Categories for Crime

October 8, 2016

“Crime porn” and TV thrillers  

In an article in the Guardian (and a Radio 4 documentary) the actor Doon Mackichan has criticised what she calls “crime porn” – the use of “brutalised women as entertainment fodder”.

She’s singled out The Fall for particular criticism and I am at something of a loss to understand why.

Of course, if crime fiction is only a direct representation of reality, we might expect to read and watch more about male victims. Men are more likely to be the victims of violence than women, as well as far more likely to be the perpetrators.

Yet the drama is about a serial killer, Paul Spector. The story itself focuses on so much more than the victims. We see Spector’s family life and his relationship with his wife and daughter. We see some clues from his personal history to suggest why he is violent. And we see the way the teenage babysitter has become obsessed with him, even knowing what he is. And most of all we see Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of DSI Gibson…  On the surface cool and calm and independent – she is clearly both fascinated and repelled by Spector. In much the same way that the audience is.

Calling it “crime porn” suggests the reason for watching is pure titillation. I don’t see it that way. I think we are fascinated by this kind of crime not because it turns us on, gives us a sexual thrill, but because we have an urge to understand. According to Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal (read about it here) we humans are addicted to story as a matter of survival. It’s how we learn to be human. It’s how we try out different ways of being without taking too many risks.

Women are both writers and readers of crime fiction, and disproportionately so. We not only identify with the victim – women are aware of the risks of sexual violence, after all…. but in crime fiction we also get to identify with the protagonist. We get to explore our feelings about  vulnerability and power in a safe way. And in fiction we find a resolution that doesn’t always happen in real life.

But fiction does reflect life. The babysitter’s obsession with Spector in The Fall reminds me of the way so many women become obsessed with killers. The Guardian has reported that Ian Huntley – the soham murderer – gets bundles of fan mail. Even Charles Manson has never been short of female admirers – although apparently the last one who wanted to marry him (Afton Burton) was hoping to get access to his body as a tourist attraction, which at least is different…

Meanwhile we live in a world where a man who apparently has a real chance of becoming President of the United States has been caught on tape talking about how his fame allows him to grab women by the pussy.  Egged on by Billy Bush, George W’s cousin. It has been excused by some as “locker room banter”, although now Trump has issued a half hearted apology – which makes him seem sorry mostly for being caught, and where he has excused himself by saying he’s heard worse from Bill Clinton. And it wasn’t  banter – it was a direct confession of actual sexual assault.

The really interesting part about this “revelation” about Trump, though, is that it’s a recording from 2005. That means that it’s been available all that time – and we know there was  a case for sexual assault filed against him back in 1997.  Yet only now has it been made public. It’s almost as if whatever happens to individual women doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, isn’t it?

That’s why we need fiction to explore these issues. Because fiction is our way of challenging reality.

Perhaps if there’d been a Stella Gibson for me to identify with as a teenager, I’d have fought back and not just meekly accepted being groped by my first boss. I might not have felt it was somehow my fault. I’d perhaps have had a chance to imagine a different way of interpreting the silence of the other girls who worked in the newsagents, and the sympathy for his wife – who looked the other way while her husband preyed on the young female staff. Perhaps I’d have found the courage to knee him in the balls – like I did to the next guy who tried it on. If I’d seen a fictional portayal of sexual assult, I might have been able to rehearse possible responses in the safety of imagination, rather than being frozen in shock.

It’s not stories that hurt us. It’s reality.



Here’s the radio documentary – Body Count Rising

Crime Porn “TV Thrillers”

Why are women drawn to men behind bars?


October 2, 2016

British Film Institute – 10 great erotic thrillers  

I’m working on plotting a sequel to my first novel at the moment. Perhaps there’ll be some inspiration in this list of films from the BFI.

Jane Campion’s In The Cut was the inspiration for my villain in my first novel, A Savage Art.

It’s about to be published! Yay! I shall write a little about how the film inspired me to create my villain later.  Unusually for me, I discovered the film first –  but I enjoyed both the film and the book by Susanna Moore.

The BFI blog post suggests that with the easy availability of pornography online, erotic thrillers have fallen out of fashion – although they say there’s a strong case to bring them back – not least because they’re enjoyable.  And although women characters have often been brutalised and punished for their sexuality and independence in these films, there’s also plenty of opportunity for us to subvert that – which I think Jane Campion attemped with some success in In The Cut.

