There are any number of ways to write crime out there, from the most genteel chocolate box crime, where everything is labelled and the detectives just follow the map, usually in period costume, to the dark world of James Ellroy and Michael Connelly, whose detective Harry Bosch takes his name from the fifteenth century Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch. Maybe Connelly feels that Hieronymus Bosch’s surreal and nightmarish landscapes of heaven and hell, full of strange beasts and half people, that curious mixture of ecstasy and suffering, best represent the real world of Los Angeles. There must be something in that sprawling cityscape which produces good crime writers. No one has quite matched Raymond Chandler’s wit of the near death experience just yet.
Why write crime at all? I write it to explore why people do what they do to each other but there’s also the challenge of it. It’s just not that easy to write a story that will grip the reader from beginning to end and hopefully have no flaws in its logic. You have to create your detective, whoever they might be. They are the ones who have to deal with the worst that human beings do while juggling their own lives as well. They’re confessors – they hear all the crime and sins that everyone commits and then they clean them up as best they can. Do they fit nicely into a community, like Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford. Or do they, like Peter Corris’s Cliff Hardy, represent what we like to believe are the real strengths of being Australian – egalitarianism, acceptance, sharp humour? Or are they irredeemable outsiders, like the character played by Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, Rust Cohle? Someone whose nihilism speaks the truth more honestly than those around him. People call him an anti-hero but really he’s a seer, reading the entrails (sometimes literally), perceptive enough to find the source of evil in the society. Because he’s an outsider he has no attachments, no illusions and no comfort except usually through alcohol or whatever other local anaesthetics he or she (think Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect and some other Lynda La Plante female detectives) can lay a hand to. It’s a corrosive life style to say the least. Then there are those dark Scandinavian crime novels where you think it’s the weather that brings out all that Nordic gloom. In Australia we have the opposite – hard, clear light that should reveal everything.
And sometimes the detective, so-called, is right from the core of the society they live in. Assuming you can read Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone as a thriller, there’s no outsider here looking in, no character who’s peripheral to the action at the heart of the book come to pass judgement, but Ree Dolly who is bound deeply into her society in the Ozark Hills. She is investigating a crime but that isn’t the point. What she’s really doing in her search for her father is taking us on a journey through all that society’s complexities, its own moral code, the likely fates of its people. It’s imperative she find her father but for quite different reasons than seeing anyone brought into a court of law.
Then there’s the murderer; there has to be a murderer. Are they scapegoats for the evils of society? A victim turned aggressor? A psychopath? Is it the individual who is evil or society itself? Or someone seeking a revenge, or fulfilling an obligation forced on him or her by the society they live in. My two detectives, Paul Harrigan and Grace Riordan, are damaged people, just like Rust Cohle. When they’re on the track of a murderer, it’s little like they’re chasing after the murderers they’ve met in their own lives, the ones who threatened them. In Harrigan’s case, the one who very nearly killed him. Which brings me back to the role of the detective. Are they avenging angels, tarnished by their constant association with the demonic? Peripheral characters assuming the role of the guide leading you through an interesting puzzle? So much a part of their fallen world, they’re a part of the tensions in that world that pull one way or the other, either towards resolution or continuing violence. Maybe that’s why crime fiction fascinates so many people and why so many write it. Because it asks all those questions about who and what we are and it’s our choice how we like those questions answered. Once you have the basic template, other than always entertaining your reader, there are really no rules as to how you refashion that template, how you use it..