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?”
This beautiful chapel of ease, dedicated to St James, is in Stoke Orchard, a few miles outside Cheltenham. Inside, the walls still bear traces of their mediaeval paintings. Though the colours are faded now, in their heyday they would have been vibrant, even garish. Their purpose was to illustrate the Bible’s teachings to people who couldn’t read or understand Latin, as all services in the church would have been conducted in Latin. The fact they’ve survived the rigours of the reformation of the church and the hammer blows (literally) of Oliver Cromwell’s vision of England, is astonishing. In other churches, the paintings survived only to fall foul of Victorian whitewash. Any that survive, as they do here, are incredibly fragile and increasingly rare, a fact that makes them doubly precious.
But what makes this church so special to me is that it contains a number of pilgrim crosses. The church was on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela: pilgrims heading there from the north of England or from Wales would break their journey at certain points along the way, offering up prayers for a safe journey and return. This chapel is one of those stopping off points. On their way to Spain, pilgrims carved crosses in the stonework of the church, just inside the door. On their way home, they carved a circle around the cross they’d made, indicating they'd safely made it back. To me, these marks are so poignant: a tangible mark of both the faith and fragility of previous times.
My interest in pilgrims and pilgrimages started long ago, as a child taken to visit church after church, abbey after abbey. Was I the only ten year old who could spot a Saxon tower? Later, when I lived amongst Aboriginal people, I came to see correlations between pilgrim routes and the songlines. Walkabout is, arguably, a form of pilgrimage.
And now my latest book, Holy Blood, concerns itself with the holy relics housed in abbeys in the middle ages. Some relics were regarded as so sacred they attracted thousands of pilgrims, whose offerings at the shrine provided a valuable source of income for the abbey. In Holy Blood, the abbey is Hailes, near Winchcombe, a few miles from Cheltenham. It housed one of the most sacred Christian relics of all: a phial of the blood of Christ, collected at the time of his crucifixion. Pilgrims flocked to see the relic: the mere sight of it was believed to ensure salvation.
But Henry VIII, forgetting that he himself had walked barefoot in pilgrimage to the shrine at Walsingham, ordered the destruction of the relics. The Blood of Hailes was removed and tested, and declared to be a fake. A short time later, the Abbey itself was Dissolved, the land given away, and the buildings dismantled.
The plot of Holy Blood came about when on a visit to Hailes, one gloriously sunny summer day, I found myself wondering, ‘What if the Holy Blood of Hailes wasn’t destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, after all? What if it survived somehow?’
And from there I started reading, widely, about pilgrims and pilgrimages, the Dissolution, monastic life, and what happened to people who continued to believe in relics and the Catholic church. And I did my own pilgrimage, to Walsingham, in Norfolk. Not barefoot like Henry VIII, but still. It was as I imagined pilgrim sites to be in the past: groups travelling together with their priest, some solemn and overawed, others laughing and with a ready quip; the sales of badges and stickers to proclaim ‘I was there’; a strangely festival atmosphere and a disconcerting rubbing shoulders of the sacred and the profane.
But as I stood in the Slipper Chapel, silent and overawed by the press of history, I understood how it might have felt to a mediaeval pilgrim, weary and travel stained, to reach his destination at last. And I saw how embodied an experience pilgrimage is, to undergo the rigours and perils of the journey, which could easily last for months. No wonder they bought badges to mark the event. I’d done nothing more strenuous than sit in a car, but I too, bought a badge, to mark my pilgrimage.
George Orwell named nine cases in his essay on the ‘Golden Age of Murder’; six of them are poisonings. So what is it about poisoning that delivers such delicious horror to the writer and reader of crime fiction? For me, it’s the fact that the poisoner has to be close to the victim, and may even be a family member, and because poisoning subverts all our cultural beliefs about food. Food is meant to nourish and restore; we use the phrase ‘comfort food’ to show how food nurtures our mental as well as physical health. How creepy, how insidious then, to transform the substance that’s meant to sustain into something intended to kill.
