A question I’m often asked when I give talks about my writing, is ‘Don’t you feel guilty about teaching people how to commit murder?’ My short answer is, ‘No.’ Here’s my long answer.
I’m not in the business of teaching people how to commit crimes, but to explore what drives people to commit the ultimate act and how that affects both the culprit and the people around them. I’m much more interested in why dunnit than who dunnit; more interested in the psychology around crime than in the specifics of the crime itself.
The joy of a crime novel is breaking society and putting it back together again. There has to be something at stake for the reader to care about, so that they get a big emotional payoff when the wrong is righted. Murder is a big stake. We might not care so much about someone parking on a double yellow line, but we really care about a life being taken. We crave retribution and through it, restoration of the proper order in society. For me, it’s important to show the horror of murder, not to glamorise it but to show exactly what’s at stake. Murder isn’t cosy, it isn’t a jolly jape: it’s the deliberate taking of someone’s life. I show enough of the crime scene to let the impact of it sink in, but no more, and if I can, I reflect the horror through a character’s reaction to it.
When it comes to describing the act of murder itself, most of the time I don’t do so: I give an idea of what’s about to happen, and pull away. I don’t like to read the details of torture and murder and so I don’t write them. Many of the murders in my novels are bloodless, and if you’re looking for details about poisoning, I don’t go into the specifics of dosages. Any would-be murderer reading my books to get step-by-step instructions would feel like someone putting together flat-pack furniture only to find a side panel and three screws missing.
For that matter, who reads crime novels to find out how to commit murder? The vast majority of people who read crime do so because they want to solve the puzzle. They care about restoring society to normal rather than tearing it apart. Dare I say it (because I haven’t actually met any) most murderers either act on impulse, or if they’re planning a murder, they use the internet to research what they want to know.
So where do I get my information? I use books on forensics, true crime and toxicology when I’m researching a new book. Once I wanted to poison a character with mistletoe, but my Big Book of Poisons for Writers informed me that you’d have to eat a huge quantity of mistletoe for it to be fatal. I researched further and found a poison that was fatal, and used that in my novel instead. Getting details right is important, because if I’d used mistletoe anyway, someone would have written to tell me I'd got it wrong. I try to navigate that fine line between giving enough details to lend authenticity, but steering away from specifics that would revolt. Interestingly, I spend much more time researching the historical details in my novels than I do researching poisons, post mortems, forensics or toxicology.
Having said all this about murder, one thing I'm very cautious about is discussing suicide. If a character dies by suicide, I very carefully avoid giving details. This is because I’m concerned that details could be remembered, and if someone was feeling desperate, these details could help them to take an irrevocable step. I read a book a few years ago (title and author sadly lost in the mists of my memory) where a character looks upon a suicide victim and simply remarks, “I had heard that it was possible to die that way.” No other details were given. I liked both the compassion and the way a veil was drawn over specifics, and I’ve tried to do similarly in my own writing.
Despite my assertions that I don't teach people how to commit murder, at the end of each talk there’s always someone who sidles up to me to ask a question. Typically it goes like this, “Hypothetically, if you had a man aged around 50, weight around 13 stone, and you wanted to kill him using arsenic, how much would you need to put in his morning porridge and would two spoons of sugar cover up the taste?”
I was looking through some old writing course notes the other day, and came across this advice: find the darkest place in your mind, and write about it. The advice continued: what's the darkest thing you can think of? Make it happen to your characters.
It set me wondering - what's the darkest thing I could think of, and is it wise to spend so much time dwelling on the dark side?
I'm currently writing the third Eden Grey mystery, and it starts with an almighty shocker of a first chapter. Rules of the game are if you start high octane, you have to maintain it - you can't slip into a gentle, cosy pace - so I needed a plot that would live up to the opening. I asked myself, "What's the darkest thing one person can do to another?" and I wrote a list. Then I found myself thinking, "If I take that and that, and combine them, I get something that's really dark."
Question is: should I?
In recent years there's been a trend in crime fiction towards ever more sadistic and violent crimes. Books that start in the murderer's mind and show you exactly how they're torturing the victim. Or that are in the victim's mind, and you experience the torture with them. I can't read this kind of material. It's too nasty and gratuitous, and I feel like a voyeur reading it. But could I write it? Probably.
When I'm writing, I find myself simultaneously caught up in the characters' heads, and at a remove from them. I can make terrible things happen to them, and be able to stand back from it all and consciously determine how to craft it. Graham Greene described this as 'a splinter of ice in the heart' - the writer's ability to take a tragedy and turn it into entertainment. Because however literary or artistic our writing is, on some level we're always aiming to entertain our readers, otherwise they'll put the book aside.
The splinter of ice in my heart enables me to write dispassionately about proper nasty stuff - child abuse and people smuggling and murder. And it's only later that I look at what I've written and wonder if maybe I need psychological help. The first time I met my agent, she said to me, "You know, if you writers just got yourselves good psychiatrists, you wouldn't have to write all this crime." Where's the fun in that?
So my challenge is to go as dark as I dare, but be careful not to fall into the trap of writing nasty scenes just for the sake of it. A scene that explores the dark side must have a point to it. In crime fiction, the darker the crime, the more there is at stake, and the more that's demanded of the hero. There's normally a resolution - the baddy gets caught and brought to justice - so the reader is relieved that no matter how much the dark side of human nature upsets the social order, there's always restitution. Society is stronger than evil.
Lurking with my dark side makes me confront what scares me most about human nature, but because this is fiction, it's a safe place for me and the reader. And unlike real life, I get to make it better - my protagonist Eden Grey will face evil and overcome it. The greater the evil she faces, the greater the relief for both me and reader that the thing we fear the most can - ultimately - be overcome.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.