The Beasts Beneath
Some years ago, I was sitting in a Soho taxi late at night when its driver was violently attacked by two drunk businessmen who walked across his path. I agreed to act as the driver’s witness, but outside the courtroom the police persuaded the plaintiff to drop his case in exchange for cash. The driver had shouted at the men, who were filled with drunken anger and beat him up while I was locked in the back of the cab.
It was decided between all of them that court proceedings would only cause everyone more trouble. It was a reasonable solution, if an unexciting one. The men agreed to pay all costs – they had damaged the taxi and hospitalised the driver – but it felt wrong to me. They should have been punished for what they did, because they were very likely to do it again.
If youâ€™ve ever been the victim of a crime, youâ€™ll know that itâ€™s a very different experience from its fictional equivalent. Police stations are like hospitals; they go by the playbook and most of what happens is behind the scenes. The rest is just waiting around and trying to reconcile your anger and frustration with the orderly procedures you have to face. If crime fiction accurately reflected this, it would be a moribund genre indeed.
Yet publishers are keen to convince us that their latest murder mysteries are grittily realistic and true-to-life. Theyâ€™re not, never were and never will be. How many killers are captured while theyâ€™re still in the middle of their slaughter sprees? How many have ever planned a series of murders according to biblical arcana? How many leave abstract clues for detectives and get caught just as theyâ€™re about to strike again?
Crime fiction is a construct, a device for torqueing tension, withholding information and springing surprises. Every month dozens of crime novels appear that promise us new levels of realism, when they patently supply the reverse. Weâ€™ll happily believe that the murder rate in Morseâ€™s Oxford equals that of Mexico City if the story is told with conviction.
The Bryant & May books are sometimes dismissed as a kind of fantasy hybrid. I get put on panels with SF authors by people who haven’t read the books. Yet to me they exist in heightened reality, a style I employed in both ‘Paperboy’ and ‘Film Freak’. Accuracy is not truth, but heightened reality can sometimes dig out truths better than a slavish adherence to accurate detail.
All of my books are based on kernels of truth. In the next one, ‘Hot Water’, a group of middle-class friends end up in a holiday villa in southern France, where they proceed to destroy their world. It was based on a real holiday I took where the main events in the book actually occurred, but to tie it all together I needed another real event that personally involved me, on a different earlier trip.
I conflated the two sets of circumstances, pulled forward the consequences, added to them, changed them and made everything more disastrous. The real-life knock-on from the first holiday lasted three years. I tie up my fictional events over the space of two weeks.
I’d thought the reality was less heightened in ‘Hot Water’ and more real. And yet…the wonderful crime writer Ann Cleeves reckons I’ve written ‘a fable for our time’. She says; ‘IÂ loved that simmering, relentless tension between apparently civilized people.’
That’s what I was aiming for, to strip away some of the civilisation to reveal the beats beneath. I’m hoping this book, out from Titan in March, breaks out of a crowded field.