Poisoning is the epitome of premeditation. It takes thought, time and cunning to devise a way to poison someone. The poisoner is cold-blooded indeed to make these preparations. Having administered the poison, the poisoner needs nerves of steel to watch their victim eat it, and then watch them suffering a long, painful and protracted death, even sometimes being called on to nurse their victim.
The Golden Age of Murder
When we think of poisoning, we tend to think first of the golden age of murder, and the cases that gripped the nation, and which still interest us today. Cases such as Madeleine Smith, the young woman from a well-to-do Scottish family, who was charged with killing her lover with arsenic-laced cocoa. She was tried under Scottish law, and found not proven – neither guilty nor not guilty.
Another sensational arsenic poisoning case was Mrs Maybrick, who unwisely soaked fly papers to extract the arsenic to make a face wash to brighten her complexion. Unfortunately when her husband died of arsenic poisoning, the finger was pointed at her, though later it was discovered that her husband was an arsenic eater, taking increasing doses of the stuff daily to improve his constitution.
Far from poisoning being a ‘woman’s crime’ (though it’s often spoken of that way), many of the infamous poisoners from the golden age were men: Seddon, who killed his lodger to get his hands on her gold; Armstrong, who administered poison to his nagging wife; and Crippen, who silenced his wife with hyoscine.
There are common elements to these cases that spark the imagination: the closeness of the poisoner to the victim, the initial incorrect diagnosis of gastritis or stomach flu, the exhumation and testing of the body, and the fact that arsenic remains in the body, a finger pointing to foul play. Add in the big characters of the time like the barrister Marshall Hall and pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, and a domestic drama is transformed into national obsession. To me as a crime writer, these highly emotional set-pieces are almost irresistible.
But is poisoning only for the golden age of murder? If you’re writing a contemporary crime novel, what does poisoning offer as a method of murder that you don’t get from shooting, stabbing or strangulation?
Firstly, you get more choice over the time of death. In poisoning, symptoms may take a while to appear. Though some, like cyanide, are instantaneous, some deadly poisons may take days before the victim realises something is wrong. For example, it takes up to five days before symptoms of paraquat poisoning occur, and several days after that before the victim dies. This gives the crime writer an opportunity to muddy the murder timeline and bring in a few red herrings, as it will be impossible to determine exactly when the poison was administered.
Poisoning also gives you, the writer, some choice over the symptoms and appearance of the corpse. You might want the symptoms to look like an illness such as a heart attack, to confuse all the characters except the savvy detective. Don’t forget that no one will test for a poison unless there is a suspicion to do so, and an idea of what to test for, so your fictional murderer might initially get away with it until the weight of evidence grows.
Alternatively, you might want dramatic, frightening or bizarre symptoms to raise the tension in the story. Your victim might be found with a blackened face (silver nitrate poisoning), yellowed skin (nicotine), or suffer pre-mortem smoking breath and faeces (phosphorous).
Picking the Perfect Poison
When I researched and wrote my novel Paternoster, I learned that it pays to decide on the poison early in the writing process, and check the symptoms, time line for reaction, and appearance of the victim, because it might just change the direction of the story.
Paternoster is set in Cheltenham. Initially, the plot concerned murders at an exclusive introduction agency, and the poison I wanted to use was mistletoe, partly because of the connection between mistletoe and kissing (yes, the working title was ‘Fatal Kiss’), but also because the trees in Cheltenham hang heavy with mistletoe and I wanted a uniquely Cheltenham brand of murder.
However, when I researched mistletoe, I was disappointed to find it wasn’t fatal (unless you scoff a ton of it and I couldn’t see the victim falling for that) so I had to find another poison. Off I went to my writers’ big book of poisons, and browsing through the pages, I came across a deadly poison, little known yet easily available, which was used traditionally in trial by ordeal. Thinking about this poison set me off on a different plot about secret societies in contemporary and Georgian Cheltenham.
