Tuesday, 28 June 2011

True Crime?

I believe that bloggers and reviewers shouldn’t give away the plots of other writers’ novels. It’s perhaps not so crucial in traditional romances, when it’s guaranteed that the hero and heroine will have their happily ever after. Although I do recall reading about someone who objected when a review of a television adaptation revealed that Elizabeth Bennet marries Mr Darcy.

In novels where the detection of crime is a major theme, however, the reader’s experience can be completely spoiled if he or she knows the ending in advance. I remember the furore when a national newspaper obituary of Agatha Christie gave away the solution to one of her mysteries. As I recall, the obituarist was unrepentant; he said it was the best way to illustrate Dame Agatha’s particular genius.

However, I don’t think it’s possible to make the point I want to make in this post effectively without revealing plot details. So I’ll say in advance that I’m going to be talking about Phil Rickman's The Lamp of the Wicked and Christopher Fowler's  Bryant and May: Off the Rails. Anyone who really doesn’t want to know about those books shouldn’t read beyond the end of this paragraph. I have read and enjoyed other books by these authors; the fact that I have reservations about these two titles doesn’t mean I dislike their work overall.

So, on to the point of this post. When, if ever, is it appropriate to use real life crime for fictional purposes? The Whitechapel murders have been providing material for novels and film and television drama for years. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is the most recent fictional interpretation of a crime that took place at Road Hill House in Wiltshire in 1860. All the people directly connected to these crimes is long dead and can‘t be affected by anything written about them. (Although, remarkably, one person involved in the events at Road Hill House lived until 1944 and is probably remembered by people still alive today.)

What about more recent crimes? In The Lamp of the Wicked, Phil Rickman uses real life events in Gloucester in the 1990s as part of the background to the story. Real people do not appear in the book, but one of the characters is said to have known and been influenced by the perpetrator of these real life crimes. There was no advance warning that fact and fiction would be mingled in this way; if there had been, I would probably have chosen not to read the book.

In Bryant and May: Off the Rails, Christopher Fowler concludes what, up to that point, had been an entertaining novel set against the fascinating background of the abandoned and unknown parts of the London Underground by revealing that the murderer the detectives had pursued through two books started the King's Cross Fire in 1987. There is in fact no evidence that the fire was started deliberately or criminally; that is pure invention on the author’s part. Again, there is no warning that real life events are going to intrude so starkly into the fiction.

So where does an author draw the line? Is it ever appropriate to use real tragic events as a background to fiction? Would it be more acceptable to use an event such as the King’s Cross Fire to explore the impact of a disaster on the lives of survivors, rather than to drive the plot of a mystery novel? Or should contemporary novelists always stick to fiction and leave real life events to journalists?

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