Categories for Crime

July 30, 2017

Top of the Lake : China Girl (No spoilers)  

When I saw that the BBC in their infinite wisdom had released all the episodes at once, I promised myself I would take it slowly. No more than one a day.

I make myself a lot of promises I know I’m not going to keep. Just as well I have low standards.

Friday, I was under orders to rest – slight post – operative temperature. And after last year’s experiences, a little fear. (Don’t worry. I won’t go into detail. Unless I get around to writing that medical thriller, in which case all bets are off.)

So I watched it all.  One episode after another. I let Ryan cook – which, as ever, meant beans on toast.

I loved the first series and had been looking forward to this immensely. It was, after all, Jane Campion’s film ‘In The Cut’ (generally quite unpopular) which inspired my novel ‘A Savage Art’

In a Guardian article last week, it was said that this was deeper and darker – and indeed it was. In places it was positively weird.

But it was every bit as brilliant as I had hoped, and I am feeling inspired again, indirectly, to follow my own weird tangent.

I’m not going to say anything about the characters or the story or anything, knowing many people are more sensible than me and are eking it out.

I wonder if I’ll believe Elisabeth Moss as Offred tonight? Isn’t she fabulous?

Ann


May 8, 2017

Into The Water, and why I loved it anyway.  

I’m trying to understand what it is I ‘ve loved about the follow up from Paula Hawkins to The Girl on the Train.  Without spoilers, as far as possible as I really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. So there’s nothing about individual characters and plot points here – only generalities about theme and structure and genre.

Val McDermid has some reservations which she discussed here in her Guardian review.

There are eleven narrators for one – some in first person, and some in third. It’s a bit confusing and I did have to flick back and forth trying to work out whose point of view I was in, and at what point in the timeline. The voices are not particularly individualised.

There’s a lot of shenanigans that feel perilously close to cheating in the way information is with-held from the reader to maintain suspense and surprise. This definitely includes a few circumlocutions which dragged this reader right out of the story for moment.  However, some of them are maybe psychologically within the realms of possibility, so I wouldn’t dismiss them all as outright cheating.

I’m not sure about the setting – I agree with McDermid that it seemed randomly rural town. I don’t know the area concerned though, so it didn’t really trouble me.

So yes, I think Val McDermid’s review is perfectly fair. Of course it would be – who knows the genre of crime fiction better?

And yet, in spite of all that, I still loved the novel. And I’m trying to analyse why.

Perhaps it’s not really a psychological thriller. Not in the sense of  “transcending the genre” – a phrase so condescending to crime fiction lovers that it makes my teeth itch like a squeaky chalk on a blackboard.

It seems to me that it’s a deep novel about memory, and truth and lies. About miscommunication. And about how all those things are complicated by different points of view.

Those narrators are essential to the structure because the novelists is telling us about tragedies which have deeply affected several families, and a whole community. It’s almost a realistic way of telling the story, as clearly because of all those secrets and lies and miscommunications, no one knows the whole story, although it is gradually pieced together.

There’s one point in the story where a major character finally tells the truth about something which happened to her and you think hurray – but still, it ends up being misunderstood and complicating things even more. And I think there’s some real psychological insight here – we see people projecting things that have happened to them onto other people. Making assumptions based on their own personal experiences and prejudices. There’s a lot about mysogyny and difficult women – from the point of view of a whole range of people – young and old, male and female. There’s a reason why the novel starts with a shocking and graphic disposal of a witch being drowned – although it’s left an open question whether the modern day psychic is really talking to the dead, or if it’s all a psychological phenomenon. But it does all add to the gothic feel of the novel.

The misunderstandings are not always deliberate. Sometimes it’s a question of motivated reasoning – to avoid being confronted by one’s own complicity. Sometimes it’s naivety, and simple lack of experience, or a lack of imagination and empathy.

