“Crime writer” wasn’t a specific goal for me, but it doesn’t feel like an accident, either.
Even if my fiction does not have elements that people would specify in a crime story—victims, suspects, law enforcement—someone usually commits a crime, or at least thinks about doing so.
The lusory element of mystery stories drew me in as a child. It’s a wee game, at heart. Crime stories have problems which can be solved. Logic plays the leading role. Brute force can come into the picture, but it isn’t necessarily how characters find the answer, and it certainly won’t help them—or you—follow the clues.
Scooby Doo provided an early flickering. I rarely paid attention to the clues, preferring to leave the hard work to Velma, like the rest of the gang. I was entranced by the monsters.
But Scooby Doo wasn’t just a monster of the week show—there was a mystery to solve, and the person attempting to hoodwink those pesky kids beneath the mask was always a common criminal seeking to profit from their masquerade.
Then came Cam Jansen And The Mystery Of The UFO, by David A Adler. Fifth grader Cam and her photographic memory are better known in the United States and Canada than in the UK, but this book made its way across the Atlantic and into my hands thanks to a school book club.
A child of the eighties, I was a firm believer in visitors from other worlds thanks to Close Encounters and those wonderfully batty Arthur C Clarke shows. So, I was probably drawn in by the sparkly lights in the sky on the front cover, rather than the idea of a child detective being on the case. But it is a mystery story—Cam relies on her eidetic ability, which allows the reader to focus on observation of the details and learn the truth of the weird lights in the sky. No magic wands or button-pressing, here; just logic, and by extension, the truth. More than 30 years after I read this book, I learned that David A Adler was a maths teacher.
Holmes was a gateway—I suppose that’s true for just about everyone. Upon re-reading them in adulthood, I noticed surprisingly few of Conan Doyle’s stories deal with perpetrators being brought to justice—by that I mean, handed over to Lestrade and the boys at Scotland Yard. Holmes finds the solution, but he doesn’t always follow the letter of the law. Some of the criminals even walk away scot-free, having tweaked a latent sense of natural justice, and even romance, in the master detective. All the same, there’s no doubting his methods, or his conclusions.
The thrill I felt at the age of 10 upon being given a hardback edition of the complete short stories from the Strand Magazine remains with me to this day. The same volume remains on my bookshelf, a treasured possession. The binding, the faux deerstalker-weave dust jacket, the illustrations by Sidney Paget, even the typeface—these are the stuff of magic to me. Holmes was and remains important for reasons that have nothing to do with magic, though—quite the opposite. Holmes was all about observation, evidence, logic and, ultimately, truth. Holmes paid attention to the hard facts and provable elements. The master detective’s deductive powers are well known, but I’d argue they are mislabelled. Holmes didn’t guess—he knew. His reasoning wasn’t speculative.
And, delightfully, there was a Hound, after all.
Another enormous influence was Agatha Christie. Again, no huge shocks or last-minute twists for anyone, here. This is where the puzzle element turns into drama—the element that sets great crime writing apart from the puzzle pages in the papers. My epiphany came when the BBC screened the Peter Ustinov Poirot mysteries one Christmas, again when I was 10 or 11. Death On The Nile and Evil Under The Sun were games you could play along at home. Would your suspicions match up with Poirot’s conclusions? Then there was that irresistible staging, where all the suspects are set out in front of you, with their motives and darkest secrets exposed. Literally, this is murder as a parlour game.
One of my favourite stories of this kind was PD James’ first Adam Dalgleish mystery, Cover Her Face. With all his suspects lined up in the parlour of a country house, the cool detective calmly talks us through his conclusions. Once the murderer is exposed, we are given to understand that they are the only person who could possibly have strangled poor Sally Jupp. No sleight of hand, no absurdities in the twist—all you had to do was pay attention.
I always enjoyed the “Loch Ness Monster” element in other genres. By this I mean, most series had a “Loch Ness Monster” episode when I was growing up—Stingray, Doctor Who, The Saint, any number of children’s shows such as Danger Mouse . . . they all had a Nessie episode. (As the 1980s wore on, lots of shows had “UFO/alien” episodes, too—most notably Dynasty . . . but that’s by-the-by.)
The same is true for “Whodunnit” episodes in otherwise unrelated genres. I have a childhood memory of Dallas, and Who Shot JR? This is formula that we see repeated in soap operas to this day. It was borrowed for one of the most popular comics of the time in the UK, Roy Of The Rovers, with its own attempted-murder storyline. I can remember the striking front cover image of the act itself – the great football hero Roy, stricken, with the flaming pistol in the foreground, the assailant entirely unseen.
Doctor Who had some great mystery episodes, such as The Robots of Death and Terror Of The Vervoids—I first encountered these through the Target novelisations, rather than the on-screen adventures.
To take a more recent example, it’s an often-unremarked peculiarity of the first three Harry Potter books that they are mystery stories dressed up in wizards’ robes. There are central conundrums, suspects, clues and final revelations, with villains unmasked, whether Named or Those Who Cannot Be Named.
To more adult fare, now. A special tip of the hat—though he wouldn’t be seen dead in such things – must go to Chief Inspector Jim Taggart. We all know Rebus; not all of us know Taggart, but the west coast sleuth is just as much a part of the Tartan Noir firmament.
