The Last Straw

Back to Ripper Street. A horse draw carriage is driven along the busy streets of Whitechapel. A sniper with a high powered rifle fires and hits the horse right between the eyes from a distance of about thirty paces (not such a brilliant sniper, then). Cause of death? Well, it’s pretty obvious. And anyway, the death of the horse is somewhat incidental since it was what was in the carriage that mattered. So what do they do? Cut off the horse’s head. Lay it on the dreaded autopsy table with veins, arteries, sinew, gristle, nerves and who knows what hanging loose, and proceed to extract the bullet. Meanwhile, our intrepid investigator peers on, ankle-deep in blood and gore – there’s an awful lot of blood in a horse’s head, evidently. And what’s the excuse? They needed to find out about the bullet. In so doing, they established that it was a military man wot done it. Why not just take the bullet out at the scene? Why sever the beast’s head? Why cart it all the way to the autopsy room? Why inflict this pornography on the viewer? Precisely because it is pornography, and pornography pulls in the audience. Evidently. Well not this member of the audience. Not any more. What do you think?

Death on Lewis

Now I have no desire to criticise a fellow scribbler, but this example might illustrate my point. Have you read the delightful Lewis trilogy by Peter May. I read The Lewis Man first (though it is the second in the trilogy). This is a splendid novel, well-written, complex and thought provoking which tells much of the life of crofters in the 50s.  Intertwined with the murder mystery is the complex social tapestry of this island community. And then there is the overriding character – Lewis itself – with its rain and windswept beaches, its wild expanses, remoteness and claustrophobia.

The first in the series, The Blackhouse, is a good story, beautifully told. The glowering presence of Lewis pervades the lives of all who live there. There is a cop with his own personal tragedy to deal with. There are complex social interrelationships. There are twists and turns. There is evidence of extensive and thorough research so that we learn about the strange life of the islanders which seems to belong to a different age. It is an engaging read which I would recommend to anyone interested in either life on the Scottish islands, police procedurals, or just a good read. There is a but, and it is the highly detailed, and graphic autopsy scene occupying much of the early scene setting.

I agree that it is important to the plot that the murder is gruesome. But it is not important to have every last medical detail paraded in front of our sensibilities. Admittedly it shows impressive scientific/medical knowledge (though I have no way of establishing its veracity) but it detracts from the enjoyment of a fine book for this particular reader. This is a case where we can ignore the fundamental law of creative writing, where we can be told, succinctly please, not shown.

I am interested in the characters and, in particular, what motivates the perpetrator. And Peter May creates some complex, troubled and fascinating characters. Why then divert our attention from the main themes, and indeed the strength of the book, by conforming to the contemporary convention of the obligatory autopsy scene?

Do you agree? Leave your comments below.

Death in the novel

Graphic depiction of the autopsy are just as common, and just as unnecessary, in film and TV, and they find all sorts of excuses for including them. Take Ripper Street, for example. There, they would have us believe that the autopsy was invented in the back streets of London. A drunken but brilliant doctor is drafted in by the police to help them solve the gruesome murders of women on the streets of the city. So effective is he, that they set him up with a special room where he can slice and saw in peace, and gallons of blood and gore can swill into the drains and sewers of Victorian London – with appropriate gurgling, sucking sound effects. The autopsy is born. The detective peers dispassionately into the entrails of the victims (usually attractive women, mark you) as the doctor explains what really happened, what the minute examination of the scientist has revealed. We, the audience, are fascinated onlookers, rubbernecking at the scene of the carnage.

But my real beef is with the autopsy in the novel. TV works with rapid-fire changes of image on the basis that the audience has the attention span of a gnat. The novel moves more slowly and with attention to fine detail. It works through the imagination; the pictures in our head are more lurid than those on the screen. So the novelist has a greater responsibility to be restrained. A good novel, like all good art, elicits an emotional response. Surely, the novelist would want this emotional impact to emanate from our empathy with the characters, from its main themes, not the freak show of the autopsy. So novelists, don’t be seduced by the prevalence and popularity of gore on the TV. Stick to what you do best. Shun the squelching mess. Explore the psychology of your characters. Lure us into your imaginings and let us share that subtle, complex, cerebral world together.