There’s an exploration of the idea that a good person might have at times acted badly,  or a bad person done some things for good reasons. None of the characters is wholly sympathetic – no matter what horrors they have been through. There was just one character I found deeply unpleasant and saw no redeeming features in – but only one. Other readers may have a different experience.

If anything, the novel is spoiled by shoehorning it into the necessary structure for a psychological thriller, because at that point it startes to lose nuance, and the twist I’ve been expecting isn’t really a surprise in spite of those avoidances and circumlocutions. So for me it wasn’t a particularly satisfying payoff.  It’s a bit strange to enjoy all of a psychological thriller apart from the last couple of chapters – so that’s what prompted me to spend a bit more time thinking about it.

Who dunnit has never really interested me as much as why, so perhaps my response is not so surprising. And suspense odoesn’t have to be about who to be a compelling read.

I always go back to this Hitchcock quotation –

 “One of the most essential things in a film is visual clarity. I think an audience should be given all the facts. For example if you take suspense – suspense can only be achieved by telling the audience as much as you can, I don’t deal in mystery – I never make whodunnits, because they’re intellectual exercises. You’re just wondering – you’re not emoting. My old analogy of the bomb. As an example, we couold be blown up this minute and the audience would get five seconds of shock. But if we tell them five minutes ahead of time there is a bomb that’s going to go off, that would get five minutes of suspense. and we didn’t have suspense before, because the audience were in ignorance, you see.”

I wonder, now, if all those with-holdings and circumlocutions were necessary for this novel to work. It might perhaps have been a better novel without them. Maybe a second reading, now that I know what was being held back, would make that clear.

Still, even though I wasn’t surprised by the twisty ending, I was certainly emoting like crazy. There were characters I cared about – some more than others, which with eleven narrators is pretty much bound to be the case. And there were a couple who I think might have been more developed.

I think Into The Water might actually be a far more interesting novel than Girl on a Train because it isn’t a standard psychological thriller. It’s trying, and in some ways succeeding, to do something more.

Neil Gaiman said a novel is a long piece of prose which has something wrong with it.

What is often missed, I think, when we criticise any novel is how easy it is to pick out those things which are wrong.

And yet what we might like about a novel are those things which are right about it, even while we can see the flaws.

Not unlike the way we can clearly see the imperfections in that special person and yet still love them.

Yes, that’s it. I loved this novel – warts and all.

 

Ann

 

 

Sources:

Guardian : Val McDermid review

Hitchcock quotation on YouTube


March 17, 2017

Jack the Ripper, Patricia Cornwell, and Walter Sickert  

A fascinating interview in The Spectator (here) reveals more about Patricia Cornwell’s obsession with the identity of Jack The Ripper – including some interesting new evidence.

So here’s the smoking gun, here’s the forensic detail that would nail the killer were this actually a Scarpetta book: it’s the writing paper. Not only did Sickert use the same brand as Jack, it turns out, but an expert has now demonstrated that their paper came from the very same pad.

The Tate gallery suggested I use this paper expert, Peter Bower,’ Cornwell says. ‘I think they thought Peter would come in and show what nonsense this all was and they didn’t realise it was going to do the opposite. The paper stuff is just incredible. Peter examined three Sickert letters and two of the watermarked Ripper letters, and those five sheets of paper came from a batch run of only 24 that could have ever been made. And the thing that’s really creepy about it is the three Sickert letters were written on his mother’s stationery. So he was writing Ripper letters on his mother’s stationery. Now that’s a bit Freudian, isn’t it?’

Cornwell’s eyes are fired with conviction. I have a stab of doubt. What if Sickert wrote the Ripper letters but didn’t do the murders?

‘It’s a good question. I personally don’t think so,’ she says calmly. ‘But that’s where I have my 5 per cent rule. I think you have to hold out the 5 per cent doubt though I’m 95 per cent sure he did it. I mean Sickert never stopped talking about this his entire life.’

