True Crime

It’s conference season and I’m doing the rounds of crime and literary conventions. One aspect of crime writing conferences is that I get to meet, or at least to listen to, detectives and forensic investigators who have worked on actual cases. Although fascinating, there is a gruesome reality about them which can be hard to swallow.

In Edinburgh I was staying close to a pub called The World’s End, indeed walked past it a dozen times although never went in for a drink. In 1977 it was the setting for the ‘World’s End Murders’; the double killing didn’t actually take place at the pub, but that’s where two 17-year old girls were last seen alive. Their horrible deaths were not fully solved until 34 years later when forensic science had advanced sufficiently to pin the crime on two men (the instigator was already in prison for another sex killing and his wastrel sidekick was long dead). What made this case especially chilling was that I was 17 years old in 1977. The hairstyles and fashion of those two girls looked like those of my school friends when we made our first underage forays into the adult world on those Friday nights 40 years ago.

Walking past that pub and recalling that story made me reflect on the crime writer’s craft. We write about subjects too awful to contemplate in daily life, but people buy our books by the million. Crime fiction is rarely out of the Sunday Times top-ten list and usually steals several slots. So how can I write about painful death and wasted lives? My guilt falls away when I consider that the same is true of authors writing war stories, horror stories, spy thrillers, grim historical epics, apocalyptic novels and sword-swinging fantasy. None of these worlds are places we would want to find ourselves. Perhaps the only story we’d truly be comfortable inside is a light romance; preferably set somewhere warm and exotic, with a pleasing amount of cuddly sex and a whiff of adventure but no risk of actual harm.

We don’t want to inhabit those plots created by crime writers, but guided by the author we can dare to edge into them just for a while.

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Thou Shalt Not Kill (part 2)

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Having considered ‘Poor Decisions’ and the millennia-old revulsion against killing, let our thoughts turn to murder. The Sixth Commandment of God gave humanity an early steer that murder is a bad thing.

 

 

Centuries of religious and moral codes have been reinforced by laws and penalties, backed up by law enforcement agencies which threaten a killer with the likelihood of punishment for his crimes (let alone eternal damnation). Not only is it a bad thing, but also a really, really bad idea.

All this results, thankfully, in a tiny proportion of a ‘civilised’ population being prepared to kill, and an even smaller number prepared to do so ‘in cold blood’. The UK Murder rate is 0.9 per 100,000 people per annum, even gun-toting USA scores just 3.6 and the killing is concentrated in certain areas and certain population groups (i.e. poor young men from inner cities, and tragically infants under 1 year). The murder rate has to be very low for a well-ordered society to continue; beyond a tipping point it’s Gun Law, and every man for himself. Guatemala, which I discussed in a previous blog, has 10 times the murder rate of the USA and feels like a war zone. On my island of Guernsey there’s one every few years, generally a ‘domestic’ or the unintended consequence of a drunken fight.

Most murders are committed in hot blood; following an argument, an irrational impulse, or a sudden burst of fear. In many cases the killer is not thinking straight, acting under the effect of drink, drugs or mental impairment. I am annoyed by books and especially films that overlook the block constructed by thousands of years of human experience which shows that being willing to kill can act against self-preservation. This is especially the case where a second person in the plot is also a one-in-10,000 killer. In a recent English ‘cosy’ I read there were no fewer than three people in a small village willing to kill without remorse.

Even under stress, most ordinary people will struggle to fire that gun or plunge that knife in self-defence ­– one reason that the claim that ‘I have a gun at home to protect my family’ is bollocks.

American police shot and killed 963 people in 2016, which is just over 1 person per 1,000 law enforcement officers. So in a 25-year career roughly 1 cop in 40 will kill someone. That doesn’t make very exciting TV, does it? It pushes many cop shows into the realm of fantasy. Last week we had the highly visible shooting dead of a terrorist by British police – remarkable not only for the terrifying 80 seconds that preceded it but for its rarity.

