What are your thoughts on the current state of crime fiction?
I get very annoyed at the snooty literary ‘establishment’ that sneers at all commercial fiction, and quite forgets it is the commercial fiction of the past 3000 years that has survived, not the elitist stuff. Three years ago the Chair of the Booker Prize said, “Hell will freeze over before a crime novel makes the Booker Shortlist.” So he would have excluded Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene…
I believe the current success of the crime genre reflects the quality of writing and the realization by readers that the best way to examine and reflect the world in which we live is through the crime novel genre. If Shakespeare were alive today he would either be writing Coronation St or crime novels, as would, in my view, all these great past writers. You’ve only to look at Shakespeare’s canon of work – over half his plays contain a trial scene!
Aristotle said that every tragic play had to have a Hamartia – a character with a tragic flaw – an Anagnoresis – a critical discovery – and a Perepetia – a sudden reversal of fortune. I think if he was writing today, he would be writing crime novels as exactly these same rules apply!
What does the issue come down to as far as you’re concerned?
Would I rather be classed as a literary’ writer and have maybe five thousand people in the whole world read my turgid work, and scratch their heads afterwards, or would I rather take the Devil’s shilling and have 50 million people read my books?
What’s the appeal of crime fiction?
I think one of the big appeals of the genre is that it enables readers to experience crime vicariously. At one level it is like the ride on the ghost train, where you know, despite whatever horrors await, at some point the doors will bang open and you will be back out in safe daylight. At another level it allows readers to ‘rubber neck’ horrific things without the churning stomach they would get reading the same thing in the papers. And I have a theory that another of the deep rooted pleasures of the crime novel is that it taps into our survival genes. It enables people to study victims and learn from them. Ok, she got murdered because she didn’t look around when she entered the car park… so when I enter the multi-storey behind Sainsbury, I’m not going to make that same mistake…
Would you agree with genre classifications in that the crime novel is about the extremes human beings are capable of?
No, I very strongly disagree with this line of thought. A crime novel is at its heart an examination of the differences between people; the difference between the criminal and his victim, the criminal and the police, different cops within the police. Sure, some crime novels, such as Silence Of The Lambs, examine extremes – skinning people and the monster Lecter. But they are much more about society and the world we live in. I’m sure that is part of the appeal of the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy, or the books of Ian Rankin, for instance.
What’s unique to the point of view from which crime novels look at the world?
The police have a unique and privileged view of the world – they see it from what I term ‘the other side of the curtain’ – whether it is dealing with a domestic dispute, a violent street gang, a rape victim, a child killer or a drug addict, their work embraces every imaginable facet of our world and the impacts it has on people. This is what makes them so fascinating to write – and to read – about.
How would you describe your own work? Do you have a particular reader in mind when you write?
I have no ‘target’ reader in mind at all. I’m writing the kind of books I like to read myself – thrillers which are more than just a plain thriller – books where the reader learns things about the world we live in, about the human race, about why people do the things that they do. A truly satisfying book for me is one that leaves me feeling wiser; these are the kinds of book I write.
If crime novels are the current affairs of art, do you see yourself as a newsreader, a juryman, or perhaps a tour-guide to modern culture?
That is an interesting point. Certainly, crime reflects the society in which it exists. Look at the amount of gun crime in South Africa and the USA – a direct product of guns being easily available. And in the UK, as our world becomes more and more high-tech, the old style burglars of houses are becoming dinosaurs. Much richer and easier pickings are to be had from electronic crime such as Internet fraud – and you don’t have to stay up late and be out at all hours and risk getting bitten by dogs, etc…
As a writer dealing with crime and the fear of it, what are your thoughts on our current culture of fear?
I think our current culture of fear is a direct product of the media. The reality is that more children were abducted and murdered by someone who was not a member of their family in 1928 than last year.
Does the genre’s recent focus on CSI and post mortem identification indicate a paradigm shift? Are we concerned with genetic data now that we have access to it, because we see the gene as the secular soul?
I love your concept of the ‘secular soul’. But I don’t think it applies here: The genre’s concern with post mortems is simply that with advances in forensic science, the focus in a major crime, such as a homicide or stranger rape has shifted from the crime scene to the path lab. In the days of Agatha Christie, the crime scene was everything. But now more major crimes are solved from evidence found on or in the body. That is the reason why rape victims themselves become official ‘crime scenes’ the moment the police are involved.
How important is a strong sense of place to you and your writing?
Place is hugely important in the crime novel. For such a book to work, the setting has to be rooted in the real world. Almost every successful crime writer has a strong sense of place in his or her writing.
Looking back at your years as a writer, how do you feel about the characters you have created? What’s it like to accompany them and watch them become different people?
Every time I start a new book I feel like I am returning to wonderful old friends! The feeling grows stronger with each book. I often think about what they are up to between books, as well. For instance, I imagine DS Norman Potting, going through his fourth divorce, having lunch on his own on Xmas day, sitting forlornly in the window of an Aberdeen Angus steak house, trying to chat up the waitress.