I think I agree with her about the 5% rule – only I’d say 5% that Sickert was the Ripper, and 95% chance that he was simply the author of the Ripper letters. We know, for example, that many people obsess over these cases, and that does not make them the guilty party. Cornwell’s obsession doesn’t make her the Ripper reborn, or any kind of serial killer, except in fiction. The writer of the Yorkshire Ripper letters was not the Yorkshire Ripper. Wearside Jack, as John Samuel Humble was nicknamed, sent three letters and left an audio message which derailed the investigation. False confessions to horrific crimes are not rare.

Why do we have so many theories about Jack the Ripper? It’s a question which still intrigues me, much more than question of his actual identity.

In any case, it looks like Cornwell’s new evidence about the letters derails the idea that journalist Francis Craig was the writer of the letters, and the killer – which I wrote about in my first post about Jack, here. It seems unlikely that Craig had access to Sickert’s mother’s stationery – although that would be twisty enough to find its way into a Scarpetta story.

It must surely be all bound up with why we love mystery stories so much. We (not just crime fiction readers and writers, but especially us, perhaps) don’t like not knowing not only who done it, but why.  That second part, the why of it all, is why we love the detail that Sickert was using his mother’s stationery. Not just a Freudian aha! moment – but who didn’t immediately think of Psycho? Perhaps it was just me whose mind immediately served up the rocking chair scene. Who and why are the questions that drive so many of the psychological thrillers we love.

As I put it in my second Ripper post,

So crime fiction – and true crime like Truman Capote, Janet Malcolm, Ann Rule and the Ripper books, even the addictive podcast Serial – are all ways of trying to get to the truth of human behaviour. It’s a survival mechanism. If our trust in other people is undermined in early life, understanding people becomes a driving necessity. From the earliest myths, through folk and fairy tales, epic poetry and gothic novels, revenge tragedies and morality plays, penny dreadfuls and religious tracts – perhaps that’s what all storytelling is about.

Of course, there aren’t many serial killers out there – the danger is really far closer to home. Every week two women in the UK are killed by partners and ex partners. Children are at more risk from their own families than from anyone else. These truths are hard to face.

No wonder Cornwell can’t stop hunting the Ripper.

I certainly think it’s one of the reasons I’m addicted to crime fiction.

What do you think?
Ann

 

Sources

Spectator interview

Wikipedia on Wearside Jack

My earliest post here on The Ripper

My second post on The Ripper

(No, really, I’m not obsessed).


October 25, 2016

Patricia Highsmith and empathy for the sociopath  

Patricia Highsmith seems generally under-rated these days – the people who know of Ripley seem to think of either Alien or Matt Damon in the film version. Her skill with the insidious and slow burning psychological suspense story is perhaps out of fashion now, given the current trend for novels that are fast paced and full of action. I lost count of the agents who told me my second novel started too slowly, even with one murder hinted at in the first paragaph, and another at the end of the first chapter.

Gillian Flynn, writer of Gone Girl (and debut novel Sharp Objects, which in some ways I prefer) is a Highsmith fan. I read this article from the Wall Street Journal, where Flynn is talking about Highsmith’s Deep Water, and realised it was one I hadn’t read – even though I love Highsmith – from Strangers on a Train, through the Tom Ripley series, The Cry of the Owl (another slow and creepy story about the relationship between a stalker and his victim, or…). I even enjoyed – if that is the right word, her collection of very creepy short stories, Little Tales of Misogyny.

So this week I rectified that omission – and smiled to see the current edition of Deep Water has Gillian Flynn’s recommendation on the cover…  Strange times.

Like Gone Girl, Deep Water is a story about an unhappy marriage. In Gone Girl, the story is told in turn by Nick and the Amazing Amy, neither of whom turn out to be appealing, likeable characters.  The structure of Deep Water is different, and the story of Vic and Melinda is told in the third person – but Highsmith sticks very closely to Vic’s point of view, and we see everything from his perspective.

