Should Bryant & May Mention What Happens In The Real World?
Today I fell back with relief into the fictional world of Bryant & May, staging a scene that involves an argument between Dan Banbury and John May over paint, an African parrot and a murder on a restaurant staircase. I don’t know if it will reach the second draft yet, it’s a bit mad.
The restaurant is in a real location, and as usual there’s a background chatter of what’s happening to us all in the real world. Previous books have touched lightly on present times, commenting on economic migrants, refugees, changes in law, the closure of public spaces, violent crime statistics, democracy and so on; enough to upset one angry Republican reader in the US who accused me of dragging a political agenda into murder mysteries. I have no problem with supporters of either side so long as they can articulate their choice without resorting to the old, ‘I don’t have to justify myself to you’ because it’s not like liking a piece of art; it’s people’s lives.
So when the entire planet is hit by a life-changing event that will either affect us for years to come or be turned into simply another dropped stitch in life’s rich tapestry, should it be reflected or at least mentioned in fiction? Especially when that fiction is intended to provide an escape from reality? The Bryant & May books are not quite procedurals. They are certainly not cosies and have absolutely no fantasy elements. If anything, I remove true details because they sound fake. How could I invent a St Pancras head pathologist called Bentley Purchase when that really was the senior pathologist’s name?
Becoming too attached to the real world creates its own set of problems. As I’ve pointed out before, the books are spaced differently to the real world because the timeline is truncated in the novels. To mention coronavirus in passing is fine – context – but to place them in lockdown would be wrong – specificity – so in the second draft I’ll add atmosphere and flavour, plus it’s where the more topical jokes go in. But I think I need to avoid the level of topicality that places them entirely within the rules of our world.
First drafts are like rough cuts of films, draggy and paceless, crucially missing connections between characters. When action films are assembled they’re missing the key element audiences like best; the action, much of which may be second unit or awaiting effects. A book’s second and third drafts put in all the joy, but built into that first dull draft are the key elements, one of which is the atmosphere of the location at the time when the book is being written, and that is unavoidable. In fact, to remove this sense of London Now would be to force attention upon its absence.
My take is this; The London of Bryant & May is the London it really is in spirit, and always has been, whether it’s occupied by Sid James or Amy Winehouse or Stormzy. The London I know is there but wish there was more of, the London that has been dismantled in my lifetime and replaced with something less quirky, more anodyne. I feel like a painter-decorator trying to tack up the ornamentation that got stripped away from this city rather than being restored, which was too expensive and too much trouble.
Other countries imagine your own by compiling the parts of your city they wish to see themselves. To America London is forever rainy and filled with ancient buildings, just as Paris is reduced to baguettes and the Eiffel Tower, when the truth is that you’re more surrounded by McDonald’s outlets than boulangeries. But Paris reinvents itself constantly as the City of Light. Watch ‘La Haine’ if you want to see a more realistic Paris – and that film is now 20 years old!
London for me is a blur of all the things it has been in my life, and by extension my detectives’ lives. And so this present experience will find its way in – just not in the way you might expect it to.