A Savage Art would make a great film, I think.

Well, I can dream!

And just look at those actresses – Angie Dickinson, Kathleen Turner, Charlotte Rampling, Nicole Kidman…

Who could play my own Kate Savage?

If anyone can recommend any other erotic thrillers – books or films – please do let me know in the comments.


January 25, 2016

Forensics for fiction  

Not everyone is as fortunate as Val McDermid when it comes to researching the difficult forensics issues in their novels. When she wrote The Skeleton Road,  a novel that highlights the difficulties of identifying a body in Edinburgh that has ties to the Balkan conflict, she was able to consult her friend Professor Sue Black, Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Athropology, who actually did some of the harrowing work involved in identifying the bodies of those killed in the conflict.

(There’s an excellent article by Helen Lewis in the New Statesman about Sue Black – do read it).

However  there are some really wonderful resources available to us all.  I’ve already written about the FutureLearn course, Identifying the Dead.  There are also useful books – among them one by Val McDermid – Forensics : The Anatomy of Crime.  That’s sitting on the pile next to my bed, waiting for my next encounter with insomnia. I may as well have a reason to be sleepless…

Sometimes, however, there is no substitute for being able to ask someone who knows the answer to some peculiar question.  As an unpublished writer I am reluctant to ask for help – I’m not the pushy kind. But I have found some useful strategies.

I’m a member of the guppies – the great unpublished chapter of Sisters in Crime. So, as well as my wonderfully supportive critique group, I have access online to lots of people who have detailed knowledge of all kinds of strange things.  That’s often a first port of call – not least because no one is at all surprised when one asks a question about how to get away with murder.

Some of the online courses also make it possible to ask questions of the course leaders – educational, and effective.

I’ve been introduced to people with specialist knowledge via Facebook friends, and I’m sure that Twitter would be another possibility.

Stuck on a forensics question in the middle of writing my last novel, all those strategies failed. A Google search discovered a UK based forensics science company, and joy of joys, an email address for a member of staff whose actual job it was to answer questions from the general public. And she was a star, and came back within hours with exactly the information I needed.

Of course it’s important to respect other people’s time, so I try to be brief and clear and I certainly don’t demand, or expect a response. But my questions have been answered more often than ignored. I have found that often people are happy to give a brief explanation, to direct me to some reading, or just to tell me that my idea isn’t workable.

Sometimes, an idea that doesn’t work, a line of research that leads to a dead end, turns out to be just as useful. Following tangents can be a dangerous time-sink though – especially for the procrastination-prone writer with a flibbertigibbet mind. Should such a person exist….

*whistles innocently*


Sources :

New Statesman : Where the bodies are buried  by Helen Lewis – a fascinating article by Helen Lewis, which may provide some inspiration.
The Independent : How We Met: Val McDermid and Sue Black
FutureLearn : Identifying the Dead   Not sure when the next presentation might be, but there’s a button to register your interest

January 12, 2016

Impulsive behaviour, free will, and psychological thrillers  

A fascinating article in New Scientist (link here) discusses research that shows that free will may be illusory – and that there are neurological differences between individuals that account for variations.

It has long seemed  to me that some of us have more free will than others, that we all likely have less than we think, and that what little we do have is hard fought for…

But I think we are attached to the idea of individual agency for broadly two separate reasons. Firstly, because we want to believe we have control in our own lives, and secondly, that we want to believe others have control in their lives so we can blame them and punish them when they do something wrong.

This reminds me of an idea posited by the late Colin Wilson, that there’s often a moment when we have a choice, between whether to cope or not cope, for instance. I certainly have experienced both sides of that – when I’ve been sensible and realised that I can make life easier for me and everyone else, and those moments where I’ve been enraged by some perceievd misdemeanour, and started a fight when a more rational version of me would let it go.

It does seem more apt to think of this as “free won’t” – a term mentioned in the linked article.

I would guess that it’s something that we can strengthen by practice, but I know in my own case it’s harder when I’m overwhelmed by stress or pain. But now I wonder if some people may have more of the neurological equipment for self control than others, too.

I am also reminded of a controversial statement once made by the wonderful PD James, which I’ve mentioned before in this blog.  She argued that middle class crime stories – often criticised as “snobbery with violence” – were more interesting because in deprived areas where crime is an everyday matter, there are fewer ‘interesting’ moral choices.