So how do my fellow crime-writers climb this wall? Ordinary housewives and vicars are not easily turned into murderers and policemen do not happily pull their guns and start shooting. A switch must be pulled, that block must be broken down. Writers need to work to convince the reader this has happened. The reader of murder-mystery will expect at least one murder; it’s part of the contract. Belief is therefore suspended to the benefit of the writer; the reader cuts us a little slack. The 700-plus members of the UK’s Crime Writer’s Association probably ‘kill’ more people annually than do actual criminals, but to be fair, science fiction writers also defeat more alien invasions than actually occur. Amid all this fictional mayhem the trick is then to keep it real, keep that killer’s motivation believable. Murder must be the only option available to our criminal at the split second it takes place, assuming he or she is of sound mind and capable of taking rational decisions. It can’t just be there to fulfil that contract; we must be convinced that the killer will break the oldest taboo: ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’.

Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Guernsey Literary Festival on Friday 12 May.

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Alderney Literary Festival

Ald 5This has to be the best literary festival in the land (if you count the tiny island of Alderney as ‘in the land’). Its cosy, its intimate and its focus is firmly on history: historical fiction, biography and non-fiction.

As the speaker’s room at the Island hall only accommodates an audience of 50, there were very few free seats and most talks were at capacity. Only two free seats in my talk (and I like to think the ticket holders had an extra hour in bed, as I was on at 9.30am).

A dozen authors mixed freely with the bibliophiles, another nice departure from the big conventions when the big names parachute in for a panel, and equally swiftly are swept away again by their minders. Work commitments meant I missed the Friday sessions, and I couldn’t get a ticket for Andrew Lownie’s talk on Guy Burgess, but the rest of the weekend passed in a whirl. Anna Mazzola talking about her debut early Victorian crime novel the Unseeing, Lloyd Shepherd finding monsters in Regency London  and Matthias Strohn on the Real German Army of the 1930’s.

Turney Scarrow Downie

On Saturday evening there was a dinner at the Georgian where some of us dared to wear Roman or Celtic garb to hear a good-natured debate on the impact of Rome on Britain – Overpaid, Oversexed and Over Here. Romanists SJA Turney and Ruth Downie fought the corners for Rome and the Celts respectively, with Simon Scarrow umpiring. I  think the Britons won by a narrow margin of ‘thumbs up’, but I’m not precisely sure it mattered.

I was particularly interested in Simon Scarrow talking about Greece in WW2 and its aftermath, as this was the sub-plot of Byron’s Shadow and close to my heart (no pun intended – his book is called Hearts of Stone). Elizabeth Chadwick, Anna Mazzola and Imogen Robertson debated research for the Historical novel, which struck many true cords. Agent Andrew Lownie and phenomenally successful e-book author Rachael Abbott also had an intriguing debate on new forms of publishing versus the traditional model.

Ald 4 (2).jpgThen of course there was Dr Monaghan, talking about Guernsey in the Great War and the background to Glint of Light on Broken Glass. This was a lot of fun in its own right, although always tricky when it comes to the questions. Next year’s Alderney Literary festival is 23-25 March, so put that date in your diary.

 

 

 

Thou Shalt Not Kill (part 1)

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‘Artie, could you kill a German?’

‘Course, easy.’

‘No, but really kill him if he was standing just over there?…’

George challenges his brother as Glint of Light on Broken Glass enters the summer of 1917, with the Great War at its height and no sign of it ending. Artie’s reply is off-the-cuff, the stock response of a confident young man facing a dilemma he has only read about in history books.

Artie is wrong; it is not easy to kill. This is a relief to police chiefs but a problem for generals and those who like to play up the dark side of human nature. Although animal violence lurks within us, modern humans are raised to view it as ethically wrong. Killing raises an even higher order of revulsion, a sin in the eyes of all the world’s major religions.

Even before we became ‘civilised’ there was a great deal of self-interest in not killing another human. Watch animals fight over food, mates or territory. One gets the upper hand and the other quickly backs off. Neither can risk being injured, as it would then face the threat of disease, starvation or falling prey to higher predators. Species that battle to the death are therefore rare.

