The Suspension of Disbelief
The crime genre is divided into many different subsections. The one I currently find myself inhabiting, it seems, is ‘Golden Age’/’Fantastic’, although I’m not quite sure why this label has been attached, as it seems very arbitrary. I’m doing a panel at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival later this month, and have a slot which is apparently about science fiction and urban fantasy. Personally, I don’t think Bryant & May fall into either category. But for many people, the crime procedural is the genre’s default mode, although it’s really only one sub-division. This is probably due to the large number of procedurals that appear on TV.
But when you think about it, all crime novels are fantastical. Real crimes are solved by teams, not individuals, and it’s a rare case that throws up an unexpected killer. Most murders are committed by people immediately known to the victim, and the motives are sad and sordid; sex, poverty, addiction, desperation – there are very few genius murderers hiding clues all over the city. Crimes are solved by boring hard work, an examination of circumstance and forensic evidence.
The investigators rarely have a murdered wife or daughter. They do not act alone. They don’t find the killer while they’re in a situation of personal danger, in a sudden eleventh-hour twist of circumstance. There aren’t usually three or four other murders committed by the same person while the investigation is ongoing. So even the most supposedly realistic crime novels are utterly untruthful to life.
One of the few exceptions I can think of is AD Miller’s brilliant ‘Snowdrops’, in which it’s hard to decide if a crime has even been committed, and who really occupies the moral high ground. This book was a genuine game-changer, and should have won the Booker Prize.
So, if most ‘realistic’ crime novels are no such thing, where does that leave Bryant & May? Their unit is based on real units created in the postwar period (like the one my father belonged to). All of the characters are based on real people I know. All of the factual London details are true, as are the historical details. There are no real elements of the supernatural (those only existed in the non-canonical volumes, ‘Rune’ and ‘Darkest Day’) and even the whimsical humour, like Bryant’s rudeness and Maggie’s barminess, stems directly from the real-life originals. If anything, they’re greatly toned down. I know some genuine London eccentrics who are far too strange to be put in the books.
So how did this series end up being regarded as urban-fantastic? All I’ve done is exaggerate the characteristics of investigation. On this front, having a killer obsessed with Punch & Judy is less outrageous than Hannibal Lector swanning about Italy attending classical concerts and sawing off the tops of people’s heads. What we’re talking about is the suspension of disbelief, and while many authors go to great lengths to create an ultra-realistic background for their plots (detailing office routines, workplace politics and technology, for example) I simply go for the pleasure-points, ensuring that readers don’t have to wade through lots of dull stuff to get to the parts they enjoy most.
Suspension of disbelief is a strange thing; I get occasional letters from readers demanding to know the exact ages of Bryant & May. Do they also need to know why the Simpsons don’t age or how there could be more than one murder in Midsomer? I think my characters found the level of belief appropriate to the books, which is why in my graphic novel ‘The Casebook of Bryant & May’ we’ll be making the story more fantastical and colourful, as suits the comic genre. And if, God forbid, the characters ever end up on film, I have no doubt they’ll both be about 21 years old, to appeal to the cinema going age-group.
The moral? The best way to have your readership suspend disbelief is to make the characters true. The rest follows.