Exploiting the Dead

I’m a great lover of crime and thriller writing. Indeed, I like to think my own book, Serious Weaknesses is a crime thriller, though only my readers could say whether they have actually been thrilled. I recognize that many of these books are written to a formula but I like the troubled detective who is incapable of sustaining relationships, gets on the nerves of his superiors, but is untouchable because of his uncanny knack of solving the most complex of cases. I appreciate that the killer needs to be sinister, demonic almost, to really test the hero, so it’s not surprising that they find ever more gory ways of doing away with their victims. I get all that. What I don’t get, however, is why we always have to be in on the autopsy. Why we have to witness every slice and saw, every exposed organ, every smear of bodily fluid – often the perpetrator’s semen since sadistic sex is often a motive – each undigested morsel of food, fragment of bullet, particle of glass.

Now I know that a well-researched autopsy scene gives credence to the plot, but I don’t think that’s why they are there. The millions who watch Silent Witness and Waking the Dead, and who read the Kay Scarpetta novels attest to the morbid interest the public has in sliced bodies and oozing viscera, but I don’t think that’s the reason, either.

No, there is an altogether more prosaic reason. They are there to demonstrate the superiority of the author, to show the author’s detailed knowledge of physiology and pharmacology – to show that these authors know stuff that their readers do not. They are clever, well-educated people, these authors – or so they would have us believe. They can teach us a thing or two about the dark side of human nature, because they know about it, from their years of study at the best medical schools. We are impressed, aren’t we, with an explanation of the science of what happens when solid object (a blunt instrument, naturally) meets flesh and bone, or that they can uncover the exact cause of death when we were led to believe it was a simple drowning.

And we are not alone in being impressed and overawed. Somewhere in the scene there will be a junior police officer attending an autopsy for the first time, and he (or preferably she) will have to dash outside to throw up. (Throw up? Who throws up in these circumstances?) Our cool, world-weary detective will condescend to understand, to sympathise, to put an experienced hand on the shoulder, because he, like the author, knows it all, has seen it all before.

Well, I’ve had enough. It’s time to make a stand against the pornography of the autopsy. We need to go back to giving the detective a nice summary of the cause and time of death so he, and we, can focus on what we do best – detecting. We’d shorten most thrillers by at least thirty pages, many more in some cases, and we’d guarantee that readers like me would enjoy the twists and turns, the thrills, on every page without having to place head between knees or resort to the smelling salts.

Am I alone in this? Do I stand in isolation? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment box below.

Horses for Courses

Horses at Kirkham

Hors D’oeuvre? (Photo credit: modezero)

So there’s horse meat in burgers. How shocking. How awful. After all it’s far worse eating horse than cow, or pig, or duck, or chicken – isn’t it? Well let’s just think about that shall we? What actually is it about the horse (or the dog for that matter) that stops all the UK carnivores from eating it? Is it because of our national love of the horse that means we can’t bear to see it killed? Probably not. We are quite happy to bet on the Grand National but we do go all gooey eyed when one has to be put down at Beecher’s Brook. Perhaps it harks back to a time when the horse was our main means of transport, and the noble beasts raced from London to York to deliver our mail or our highwaymen. Maybe so, but didn’t they use horses in France, too? No. There’s no logic to it. Meat is meat. One lot is just as good, or as bad (depending on your point of view) as another.

The real shock, the real shame, is that we evidently have no idea what goes into our burgers. The sad truth is that not only have multi-nationals devastated the environment with their policy of deforestation to feed their, and our, greed. They have also failed to uphold the most basic standards of food safety. And the only way to force them to change their habits is to hit them where it hurts – with a total boycott until they can convince us that they will henceforth behave ethically and safely. Actually, there is another way. Why not stop eating meat all together. That way you won’t have to fret over the question of whether the horse is more worthy than the cow.