So it must have been with our primitive ancestors. An individual prepared to fight to the death will in due course meet an opponent who is strong enough or lucky enough to strike the fatal blow first. It is not a career path. My fencing instructor used to say that “50/50 is lousy odds when your life is at stake”. Historically we know of tribes fighting ritual wars that end with perhaps the first death, token injury or submission. Simply embarrassing the enemy by striking him could be enough to prove your valour, such as using the Native American ‘coup stick’.

It is ‘civilised’ humanity that invented total war, often directed by rulers who were not in physical danger themselves. The firearm adds further potential for the use of lethal force; it does not demand the all-out commitment of a sword fight, provided you shoot first and shoot well. In the face of lethal force, our primal instinct is to run, hide, take cover, plead or surrender. You’d need to be crazy to do otherwise.

Writers of historical fiction, and especially TV and movie adaptions should note that most conscript soldiers have a natural revulsion towards killing. It has to be trained out of them, just as the use of arms has to be trained into them. Research in WW2 found that less than 10% of US infantry who fought in the D-Day campaign actually fired their weapon, and a small proportion of these shot at anything in particular. Even in the deadly Great War, the fact that roughly 5% of British troops were killed suggests that, all other things being equal, 95% of German troops never killed anyone. This is accentuated further when one considers that most casualties were caused by artillery and machine guns. Most riflemen shoot wildly at distant or imagined targets, if they shoot at all.

Other research shows that military units of all kinds, from infantry platoons to fighter squadrons, contain a small number of effective killers. Everyone else is simply making up the numbers (and providing targets for the enemy’s killers). One reason professional armies such as NATO perform so well against otherwise well-armed and dangerous opposition is that these flaws are trained out of the troops. In the words of Lt Rasczak in Starship Troopers: “Everyone fights, nobody quits”.

I’ll leave the final thought to our brave lads, shooting into the smoke of the Battle of Cambrai:

Perhaps they killed hundreds ­– perhaps none at all.

Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Alderney Literary Festival on Saturday 25th March

#Alderneylit

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Poor Decisions

In the paper the other week, a defence advocate explained that her client had made some ‘poor decisions’ in her life. We might say that committing a crime is the ultimate poor decision, so at the core of our crime novels are villains who have not just acted badly, but thought things out badly too.

All around us, we see friends and acquaintances make decisions we think poor. That seventh pint of beer when its work the next day, that seventh baby they can’t possibly afford, that suicidaly frank email to the boss. Indeed we characterise people as having ‘poor judgement’ or ‘a poor choice in men’, assuming if we were in the same position we would have acted differently. Much of the time we don’t stop and analyse what we are doing deeply enough to spot our errors in advance.

First up, most decisions are trivial. Shall I go to the shops now, or in ten minutes? Shall I talk to that workmate who looks lost over on the other side of the bar? Then the butterfly flaps its wings and the decision no longer becomes trivial. By delaying for ten minutes, I am hit by a bus crossing the road. By talking to that workmate I find my life partner.

Two soldiers leap out of a trench – one breaks left and makes it to safety, the other breaks right and is killed by a stray bullet.  Here small decisions lead to an outcome that could not have been predicted because we did not have enough information. Some people call it ‘luck’, but ‘luck’ is a shorthand for not having sufficient data and the ability to analyse it. If we had known the exact moment the enemy soldier fired his rifle, applied the laws of ballistics, adjusted for gravity, wind direction, the angle of the shot, the symmetry of the bullet, the precise amount of propellant in the cartridge and the range to the unfortunate target we could have given that soldier enough information to tell him to break left, or delay his move for half a second. The roulette ball follows the laws of physics as do the balls tumbling in the National Lottery bucket. It is said that ‘people make their own luck’ and to an extent this is true: analysing the information you have reduces that uncertainty we lazily call luck.