Although the story unfolds very slowly and there’s no mystery about what happens – we are, after all, seeing exactly what Vic does throughout, I found it totally impossible to put the book down. Highsmith creates a very claustrophobic world. It was only at the very end of the novel, when I paused to draw breath, that I realised I had been drawn in to Vic’s mind to the extent that I wanted him to literally get away with murder….all the way until he was carted off by the police. I had been pleased when he’d escaped detection. I had disliked the characters who, quite rightly, suspected that he was a murderer. Even though I knew he was.

How did Highsmith accomplish this?

In a way all novelists are manipulating readers – perhaps the splinter of ice Graham Greene said was in the heart of every writer is the source of Highsmith’s ability to persuade us to empathise with a sociopath.

It helps, I think, that Melinda is not a very sympathetic character. We only see her from Vic’s point of view, of course, but somehow we are persuaded to believe he might be right. First, we see she is, at the very least, a flirt. She publicly spends lots of time with a succession of other men, and Vic patiently puts up with it… We see his friends sympathise with him, and encourage him to put his foot down. He also tells us she’s a lousy mother – from making too much fuss when giving birth, to neglecting their daughter throughout the story. We see Vic spending time with his daughter, so perhaps are inclined to believe him a little too easily. Vic has created his own haven in the home – they don’t share a bedroom any more, and he has his retreat in the garage where he raises snails, and herbs, and does experiments with bedbugs… Later, after Vic has murdered one of Melinda’s lovers, she employs detectives and spends time with a man who dislikes Vic – and somehow we see this as yet another marital betrayal.

In addition there are aspects of Vic that are sympathetic. He is a popular member of the small town where he lives – the few people who seem not like him seem to be outsiders. He works as a publisher, and clearly enjoys doing good work. He is a good and generous employer. And he does seem very patient with Melinda’s indiscretions. His interest in the snails – and particularly the love life of his two favourites – seems very sad considering the coldness of his own home life.  He does genuinely seem to care for his daughter – although there are glimpses perhaps of the sociopath in her too- perhaps she is her father’s daughter. She seems to want him to be a murderer – or that is how Vic sees it.

And yet…. we are warned at the very beginning that Vic is not without flaws.  The novel starts with him telling us that he doesn’t dance – not because he can’t – but because his wife loves to dance. Later in the novel we see him dancing with female friends in order to punish her…but by then, we have been persuaded that she deserves his punishment. His friend, Horace, is always telling Vic he should be firmer with her. But just like Vic’s friends, we are lulled into trusting Vic. The story starts so slowly and we see Vic suffering as Melinda flirts with one man, then another. And to begin with it doesn’t seem so dangerous – one of her previous flirts and has been murdered and Vic merely pretends he was the killer. He takes delight in using the fantasy to scare off her current flirt.  And we enjoy him getting away with that – as we’ve become accustomed to see him as the underdog. As he sees himself…
And yet that’s not really a true picture, is it? He’s a rich man, with an independent income and work he enjoys, respected in his community. He’s not an underdog – he’s enjoying a perverse kind of power over his wife. From denying her the pleasure of dancing – to his passive aggressive and inauthentic response to her flirtations.

To quote Flynn, Highsmith “doesn’t give anything away. She does not do your work for you. She gives you all the information. She’s a very precise writer. You picture her using an eye dropper to put each word on the page. Everything is very specifically put in place, but she makes you do a lot of wonderful homework in having to think about her characters and put yourself in their positions and try to figure them out a little bit.”

There’s an absence of emotion in Vic’s story. At one point we are told that he doesn’t feel guilt – but he doesn’t really seem to feel anything – except perhaps for the snails.

So perhaps that’s how it works. We have our own theories of mind – we as readers do a lot of the heavy lifting in a Highsmith novel. We project our own emotions on to Vic, and make assumption about how he must feel. That’s how narcissists and sociopaths work on us, after all. We make excuses for their behaviour, just as we do for Vic’s. Just as his friends do. We are all fooled because we want to believe that other human beings are just like us. Even though in several places Vic quite explicitly says he’s not like other people. He’s not a conformist.

