As a former Scotland Yard detective, with twenty years in the Met police, writing crime fiction should be a breeze, shouldn’t it? Not so, says author David Videcette in today’s guest blog.
As writers, we create places for readers to visit; fictional places and worlds in people’s imaginations. I see it very much like building a theme park. Some writers build worlds of fantasy. But I wanted to create a place in people’s imaginations that is so close to the truth, that those who leave my theme park find it difficult to differentiate it from reality. I want my readers to know what it feels like to be a detective
standing at a crime scene, or to feel the frustrations of not being able to get that break you need in a case, or to understand the loss that we feel when someone dies, and we could have prevented it. But as I’ve discovered - that’s not always what every reader wants.
For your eyes only
I base my books around real events, around real places, around real people and I want my readers to experience how it feels to be presented with evidence in exactly the same way that it happens in real life.
I don’t write the Hollywood version. You don’t get to see the crime being committed, or experience it from the killer’s perspective, or a family member’s perspective. As a detective you only get to experience a crime with one pair of eyes - your own. You have to collect the information and clues as you work your way through the investigation, just like in real life. You might be looking at the crime scene, analysing the evidence, or interviewing a suspect - but you only ever experience it from your own perspective, and that’s how I present it to my readers.
In my books, you sit on the shoulder of my protagonist, DI Jake Flannagan, and listen to what he thinks. You get to experience it from the point of view of a real detective, with real detective know how.
For some readers this is frustrating. They might complain that they want to see the crime from the perpetrator’s point of view – but as a detective on the case, we don’t get that luxury. We can’t look through the eyes of the criminal at the exact moment in time they commit a murder.
How close is too close?
My policing career and real police procedure inform my writing, but some crime fiction readers want to feel safe in the knowledge that what they’re consuming is just a story; that it’s totally made up. I’ve found that my books unsettle some readers because what I write falls into a different genre - faction – a blend of fact and fiction. Rather than a theme park, they find themselves in an alternative reality that is perhaps too close for comfort, unlike the ‘crime fantasy’ that they are more used to.
On the flip side, inquisitive readers are interested in how the truth can often be stranger than the fiction. And for those readers, when a story can inform your world and educate, it can be a powerful and eye-opening experience to get an insider peek at famous events.
Some people complain that they want a purely non-fiction book. Sadly I’m forbidden from writing an autobiography due to the Official Secrets Act, but this cannot impinge on my artistic rights as a writer. That’s why I say – “I can’t tell you the truth, but I can tell you a story…”™ I leave it up to the reader to decide how much is fact and how much is fiction.
The seedier side of policing
The other problem of creating something too real, is when your lead character, (in my case, the wayward detective, DI Jake Flannagan), strays into using unethical methods or behaves outrageously. There are certain readers who feel apprehensive, get upset, or become outraged by the fact that a real detective might have done the things that they are reading about.
Some people will tell me they wouldn’t want him on their side because of his (at times) precarious mental health and propensity towards substance abuse. But people forget that police officers are just normal people. We don’t get any training to deal with mutilated dead bodies or national disasters. When we have to deal with the very worst of human existence, the lowest of the low, and the most dreadful of circumstances that befall people, it is impossible not be affected in some small way.
If you think that we don’t struggle to cope, then you are turning a blind eye to the everyday reality of policing. To those who complain that Jake Flannagan is too tarnished as a police officer, I say, we’ve airbrushed mental health issues and their side effects in the emergency services for far too long. I refuse to airbrush it in my books, or design it out of my theme park, just because you want your hero to be squeaky clean.
To catch a bad guy, you have to think like a bad guy, and that’s why the best detectives always have a dark side.
DAVID VIDECETTE: CRIME FIGHTER TURNED CRIME WRITER
As a former Scotland Yard detective, David Videcette has worked on a wealth of infamous cases, including the 7/7 London bombings. He is the author of bestselling crime thrillers The Theseus Paradox and The Detriment, based on real events. When he’s not writing books, he commentates for the news media on crime, policing and terrorism.
My warm thanks to David for this fascinating insight into both of his careers.