Analyse your own life and think how many REAL decisions have you made for which you were aware of the consequences. Then think how many of your big decisions were ‘no brainers’: do I marry the person I love? Do I take this promotion? Do I buy this dream house? We are not gambling, there is no ‘luck’ involved. We use hindsight to judge, and more often than not base it on the outcome not the starting conditions

The outcome of a decision does not determine whether it was good or bad. We often criticise politicians for taking the wrong decisions (although ‘wrong’ can be a matter of opinion). The fact  David Cameron lost the Brexit referendum does not in itself mean it was a poor decision; the poor decision was acting without enough information and without planning for the downside consequences. It was a gamble. A man who stakes £10,000 on a 100-1 bet and wins did not make a ‘good’ decision either; he knew the most likely consequence would be he would lose his money but he acted against this data.

So what of our criminals? Many impulse crimes are committed by people who are daft, drunk, drugged up or desperate. The consequences of their actions never occur to them, so they are not taking ‘poor decisions’, as they are  barely taking a conscious decision at all. Moving up to the career criminal brings us closer to the gambler. He knows there is a risk of getting caught, being imprisoned or even killed. However he minimises this risk in his calculations, being over-confident in his ability and just not understanding how ‘trusting to luck’ (ignoring facts outside his knowledge) will be his undoing sooner or later. This is poor decision-making at its worst. Stupid criminals are hard to empathise with.

Finally we have the literary criminal, the one we like to write about and read about. He is not stupid, although possibly psychologically damaged. He takes decisions which in his world appear good, possibly even no-brainers. He might be a gambler, but playing for very high stakes where calm calculation suggests his risk of being caught is small relative to the reward. The criminal may have no choice, or face unenviable options whichever decision he takes. We might feel sorry for his dilemma, and if written well enough even take his side.

Good decisions versus poor decisions are at the core of my new novel. You might decide that  I should be writing Draft 2, and not this blog…

The 3/4 Point

How many times have I been watching a film and two-thirds the way through thought ‘finish it now!’. Likewise when reading books, a point often comes where I feel the author is spinning the story out, or we are anticipating the  denouement so why another red herring? Some books feel simply too long at this point. I may not be the only author who struggles around the 3/4 mark.

The 3/4 point is the hardest part of a book for me to write. Say chapters 22 to 26 of a 30 chapter book. Starting a book is easy, and the first three to six chapters simply flow. By then I will have an end in mind, and sometimes draft the last half dozen pages so I know where I’m headed. I like a midpoint break, a high point, a crisis, a game-changer which will naturally grow from the character’s actions in the first half. In some of my books I even have a ‘part 2’. I did this in Glint of light on Broken Glass partly to avoid war-weariness in 1916, skipping most of a year where my characters’ lives went on much the same from week to week. So I can work my beginning-of-novel towards that midpoint break.

By this point of the book, key characters, setting, backstory, plot are all established. Moving off from the midpoint is fine, as the reader will be at home with a fully fledged cast, belief suspended, calibrated for the period and style, and immersed in the story. Then comes the 3/4 point. Here the mystery needs to start making sense, without giving away the ending. Characters need to start dropping away so there is not still a cast of dozens cluttering the denoument. Red herrings need to be recognised and real clues appreciated at last. I also need to set up the final sequences – the chase, the fight, the revelation, disillusion or whatever. Characters’ motivations must become clear and their arcs concluded. Loose ends must be tied, and if they are left loose this must be a deliberate conceit of the author not carelessness.

So the 3/4 point is a problem. Introducing new characters is annoying, as the reader will know they are less important that the ones we’ve been rooting for. A shift of scene might be disconcerting unless it fits the style of the plot, such as the Road Movie format of When the Dust Settles or Lady in the Lake.  Action sequences or sex scenes or ‘another murder’ can feel like gratuitous padding unless something is resolved – a threat is eliminated or a key twist revealed. Information dumping is even more forbidden now than in the first quarter – this is the wrong time to discover our hero has a forgotten sister or still has a bullet lodged in his back from the war. It is also no time for purple prose as we’ve set the mood already and the reader will become impatient.

