I guess there must be something wrong with me – I mean, love and romance and family life make up a large part of everyone’s experience. They should be subjects I’m most familiar with. They are certainly subjects most people can identify with. That’s good for a writer. You want people to identify with your work. That leads to popularity and success, which, given the paltry sums most writers earn, can only be a good thing.
So, what happens? I sit at the computer and try to think of a good life-affirming story, one of redemption and hope, a story of survival and heroism, maybe, or a great doorstop novel of a family’s struggles down the generations, or a woman’s quest for love. I really do try – for days and days. I start with the best of intentions, determined to get to the bottom of the page without some curveball, or random antisocial thought taking the characters in different directions. I reach the bottom of the page and look back, satisfied that no one will find it disturbing or offensive or obnoxious or leftfield. But, by the end of the second page, I’m a wreck. How on earth can I keep the pretence up?
I like despair. I like dead bodies. I like people with rows of skeletons in their closets. I like the kinky and strange. I like darkness. I like insurmountable problems. I like characters who operate in the margins. I like crime. I like horror. I feel I’m on terra firma when things go wrong. I can’t write that romantic novel or stuff about family life. It’s just not me.
So, what is me? I think I went wrong quite early, actually. Maybe about five. I always wanted the Wicked Queen to kill Snow White. I wanted the Big Bad Wolf to eat the pigs. I wanted Darth Vader to destroy the Rebellion and Sauron to get his ring back and plunge the world into darkness. I wasn’t just being contrary. It’s just that the dark side fired my imagination in ways the good could never do. It was alien and exciting. It was further from who I was. My sense of right and wrong could withstand the vicarious thrill of going along with the bad guy and seeing him triumph. In reality, the opposite is true. I want darkness to be banished, the villain to get his comeuppance, the criminal to be caught.
But not on the page. The page is for playing out extremes and pushing the boundaries. There is a cathartic element for the writer as well as the reader in doing this, notably in dealing with death. It brings you closer to it, so you can feel its breath, yet you know you can cut away at any moment. The Reaper is not coming for you this time. It’s important to be in touch with death – it’s where we’re all headed.
If the things that happened to the characters in my books happened in real life, people say, the world would be a bloody miserable place. Where has hope gone? Or love? I remind them that terrible things happen to people all the time: terrorist atrocities, mass shootings, rapes, murders, child abuse, the gamut of man’s sadistic cruelty. It is what we are.
Yes, there is something wrong with me, but there is something wrong with all of us, a tiny corner where instinct slips the shadow of morality and plays out our darkest fantasies. Writing crime is an extension of this. It allows the writer to explore the dark parts of their own psyche and interrogate the mind of the criminals and killers they have let loose.
Looking back at my fondness for the baddies, I think it was due to the way the world was presented. Good was wholly good and bad was wholly bad. Bad had to be beaten to restore order. In truth, nothing and no one is wholly good and nothing and no one is wholly bad (though the religious amongst you may feel differently). We are a mix of both.
No one is irredeemable, I think. Did Hitler ever get nostalgic about his childhood by the river in Braunau, or Osama Bin Laden for the streets in Riyadh? I bet they did. Somewhere down the line, you’ll find a turning point where their life changed. Don’t tell me, high up in the Eagle’s Nest, or in the mountains of the Tora Bora, they didn’t think of all that they’d become, and what life was and what death was, and all the things they’d done. Maybe a flicker of sentiment was all it was, but maybe it was more, and they thought about being children once again and playing on the streets and how life had dealt them a cruel hand.
Writing about crime is exciting; reading about it, too. The same with horror. It pushes the boundaries. It shouldn’t be about good and bad but about shades. That’s what life has taught me. No one wins in the end. The ‘good’ guys don’t drive off into the sunset with the dame; the ‘bad’ guys don’t get to keep the loot. The ending of the book should not be a resolution as much a hiatus between the story you’ve read and the one that comes after, with questions still to be answered that make the reader think. The only real resolution is death.
I would love to be able to write that all-encompassing, morally unambiguous, family drama, or the swooning, heartfelt love story that would span the continents, but it’s not part of my DNA. Love may be stronger than death but it’s not as interesting, which is why the greatest love stories do not end with ‘happy ever after’. They are more realistic. So I’ll stick with my fondness for the dark side and for crime and horror and all the weirdness and console myself with the following observation.
All the crime writers and horror writers I’ve ever met have been lovely, well-rounded, moral people. They get rid of their demons on the printed page.
It’s the romance writers that have all the problems. You’ve been warned!