Does Brexit Belong In Murder Mysteries?

Christopher Fowler

'Don't get too political,' is a classic writing rule.

Readers are also voters of every hue, and you risk offending them. But if you're going to write a crime novel set in modern-day Britain, you have to at least touch on ordinary life around you to set the story in context. If you overdo it, you'll have too much political content and will turn readers off. If you're writing a satire or an overtly political novel that's fine; the modern master is Jonathan Coe, who from 'What A Carve Up!' to 'Middle England' writes gracefully and hilariously about the state of the nation. Film directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh have made extremely political films with great success. But for a crime novel it's the kiss of death. But every writer puts something of themselves in a book, even inadvertently, and I managed to get hate mail from a particularly rabid US Republican who accused me of 'pushing a liberal agenda', so I've always been wary of touching on broad-picture politics. However, you can mention specific issues if they're germane to the plot. Part of the reason why I wrote 'Wild Chamber' is that I was furious with council plans to stealth-privatise public parks. Which leaves me here, at the start of writing next year's Bryant & May novel, with the country torn in half by Brexit and this ludicrous bucket-mouthed racist likely to sweep the polls by stepping into
a political vacuum. Edmund Burke's quote, 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing', has never been more true. I showed this quote to a Romanian friend living here (who incidentally speaks more languages and is infinitely more intelligent than Farage) and he nodded wearily, saying, 'This is what we get all the time now that he's legitimised public hatred'. I'm writing a murder mystery, not working as a political analyst, but when you feel the change all around you on a daily basis along with other growing chasms between rich and poor, and young and old, it starts to feel odd if you avoid all mention of it in your prose.
The solution, I suspect, is to catch the tension and keep it in the deep background only. It's not my job to tell readers what to think. The Swedish author Per Wahloo tackled societal change head on his his much-lauded crime novels.
Wahloo's two books featuring Chief Inspector Jenson are intellectually intriguing, but politics drowns the suspense. Jensen lives in a soulless futuristic dystopia where his (and there author's) worst fears have come to pass. Drunkenness has been criminalized, city centres have been destroyed by highways and the population is kept sedated with junk-entertainment. Perhaps one day I'll write a second mystery series that's tougher, but PG Wodehouse proved you can be a good writer without involving real life at all. Finding the balance is the key, and I'd rather have my detectives arguing about modern life in abstract ways rather than making them mouthpieces for current views. But oh, for a chance to parody Farage, who is himself a pantomime villain, having failed seven times to become a Member of Parliament, once being beaten by a dolphin - if I made him up readers would accuse me of going over the top!


Brooke (not verified) Mon, 13/05/2019 - 11:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Not "brexit" per se as the center, but the forces and feelings engendered and surrounding it certainly belong in a murder mystery novel. After all, a mystery novel is about people.

Wahloo/Sjowall's M. Beck series always has a political undertone, e.g.The Terrorists. I recall the feeling of Jenson novel and thinking at the time, "so this is what it would be like." I didn't care about plot and suspense; in that respect Wahloo did his job as a writer.

Sorry about the hate mail...

Christopher Fowler Mon, 13/05/2019 - 14:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ha ha - you inspired some fairly sprightly replies! I took the rare step of censoring them as they were a bit troll-y.

Brooke (not verified) Mon, 13/05/2019 - 15:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'd received them before, and in current climate will probably experience some more.

Peter Tromans (not verified) Mon, 13/05/2019 - 16:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Never mind the sad world of the Swedes, follow PGW into total mockery. Get the black shorts out. There is something incredibly laughable about two spindly white legs at the lower end of a pair of huge black shorts while a fat stomached financier and would-be politico outrages from the other.

Ian Luck (not verified) Mon, 13/05/2019 - 16:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

B**x*t belongs in the bin with all the other garbage and unconsidered trifles. I'm sick to the back teeth of hearing about it. I'm not alone. Somebody in Westminster should get their I.T. department (assuming that the UK Government has such a thing; as far as I know, it might still be a telegraph, carrier pigeon and messenger department, with a special 'Chinese Whispers office' for the really secure stuff) to make a video loop of Yoda saying: "Do. Or do not. There is no try.", which all MP's have to watch fifty times before going for a constituent funded nap in their offices. Using the 'B' word for the basis of a story at the present time, would probably see any book so written getting an intimate acquaintance with the remainder bin. Saying that, a book featuring the brutal death of, say, a well-known anti Euro person - let's make one up here, on the spot - French surname, German wife, loves real ale - that sort of person, then that book would sell by the ton.

