would not be tolerated today although it would be naive to believe it never happens. Should I tone my text down, to avoid offending modern readers? But I decided to leave it largely unchanged, as an only slightly exaggerated record of how things sometimes used to be.
The timeline of the new novel I am writing shifts between the years 1965 and 2005. I find a useful technique is to draw up a detailed chronology, listing the dates of the main events and the characters’ ages at the time. This list is not for publication, but to prevent me from making mistakes.
Carmen’s Roses, the first book in my Three Novellas trilogy, can be downloaded free of charge until 28 February 2019 from Smashwords.com.
Last night, along with two of the other authors entered for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award, I had the pleasure of taking part in a “Murder in the Library” event in Takapuna. Besides describing our own books, we discussed some questions about crime fiction in general.
My husband came along for moral support but he is not a fan of this genre, and had asked me privately why on earth people enjoy reading novels about something so unpleasant as murder. I agree it is a challenge for writers to create entertainment out of such a serious subject. But crime novels are enduringly popular, and I think there are several reasons for this. They have a clear structure and focus, with a mystery to be solved and a solution at the end. They can provide insights into criminal psychology, and raise ethical and moral issues. The good ones have interesting characters and settings as well as convincing plots.
The crime genre as broadly defined covers novels of many different kinds. The traditional whodunnit, often featuring a private detective who is more competent than the police, begins with discovery of a body and ends with unmasking of the killer – usually the most unlikely of suspects from a circle of middle-class characters. This format may now seem old-fashioned but the books of “Golden Age” writers such as Agatha Christie are still very readable. Modern sub-genres of crime fiction are many: cosy, hard-boiled, police procedural, courtroom, spy, psychological thriller, and “noir” from diverse places including Scandinavia, Scotland and New Zealand.
There may be an overlap with other fiction genres, as with my own entry Unfaithful unto Death which combines crime with black comedy, and touches on the themes of corruption in medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. It could almost qualify as a historical novel, because I wrote the first draft in the 1980s following a spell of working as a doctor in general practice in rural England. I had nearly forgotten about the manuscript until I found it among some old papers last year. Reading it through again, parts struck me as rather outrageous compared to my more recent work, and the practice of medicine has certainly changed a great deal since it was written. All the same I decided to publish it without changing the content too much.
The protagonist is Dr Cyril Peabody, who also made a brief appearance in my other two 1980s novels. He is a clever and hard-working doctor who means well but has developed a hefty dose of the arrogance and cynicism which besets his profession, and his bedside manner is appalling. Having failed to gain promotion as a hospital cardiologist because of his awkward personality, he takes what he considers to be an inferior position as a country GP. Predictably he soon clashes with his partners, his patients and his wife. He sets out to improve his status by mounting a trial of a new drug, but finds it has some unexpected side effects. One of the men who has been taking it dies, apparently from a heart attack. Cyril is called to his house in the middle of the night. Having examined the body and considered the history he decides that a post-mortem is indicated, but encounters vehement opposition from the dead man’s wife …
As discussed in a previous post the medical setting provides ample scope for murder both in fiction and in real life.
Having one of my medically themed crime novels entered for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award has led me to reflect on the topic of murder in healthcare settings.
Deliberate killings by doctors or nurses, though rare, are probably more common than can ever be known. Clinical staff are better placed than most people to get away with murder. They have ready access to drugs, anaesthetic gases and surgical instruments, and deaths due to these agents can easily be passed off as natural or accidental. They are privileged to know intimate details of their patients’ lives. And as members of trusted professions they are not readily suspected.
Among the most notorious murderers of modern times was Dr Harold Shipman, who incidentally trained in the class ahead of me at medical school in Leeds in the 1960s. He was found guilty in a court of law of murdering 15 patients in his single-handed general practice and it is likely that he killed many more over his long career, usually by injecting large doses of diamorphine. The estimated number of his victims was 250, most of them being elderly women who were in good health although he fabricated a diagnosis of serious illness on their records. The nature of the mental aberration that led him to commit all these crimes is unknown, because he continued to deny them up until the time he hanged himself in his prison cell. As a result of Shipman’s case, much stricter controls were imposed on medical practice in the UK.
Other convicted serial murderers from medical settings have been nurses, popularly dubbed “angels of death”, working in hospitals or care homes. Their crimes usually masqueraded as mercy killings, but rather than arising from any genuine sense of compassion for someone whose incurable illness was causing unbearable suffering, they were committed for the perpetrators’ own satisfaction and without the knowledge or consent of the victims or their relatives.
Psychiatric evaluation of medical murderers would usually lead to a label of psychopathy, or personality disorder: the lack of moral sense, the inability to feel empathy, the enjoyment of killing, the grandiose belief of having a right to decide that certain persons are not fit to live. These are the extremes of the arrogance, cynicism and wielding of power that are occupational risks in medicine and related professions. Hallucinations and delusions secondary to psychosis or drug abuse are sometimes implicated.
Most if not all murderers are found to have a psychiatric diagnosis of some kind, and this may be sufficient to explain their crimes. In the context of fiction, however, using mental disorder as the sole reason for killing would usually be seen as a cop-out. Readers of crime novels expect a murder mystery to have a more complex solution, perhaps involving money, sex, revenge, or concealment of discreditable secrets. These motives may of course account for real-life cases too.
Some would say there is a fine line between deliberate criminal killings and the various other forms of unnatural death that can occur through the actions of medical personnel. Some result from malpractice, others are sanctioned by law in certain jurisdictions. They include euthanasia, abortion, execution, experiments such as those carried out in Nazi Germany, drugs or surgery used inappropriately for commercial gain, and simple carelessness or incompetence.
My novel Unfaithful unto Death is intended as a light read with elements of black comedy, but touches on some of these serious themes.