Taggart was made in Scotland; so was I. There are a lot of Scots of my generation who feel a bit protective towards Taggart, though it’s been in hiatus for more than a decade. It survived the passing of the actor Mark McManus, who played the memorably gruff little hard case Glasgow detective, focusing on his colleagues at Maryhill CID after his death while retaining the title. I still play “location spotting” whenever Taggart pops up on Freeview channels. I feel nostalgic about it, now.
But when I was a kid, Taggart was a thing of curious terror for me. I vividly recall one episode about an axe murderer where a severed head is retrieved from a drain. This was shown in the trailer. I was horrified . . . and you’d better believe I watched the rest.
Taggart had some delightfully wicked plots, many of them from the pen of Glenn Chandler, but its chief attribute was that violence and murder were not, in fact, the stuff of parlour games and delighted applause following Poirot’s pompous perorations. This world was grim, it was ugly, it was scary, and it could come to you out of the blue. I remember an episode where a man dies horribly after being shot in the throat with a crossbow bolt. Another killer makes his victim into black pudding, for consumption at breakfast tables across the land. Less gorily but no less frightening was an episode where a woman is tormented by someone who wants her death to look like suicide. I’ll never forget my fear on her behalf as the gas flooded her front room. That could happen to anyone, I thought.
And I can never un-see that head being dredged up from the drain, with its single open eye.
And no, I shouldn’t have been watching it at that age. But the sense of realism, and the awful aftermath of violence, augmented by the show making full use of architecture, faces and voices that I knew well, made its mark.
Through it all, there’s a sense of justice. Most of us don’t like to see bad people getting away with bad behaviour. In this, crime writing is wish fulfilment.
The genre frequently messes with this idea, of course. Alfred Hitchcock (I discovered embarrassingly late in life that he was raised a catholic) had a lifelong fear of being accused of something he didn’t do, and this is apparent in many of his movies. But there’s a twist to come—in his films, there is often a sense of complicity with perpetrators.
Guy in Strangers On A Train doesn’t want anything to do with Bruno or his homicidal scheme, but there’s no doubting that his carriage companion has taken care of a big problem in the form of his estranged wife. This is even pointed out for us by the character played by Hitchcock’s daughter Pat – the kid sister with no filter, saying what we’re all thinking. And in the fairground stalking scene, whose motives are we focused on? Not the victim’s, but those of her killer.
For Hitchcock, the apotheosis of this notion is Norman Bates, cleaning up in the wake of his mother’s depredations. It’s curious that this queasy sympathy for Bates remains with us on fresh viewings, even knowing his deadly secret. Norman might be guilty, but he is blameless.
This brings me to Columbo. Who doesn’t like Columbo? Some hands will inevitably go up in the auditorium, but not many. The show’s winning gimmick isn’t the scruffy player in the title—wilier than a great big wile of Wile E. Coyotes, as he is. It’s the fact that, for the viewer, there is no mystery. You know whodunnit, from the opening moments.
All that’s required is that the lieutenant uncovers the truth, gradually exposing the suspect’s lies. We are fascinated by the guest star killer’s reaction as the pressure is applied, often after Peter Falk’s character has shuffled off-stage. Picture Patrick McGoohan’s bug-eyed expression. Picture William Shatner, sweating heavily in seventies leisurewear.
This places us in the Hitchcock Complicity Zone. How would we act, if that little beige doggie with the kind brown eyes seized our coat-tails and never let go? Would we stick to our story? Could we bluff it out? Or more likely… would we make a mistake?
That’s an important element in the crime writer’s internal world—the idea that crime is a result of real people and real mistakes. Whether it’s triggered by economic necessity, a desire for revenge, a physiological aberration in the brain or some unknowable, unfathomable element of personality, we must put ourselves in the shoes of not only the detective, but the criminal.
Perhaps most importantly of all, we have the victims. Whether you are directly showing them suffering thanks to criminals, or whether they are a body on a slab, I feel we must, as writers and as people, empathise with the luckless—ground zero in our crime stories.
Val McDermid argued this point very well—in focusing on victims, there is an element of sympathy that creeps in, even in the grisliest crime stories. This is important, even vital, for the very heartbeat of humanity – and it’s true even in tales with a basic slasher element. We suffer dread on the victim’s behalf as they wander into the basement to check out that strange sound, with the entire universe howling for them not to.
As crime writers, we have a responsibility to represent victims and their feelings as faithfully as we can. In the case of murder, we should show a full life, as rich and as detailed and as flawed as everyone else’s. If we fail in this, then we fail in the depiction of that life being crudely interrupted. If we do that, we’ve broken contract somewhere.
Perhaps the most affecting example of this in a modern novel is in Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train. We’ve spent an entire novel getting to know the victim, both as an observed quantity and as a first-person voice. When the circumstances of poor, damaged Megan’s death are revealed to us as part of the book’s ultimate revelation, it forms the true climax, rather than the exposure of the criminal. Her last moments are devastating. As they should be.
It seems a crime if we fail to put ourselves in the victims’ shoes. If bringing the victim’s face into sharp focus makes us feel uncomfortable or sad or horrified or sick, then good. It shows we’re human. We don’t want the bad thing to happen. And if it does, we need people to put it right.
Enter the detective.