Richard (not verified) Mon, 13/05/2019 - 18:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This post made me realise something about the series of Hanna we just watched. The only normal, well adjusted family unit in it are Romanian. I could say more, but spoilers.

Roger (not verified) Mon, 13/05/2019 - 18:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'd be a lot more worried if Nigel Farage moved in next door.

Peter Tromans (not verified) Mon, 13/05/2019 - 18:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In view of their declared affinity the aforementioned person might want to live next door to to Potus. It's a long time since I visited Washington, but, in those days Potus's nearest neighbours were living in compact, pre-fabricated, cellulose fibre housing. But I imagine they didn't have chauffeur driven Rolls-Royces.

John Griffin (not verified) Mon, 13/05/2019 - 21:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

There is already a fiction using Farage - Arturo Ui.

joe slator (not verified) Tue, 14/05/2019 - 12:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Andrea Camilleri often includes political content, unless your writing about a made up country how can you not include a reflection of life as it is lived now good and bloody stupid .(ps, I don't think joe grimaldi would have liked the dancing grave stones .If theres one thing all those performers wanted was respectability, he would have loved the clown service and that he was remembered in the fact that clowns are called joeys after him .Joe and hes mother lived with my family in great wild street and my 6xs great grandfather was one of joes best friends ,ROBERT FAIRBROTHER)

Wayne Mook (not verified) Tue, 14/05/2019 - 22:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Not sure why you couldn't use it. GK Chesterton used the anarchist theme in 'The Man Who Thursday.' The 39 Steps' and 'The Riddle of the Sands' all use political ideas and fears of their time, as Brooke said it doesn't have to be central and as she said crime centres around people and these issues are people driven.

Edgar Wallace's best book 'The Four Just Men' is very political.

We used to have political thrillers all the time, even Agatha Christie touched on racism and sexism just think of the reaction and comments to Poirot and Miss Marple.

With aged detectives, ageism is easily slipped in, and then health and it's treatment could be brought in. I expect a number of the older hospitals and the sites they sit on interesting secrets & histories, also property and who owns it (and why) have always been very political and ideal for crime mysteries.

Maybe would take a leaf out of Dennis Wheatley and have Satanism as a cover for something else, in his case it was international communism, now it could be international bankers (I guess you knew that was coming.)


Bruce Rockwood (not verified) Wed, 15/05/2019 - 00:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

With my grandchildren in Edinburgh, I suggested their dad run for a EU seat. What the h#@l! Which is more absurd with our trump. Just hang in there.

SteveB (not verified) Wed, 15/05/2019 - 17:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I love (most of) Mike Leigh's films though I couldn't be further from him politically.
The reader has to be engaged even when s/he doesn't agree.I don't always agree with what Nick Cohen has to say but I'm always interested.
If you start to lecture your readers about Nigel Farage (or a Nigel Farage lookalike) I honestly think you'd lose readers, because you'll only awake their existing stereotypes and prejudice (in whichever direction). You have to take the human universals that people will still recognise in 50 years. Long after Farage will be forgotten.

SimonB (not verified) Thu, 16/05/2019 - 12:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

How many more B&M's do you want to write (ignoring practicalities such as contracts)? I know you have done a bit of time-shifting/age manipulation already but if you make a reference too specific then you are locked in to ages, technology etc. If character X is 65 in 2020 they can't really still be 65 when talking about whatever major event happens in 2030, while if things are kept non-specific then little bits and bobs can drift by un-noticed.

Malcolm McKay (not verified) Sun, 26/05/2019 - 07:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In Australia we have just reelected a conservative government for the third time. This government has managed to win the last two elections despite a genuine lack of policies and three leadership changes, while the opposition Labor Party has spent the same six year period advancing actual policies that are designed for the future and also managed to not once replace its leader and went into the election as favourite to win. I just think that there is a strange disease afflicting our western democracies at the moment that rewards right wing non-progressive and insular views - the parallels with the 1930s are worrying.

I do not even pretend to understand Brexit except to think of it as another manifestation of a rush to some imaginary past through fear of change. As for Farage, is Britain so lost in the vain glorious nonsense of seeing the Empire miraculously restored as to see him as something other than the spiv he is - just another manifestation of the Trump phenomenon. No wonder the Russians and the Chinese have stolen a march on the West.