Our characters need to be moving inexorably towards that ending, which should still retain at least some surprise if not a twist as such. I’m at that point now in NRT, 50,000 words into draft 1, an end already written about 10,000 words ahead. Don’t pad, don’t give away the end, drop those minor characters, expose the red herrings, raise the stakes, set up that finale.

Deep breath, here we go…

 

A Big Pile of Paper

On New Year’s day I have made a practice of starting a new book, or as in the case of 2017 picking up where I left off before party season hit.

So, I’m 50,000 words into the new thriller. It’s contemporary and it has no connection with archaeology; that’s all the clues I’m giving. Oh and the working codename is NRT.

When I was a lad I was at the same fencing club as Desmond Bagley’s widow, Joan. She invited me up to Castel House one afternoon to talk about my ambition to be a writer. IF I paraphrase her advice it was “When you start writing a book, there’s an awfully big pile of blank paper to fill.”

In the modern parlance that translates to a pure wordcount on the computer, but the image remains. Three quarters of a refill pack for my printer needs to be covered in print – hopefully something a large number of people will pay to read. I no longer print early drafts of books, it’s a waste of trees and ink, so at the moment NRT exists only in the electronic realm. And enough of the blogging, it’s time to write!

Fire Without Smoke

I don’t smoke. I just don’t get it, so my lead characters don’t smoke either. You might think that old hippie Jeffrey Flint might have done the odd roll-up in his time, but if so he keeps quiet about it.

wine-drinkerIn my crime reading pile, I have noticed that most fictional detectives smoke to a fault. Its part of the hard-boiled image, maybe. Often I suspect it reflects the writer’s own lifestyle – indeed many writers are shown posing with a cigarette for their publicity photographs which strikes me as distinctly odd. If I were to display my vices in publicity shots, I’d be holding a half-eaten Toblerone, a gluten-free brownie or glass of Chateauneuf du Pape. None send the message that I’m a rebel or a thinker or sophisticate, just that I’m probably overweight.

So to those detectives, pluckily cheating death by shooting, stabbing, car smash or fiendish trap yet stalked by Reaper nonetheless. The smoking trope is strange – pipe smoking is somehow homely, and the Americans seem to think there’s charm in chomping cigars. Anti-smokers are cast as tight-asses. With widespread smoking bans in offices, the overflowing ashtray is now the mark of period fiction and ‘dates’ otherwise contemporary novels. There’s a curious trend in contemporary American TV dramas to portray smoking as a cute adventure, which jars with reality. When we’re talking gangsters and the underclass, yes, but not 90% of urban professionals.

I am bored of reading about characters who have to go out and buy their cigarettes, fiddle with them, light up and stub out. Over the same timeframe, they don’t go to the toilet, scratch their ear or an one of a hundred other personal habits they might exhibit. A Nordic Noir I read this year would have been two chapters shorter if the hero had been a nonsmoker. The stressed detective may also drink coffee and hard spirits, but any other choice of drink is used as character shorthand. Usually it shows affectation, or weakness. Banana smoothie, Earl Grey tea or a snack-pack of Trail Mix anyone?

Partly to poke fun at the trope, Flint and Tyrone drink diet coke, eat Mars Bars and crisps. Their weakness is real ale or cheap wine and maybe the occasional takeaway. Some of the villains and minor characters smoke, but the books are mainly populated with the educated middle class, increasingly health-conscious and lifestyle aware. I just don’t want to wear the print off my fingers typing all that smoking routine. Given that several fondly remembered  relations were killed by the tobacco industry I also don’t want to lend it any glamour.

So what about ‘Glint of Light on Broken Glass’?, set in an era when cancer was barely understood by doctors let alone ordinary working men. We know that tobacco was a major crutch for the men in the trenches, and I’ve even heard the Great War could not have been endured without it which is a curious thought. The Channel Islands’ hardest fought sporting event ‘The Muratti’ was sponsored by a local cigarette company. So I allow smoking to be there in the background – it happens, like eating and drinking but I don’t make a fetish of it.

 

 

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