Crime fiction authors are a strange lot. I include myself in this (very much so!). For months on end we sit in small, untidy rooms making up stuff and writing it down. None of the people we write about do or have ever, existed. Even so, we care about them. We are caring people. I know a lot of authors who give both time and money to worthy causes all over the world. I am patron of a mental health charity myself. And yet the nature of our work requires us to, albeit in fiction, kill mainly innocent people on a regular basis. What is more we generally do this with some relish.
Last Wednesday I left the Pennines and travelled south to my home-town of London. It took me nearly five hours in the car and I was thoroughly ‘driven out’ by the time I arrived in the West End. I’d gone down to do some business in the city as well as to attend the tenth anniversary party of a small independent crime fiction bookshop in Leicester Square. When I got there the book shop was packed with people drinking, eating canapés and talking. Mainly talking.
The day to day isolation involved in the writing process does mean that when authors get together it is a bit like a dam breaking. Only about a third of the people at the party were authors, but it was very easy to spot which third that was. Talking the hind and fore-legs off a multitude of donkeys, they babbled and giggled, chatted and enthused and I did it all with them.
Of course whenever people who haven’t seen each other for a while get together, conversation can cover many things. So we talked about our families, our publishers, money, the state of the nation, the frequently dismal lot of the crime fiction author, etc., etc. As time went on however, we got to the meat of this and probably every other coming together of crime fiction authors. I, I must admit, began it. ‘I’m going to burn a woman,’ I said.
‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ one of my colleagues said. ‘Is this corpse burning or…’
‘Oh, no she’s going to be alive,’ I responded casually. ‘Tied to something I think. Possibly a bed and then doused with some sort of accelerant.’
‘Maybe you could use lighter fuel,’ someone else put in.
‘Or petrol,’ another helpful soul opined.
‘Mmm. It’s a thought,’ I said. ‘You see she’s …’
‘Are you going to burn a living person?’ a woman I didn’t know who had been listening in asked. ‘That’s a terrible way to go, isn’t it? I’m working with poisons at the moment. I’ve done it before, but the attraction never ends.’
We all agreed at that point that poisons were very satisfying in all sorts of ways and that we all, from time to time, felt drawn back into ‘using’ them again. Then talk moved on to battery with heavy implements and finally the very different ways in which a person may expire if stabbed in the thigh. A good evening, in other words, was had by all. Everyone went away happy having talked themselves hoarse and topped up on wine, mini vegetable samosas and some interaction with actual living people.
It was only afterwards, as it always is, that the oddness of myself and my fellow crime authors conversations really struck home. Burning someone to death isn’t nice! In the normal course of events, talk like that would make people want to throw up. We did, after all, go into some of the ins and outs which I will not reproduce here. Of course in the case of an all crime author conversation, death, in a way, is our business and so we are bound to be concerned about it. We have to know about the ‘ins and outs’ in ways that most other folk do not. I suppose it’s the relish involved, which I share, that makes me gasp just a little bit when I think about it. We, as in crime authors, do generally love all that. Why that may be and why, in addition, crime fiction fans like reading about grisly events so much is something about which there has been some debate. Psychologists have over the years talked about such behaviour at length. And as a graduate in psychology myself I have read a few theories about this.
My favourite theory amongst these is the one that states that reading things like crime fiction allows a person to experience the inevitability of death in a safe way. Like the victim or victims of whatever fictional murderer we choose to read about, we are truly (or should be) tense with anticipation about what is to follow. Our eyes are wide, our hearts pound and some people even claim to sweat as the moment of the kill approaches. In a well written novel the reader will go right up to the moment of death with the victim. And yet he or she will not die. Instead of the voices of the choir eternal the reader will experience a feeling of relief at having ‘got away with it’ albeit in a vicarious fashion. Crime fiction allows us the thrills we imagine might accompany the experience of being hunted by a killer, without any of the risk. Would I rather read about someone being poisoned to death by her husband or go to my local hospital for some blood tests? It’s a no-brainer. The book is fictional entertainment, the hospital is real life, blood and guts with the possibility of having to face my own mortality built into its walls.
So think of me as I burn, stab and poison. It may be many, many more months before I’m let out to chat to others of ‘my kind’ again. Who knows what I will come up with next time?