This chap is John Schorne, a thirteenth century miracle worker. During a drought, he's said to have struck the ground with his staff, and water poured forth. From then on, pilgrims flocked to the well to drink the holy water and to be cured of gout. Those who visited the well would very likely have bought a badge as a souvenir of their trip, like the one represented above.
This is a replica pilgrim badge, based on an original design. It sits on my desk to help me with my writing. Not by working miracles, (though some days it would be handy!) but by helping me to understand faith, religion and miracles in the past.
Having something tangible to ground your writing was a tip given to me by fellow History Press author Anne Strathie. She writes biographies, and told me that she likes to have some tangible link to the person she's writing about close to hand, to keep them real and to keep her focussed.
I'm currently writing Holy Blood - the second in the Eden Grey series, and the historical part of the action is set at Hailes Abbey, and concerns a relic known as the Holy Blood. During the middle ages, Hailes was one of the major pilgrimage sites, as it housed the blood of Christ. It's likely that Hailes, too, would have sold pilgrim badges with images of the Holy Blood, but I haven't yet been able to track down what a Hailes badge looked like. In the meantime, John Schorne reminds me that during the time I'm writing about, people believed that seeing a holy relic could earn them some time off in Purgatory.
It helps me to build the world view of someone who knows that when he or she dies, their soul will spend some time doing penance before they're allowed into heaven, and that the length of time spent there is negotiable through prayer and religious observances.
The pilgrim badges bought by those who visited shrines served not only to show others where their devotions had taken them, but was a tangible reminder that they had done everything they could for the sake of their soul.
A little badge, a scrap of metal, yet it helps me to connect with a world view and absolute faith that otherwise would be alien to me.
One thing I love about this time of year is having a few days off work when I can hibernate with a good book. I have a tradition of going to the library on Christmas Eve and choosing the books I want to read over the Christmas break, then I get comfortable with a hot drink and some dark chocolate, and dive in for a long read.
This year, I'm going to do it slightly differently. In Iceland, they give each other books on Christmas Eve, then sit up all night, reading their new books and eating chocolate. This sounds exactly my kind of thing, with the perfect combination of reading and chocolate, so my husband and I are going to a charity bookshop to choose books to give each other, then we'll settle down at home with our new books, and of course, lots of chocolate.
When I've got time to wallow in reading, I like to reread my favourites. I'm very fond of Wilkie Collins, and each time I reread 'The Woman in White', I recall the very first time I read it. Someone gave me a copy for Christmas, and I started reading it straight away, and was so engrossed I couldn't stop, and had the book open on my lap under the table so I could keep reading during lunch, something that was absolutely forbidden in my family.
It's also a good time to catch up with what I like to call 'professional development', or true crime books. I've got quite a collection of true crime cases like the Penguin 'Famous Trials' series, and a number of books on forensics. So this year I'll be reading and re-reading those, as they often give me inspiration for a new book, or a twist in the book I'm writing.
There's plenty of research for me to do over the Christmas break, too. My new novel is partly set in the murky world of Elizabethan espionage, and I have a pile of books in daily life in Elizabethan England, Walsingham, and spies to indulge in.
Must check I've got enough chocolate to see me through ...
One of the great things about being a writer is doing the research to support and inform each book. I'm currently writing the next Eden Grey mystery, and the action starts at Hailes Abbey, a ruined monastery near Winchcombe, just a few miles from Cheltenham.
Hailes is a beautiful, tranquil place. The light bounces on the amber stone of the ruins, it's surrounded by lush hillsides, and when I'm there, a deep sense of peace descends on me. Why that made me think it was a good place for a murder, I don't know!
Visiting Hailes during the summer, I took lots of photographs and shot some video to remind me of where different parts of the monastery and church were in relation to each other, and so I could visually conjure up the Abbey when I was writing.
I've put the clips together into a little video for you (only a couple of minutes). So if you've ever wondered what writers do all day, this will give you a taster.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.