We do all like non-conformity, don’t we?

I can’t help pondering on the fact that Highsmith herself kept snails….  Perhaps the key to why I empathised with Vic is that Highsmith herself is on his side.

I think it’s time I re-read Highsmith’s book on Writing and Plotting Suspense Fiction.

Ann


October 18, 2016

Andrew Marr on Sleuths  

It’s not often we get to see an hour of TV discussing genre fiction, so this is well worth watching – even if mostly to argue with the narrative and conclusion.

(For now at least, available on the iPlayer)

But really, did so much of it have to be devoted to the Golden Age and those well worn rules of detective fiction? Not to mention the locked room mystery… Even Agatha Christie didn’t set much store by the rules, after all – famously not playing fair with the reader in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

There were some real gems in there however – mostly the segments where Marr talked to crime writers.

It was delightful to see Agatha Christie’s research folder – how I’d love to have a proper rummage around in that little lot! My own version is less tactile these days, mostly being clippings and scribblings saved to Evernote. But it did illustrate one of his stronger points in the first half of the programme – that the best detective fiction is rooted in reality – that the crime had to be convincing.

The brilliant Sophie Hannah, who has now written her own Poirot novel, shared an intriguing theory about Agatha Christie’s two dimensional characters. She suggested that they weren’t actually carboard cutouts at all – that what is mistaken for two dimensionality are the social masks which cover each character’s deep and dark hidden secrets, which lie at the heart of crime fiction. It’s an interesting idea – but is altogether too mechanical a device for my liking – although it fits very well with Marr’s thesis that the detective story is a machine…

Marr’s focus is very much on the whodunnit throughout – which is the least interesting branch of crime fiction for me – precisely because too often it is a puzzle, it is a machine, a formula.  In the crime fiction I enjoy the most, that puzzle is often there as an element of the story and I enjoy being outwitted by the novelist – but it usually isn’t in the foreground.

Marr reached the usual conclusion after his survey of the Golden Age – that detective fiction is comforting because it shows the established order being thrown into chaos and then the detective arrives and restores order.

We were briefly led down the mean streets of Chandler and Hammet – the main purpose of which seemed to be to explain the transition from the Golden Age to modern crime fiction where order is not so easily restored.

Sadly, he missed out one of my favourites – Dorothy Sayers – which would have illustrated the transition very well and shown that it didn’t just arise because of American fiction. The Peter Wimsey stories start off with all the trappings of the Golden age rules of detection, but they grow in complexity, especially after the introduction of Harriet Vane in Strong Poison.  Lord Peter – for all his aristocratic foppishness – does grapple with some of the difficulties inherent in detetcive fiction. He is tormented at times by the impact of the crimes he investigates on the victims, but also, at that time, the effect on the criminal. If he uncovers a murderer, he knows he will send him to the hangman. There’s plenty of psychological depth in Sayer’s novels.

And then there’s the quirkier Glady Mitchell, whose character Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley is a consulting psychologist to the Home Office. She must also be considered as one of the forerunners of modern crime fiction, exploring the murkier depths of the psyche.

But Marr skips to Ruth Rendell, who he rightly points out uses detective fiction to hold up a mirror to society.

But doesn’t all fiction do that?

Maybe I’m carping, but Marr then marshalls Mike Phillips and his creation, black journalist Sam Dean, and Val McDermid’s creation of Savile clone (apart from being handsome) Jacko Vance, and Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus to show how detective fiction has changed, and is no longer about a comforting restoral of the community to order.

I’m not altogether convinced that previous generations were quite so easily comforted, personally.

One of the most compelling parts is the interview with Val McDermid and how she talks about being inspired to write about the Savile story, and how she  disguised him as the attractive TV presenter Jacko Vance.