Perhaps this is actually the idea that she was imperfectly expressing – that crimes which are consciously chosen and planned make for better fiction than crimes of an impulsive nature.

While she saw it as a class matter – which I find somewhat disturbing – I can more easily see it as a neurological issue. I suppose that in some ways it is true that poverty and deprivation have long term effects on health, which likely includes neurological development – but it is clear that most poor and lower class people are not criminal, and that many middle class people are. And that’s without a careful analysis of how crime is sociologically constructed.

There are crime novels which explore what could be called disorganised crimes which arise out of impulsivity – but in general they’re not the ones I’m interested in reading or writing.  Like PD James, I am interested in moral choices – though I don’t link the freedom to make those choices to a social class.

Moral dilemmas are often at the heart of the best psychological thrillers.  Some of the most interesting characters are morally ambiguous – from  Raymond Chandler’s shop-soiled Galahad to Highsmith’s sociopathic Tom Ripley. The best heroes and villains are morally ambiguous.  That’s the kind of fiction I enjoy – where not just the plot is complex (I am addicted to story), but where the emotional landscape is too.



New Scientist. Impulsive people may have less free will

The Independent : P D James, Snobbery and Violence

October 4, 2015

More on the Ripper…  

So there’s another theory about the identity of Jack the Ripper. Another book.

Not that I’m obsessed, or anything. I’m not even especially a fan of serial killers in fiction – although of course I enjoyed Silence of the Lambs, and I love the Val McDermid series. Even Sue Grafton’s private detective  Kinsey Milhone seems to be going there now – at least I expect that’s where Y and Z might finish up, given the state of play at the end of X.

Okay, maybe I am fan of serial killers in fiction… Perhaps one day I’ll write one.

The Ripper Museum is back in the news again – apparently Class War, who caused a ruckus outside the Cereal Killer Cafe recently have the Ripper Museum in their sights too, and are planning to protest today.Are they developing some kind of theme? (Edited – apparently they have now cancelled today’s planned protest). And the museum’s PR man got off to a good start in a Twitter spat when he claimed that there’s no reason to think Jack the Ripper was misogynist. Perhaps he hasn’t been to the museum or read anything about the crimes?

So let this be an excuse to go look at some of the Ripper museum merchandise –  here’s a link to a wine glass.   Apparently they are being phased out – I can’t imagine why. So if you have an uncontrollable urge to drink from a glass illustrated with the blood of dead women, now’s your big chance.

But what grabbed my attention was the news there’s yet another book due out – They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper, by Bruce Robinson.

Robinson identifies a new suspect – and more interesting than that – a theory about why the police investigation went nowhere. A conspiracy theory involving no less than the Freemasons. In any case, it all makes far more sense to me than the previous theories.  I won’t attempt to summarise – anyone who is interested will find the article here. 

It’s long but well worth a read, and not only for the Ripper theory.  Robinson is the writer and director of Withnail and I,  he wrote the screenplay for The Killing Fields, and he wrote a novel called The Peculiar Memories of Thoman Penman – which I couldn’t resist ordering even though my pile of books waiting to be read has reached a dangerous height.  Robinson had a difficult childhood filled with secrets and lies and violence. The novel is described as a kind of fictionalised autobiography, and apparently his mother’s response to the publication was to express a wish to buy up all copies and burn them.

Sometimes fiction can get closer to the truth – and the truth is often painful.

He says he fell into researching the Ripper story – a task which has taken him fifteen years – purely by accident – but I’m not convinced.  It’s also a story full of  secrets and lies and violence after all. Isn’t that what most crime fiction is about? What goes on underneath the surface.

My current theory is that those of us who love to read and write about these things are the kinds of people who are never satisfied until we’ve turned over every stone and carefully inspected the underside. Just like Jane Marple in that cosy English village of St Mary Mead we are alert to the subtext of human behaviour. We know that what people say and how they present themselves isn’t the whole story. We know there’s a whole subterranean world of hidden motivations. People aren’t always who and what they say they are. Sometimes we even lie to ourselves, about ourselves. How then can we begin to trust other people?

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 we are mesmerised by the Jack the Ripper story.


Sources and Links

The Ripper Museum

Cereal Killer Cafe Damaged – BBC News

Vice article about the Ripper Museum, the PR man and the counter protest

Telegraph article about new Ripper book
Ripper Museum Protest Cancelled