Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Crime Fiction and Reality

I have mentioned here before that I am a fan of the crime novel. In particular I am a fan of crime novels which are more about people and why crimes are committed than about the simple solving of a puzzle. In other words I like ‘whydunnits’ more than ‘whodunnits’. In fact, I don’t think I’m a particular fan of whodunnits at all.

Elizabeth George – an American writer who bases her books in England - is the creator of the Inspector Lynley novels which have now come to the TV with Nathaniel Parker as the 8th Earl of Asherton, aka Lynley.

I should just say that if you’re a fan of Lynley but haven’t yet read With No One as Witness, the rest of this contains massive spoilers so you might want to go away at this point and come back tomorrow…

I am currently reading the rather intriguingly titled What Came Before He Shot Her which sounds like a working title which hung on in there to me. In terms of plot, though not in writing order, it is the prequel to With No One as Witness in which Helen, Lynley’s wife, is killed in what is, apparently, a random and senseless shooting. A deus ex machina pops up and bang! Helen and their unborn child are fighting – ultimately unsuccessfully – for their lives on a life support machine.

Having read Susan George’s explanation for this death (which caused a certain amount of consternation amongst her fans, I gather, though not to me as I’ve never liked Helen) it was the aftermath of the death which she was interested in and not the reasons why this apparently random shooting happened. Having said that, she goes on to say that Joel, the twelve-year old central character of What Came Before He Shot Her, did originally feature in With NO One as Witness but that she had to cut his part of the plot out as it was taking over and making the book unfeasibly long. The focus of WNOAW is Lynley’s reaction to his wife’s death, not the reasons for it. The reasons are given to us in WCBHSH.

WCBHSH is not a murder mystery. I’m only a third of the way through but I’m guessing that Helen’s shooting is going to come near the end of the book, with the bulk of the book leading inexorably to it. WCBHSH already has the feel of a tragedy – Joel is going to bring this on his head because of the interplay of circumstances beyond his control and his own highly likeable personality.

OK, when I say that WCBHSH is not a murder mystery, I’m not entirely making myself clear. It’s not remotely like that genre. In fact, if it wasn’t so intimately linked, via plot, to WNOAW it would probably be described as something like 'a grimly realistic portrait of life at the bottom end of black London amongst gangs of adolescents without hope or future, and the guns, drugs and all pervasive sex with which they fill their lives'. If Susan Geroge hadn’t written it – and to be honest, without the link to WNOAW – I probably wouldn’t have bought it. But I’m so glad I did. It’s not that I think there’s going to be a happy ending for Joel or his siblings, far from it, but the world into which Susan George takes us is so vividly realised, the characters are so clearly real people and not charicatures, their motives are so horribly believable, that I am gripped by what is happening and not just by a desire to reach some final resolution.

But, all those plaudits aside, it’s also a profoundly depressing book. Because the world which Susan George writes about is not a fictional world. This is no dystopian alternative reality, this is the reality to which tens of thousands of people in impoverished, drug-ridden inner city Britain wake up every day. And the reader is left wondering not why the crimes portrayed are committed – that’s all too horribly apparent – but what could possibly be done about such a situation. Children are neglected, adolescents feral, adults hopeless and powerless. The Lynleys of the world cannot help, they can only arrest, incarcerate and despise those who commit the crimes of which this book is full. And that’s why we need books like this because, as it says on the back of WCBHSH, there was more than one victim in the murder of Helen Clyde. And it’s the victims out there who are committing the crimes.

If everything in your childhood has taught you that life’s a bitch and then you die, why woudn’t you take what you want however you can get it and damn whoever gets in your way? The question this book poses – at least to me – is not how do we stop these childhood victims committing crime but how do we stop them becoming victims in the first place?

I’ll leave Susan George the final word on the brutality and hopelessness in WCBHSH and Joel’s attempts to redeem what he can for his family.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing that happens in our world, and from the beginning of my career, I have wanted my novels to reflect our world.

And I ask myself, how much is that what I want my novels to do?
Expect a glimmering of an answer here tomorrow.

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