“I have spent most of my adult life in a state of rage,” she said, about her motivation to write.

That is something that Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus could understand. Marr suggests he is the ultimate flawed detective, who is all to aware that his job is never done, crime will never go away, and order can never be restored.

Even at this stage, Marr goes back to the “rule” theory of detective fiction – emphasising that the flawed detective is one of the many elements of the story machine.

He wraps up with a montage of scenes from what has been called the nordic noir TV series – The Killing, The Bridge and of course, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – these selections intended to prove that the “rules” are universal.

The only problem is, I don’t think they are universal – like most rules they are honoured in the breach as much as the observance. I would hardly describe Rendell’s Inspector Wexford as flawed, for instance. As already stated, Agatha Christie didn’t always play fair with the reader.  And those examples come from the programme’s cherry picked examples.

I did enjoy watching, but I felt the whole programme was unbalanced. The focus on the Golden Age deprived us of opportunities to think about more recent detective fiction.

It would have been interesting to discuss Ruth Rendell’s dark psychological crime novels and the Barbara Vine books as well as the Inspector Wexford series.

I would have liked to see Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels mentioned – and we could have had a glimpse of the late, great Warren Clarke in action as the brilliantly flawed Dalziel. What I love about the books, though, is how Hill developed as a novelist – from the earlier novels such as A Clubbable Woman, which are excellent stories, but without much depth, to the later ones such as The Wood Beyond, which deals with the issue of soldiers in the first world war who were executed for desertion. If I didn’t hate the phrase, I would say some of the later novels transcend the genre.

As as aside, one of my favourite Hill novels also features Dalziel and Pascoe, and rather delightfully subverts the run-of-the-mill mystery novel, and pokes fun at the trope of the idyllic village which turns out to have a depraved underbelly. It also has some amusing echoes of Jane Austen, indicated from the very first sentence – “It is a truth fairly universally acknowledged that all men are born equal, but the family Guillemard, pointing to the contra-evidence of their own absence from the Baronetage, have long been settled in Yorkshire without allowing such pholosophical quibbles to distress or vex them.” The twist at the end of the novel surely breaks all the rules of detective fiction.

It was great to be reminded of Mike Phillips novels (and the TV series) which used crime fiction to explore racial tension in Britain – but why no mention of the fantastic explosion of feminist crime fiction in the 1980s? It was after all, where Val McDermid started out, with her novels about journalist/sleuth Lindsay Gordon, published by The Women’s Press. PD James published the Cordelia Gray series, and Antonia Fraser created Jemima Shore – while in the US Sara Paretsky created a series of novels deeply concerned with issues of social justice featuring the private detective VI Warshawski.

Instead of a segment on the locked room mystery – why not a discussion of the brilliant Sophie Hannah’s own crime fiction. She was mentioned as someone who had written a Poirot novel, and interviewed about Christie. But her own crime novels are fascinating and structurally innovative – combining as they do two sub-genres of crime fiction. In each novel, one narrative strand is written from the first person point of  view of a character at the heart of the crime – and the other narrative strand is a more conventional third person detective story, following the police characters who are investigating the crime.

Finally, I would have included Tana French’s series featuring the Dublin Murder Squad, where each novel follows an investigation by a different detective. Again, these are not detective novels which follow the “rules” blindly – they are as much concerned with the psychological effect of the crimes on the characters, including the investigating detectives, and where all the loose ends aren’t tidied up at the end of the novel.

Clearly I’ve singled out some of my favourite novelists here – but I contend they are my favourites for very good reasons – not least because they break the rules.

Still, I did very much enjoy the programme, even if mostly by arguing with the thesis and quibbling about the focus on particular eras and writers. I daresay the ones I’ve picked out will not completely satisfy any other individual reader of crime fiction, either. Please add your own favourites in the comments here, or on my Facebook page.

Ann

PS How could I have forgotten David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet – and the TV adaptations? Because I’m an idiot, that’s why 😉