Who is the decision maker?

So you’re a member of a rock band – a real T shirt and jeans band – and you’re doing ok. You’re not international stars, but you’re well known on the circuit and you’re getting a taste of all the paraphernalia that comes with being a rock guitarist. You’re a down-to-earth northerner, then this arty guy comes along with an absolutely unique concept, and you thought he was just a one-hit -wonder pop singer. Anything for a laugh, so you get involved. He writes the songs, but you and your mates are the musicians and you have to turn them into music, real music that the fans will like. It’s a collaboration, and he’s happy with what you do. He’s strange, but you get on, travel together on the tour bus, enjoy a beer.

Some of the ideas are a bit weird, but you’ll give anything a go, even coloured jump suits. Even make-up! A rock guitarist wearing make-up, nobody’s done that before – this is the seventies after all.

And then it goes global. You’ve taken music in a totally unique direction. You sell millions of records. The venues are packed with wild, adoring fans. You do a sell-out tour of Britain, then the States. You are a rock star. Who cares that you’ve left behind the jeans and leather? You can change after the show, wash off the make-up. And all those groupies – who cares if some of them are guys? It was your idea to be a Spider From Mars anyway.

And so you come to Hammersmith. It’s packed. You’ve been on the road for eighteen months and this is like coming home. The fans know all the words, they dress like you, they want to touch you, get a piece of you. You’re building up to the climax and you know they’ll shout, and scream, and whistle, and beg for more. But before that, the lights dim and he walks to the front of the stage. It’s intimate. It’s him and the fans. He does it every time. For a few seconds you could hear a pin drop. No one, not a single person whistles. He talks to them with that lilting London accent that to you, a northern lad, sounds posh.

And he tells them this is the end of the show. But more than that. This is the end of Ziggy Stardust. He will never appear again. The Spiders From Mars will never appear again. There is a stunned silence. ‘What did he say?’ you mouth to your mate. He shrugs, and then we get the signal so we crash in with the opening chords of the final number. And it really is the final number.

He made the decision. It wasn’t a collaboration, it was him alone. Those two sentences to a packed house in Hammersmith changed my life, and I had absolutely no say in the matter. It’s not right, is it? It’s not fair. But that’s how it is. Who is the decision maker? I can tell you who it isn’t. It isn’t me.

Decisions, decisions

I have been neglecting the blog of late due to travelling the countryside, camping, away from mobile phones, internet, TV. But now I really must get down to it. The nature of travel means one is constantly making decisions: about where to stay, when to move on, which road to take. And each decision has consequences, not only about what you do and when, but about what you don’t do, about the road down which you don’t travel.

Interestingly it’s not only the decision we take ourselves that lead us in a particular direction, but the decisions other people take about us. Think of that job interview, for example. You have prepared thoroughly, boned up on all the key areas – even identified a few intelligent questions you can pose to show you are the bright, thinking person they are looking for. You’ve honed your CV to perfection, dug out the best suit, arrived on time, plastered a smile to your face, charmed the receptionist (the one with the final say-so), and shown you are the confident people-person (with a bit of steel, of course) that they are looking for. The final interview with the board goes well. And you wait – for them to make their decision.

And what are the consequences of getting that job? Obviously, one hopes there will be a steady income for the foreseeable future. There will be the challenge of getting to know the ropes, and getting to grips with the new responsibilities – that might cause a bit of stress for the next few weeks and perhaps put a dent in your social life. You’ll try hard to make a good impression so that you sail through the interim appraisal. For a while at least, there will be a new you.

But there may be other consequences which are tangential to the new role. Think of the people you meet, the relationships you develop. These may have the most dramatic impact on your life. How many people first meet life-long friends, wives or husbands, at work? So that decision the board is about to take could have the most monumental impact on the rest of your life. But they think they’re just filling a job vacancy!

If they offer you the job, this new world opens up before you. If they reject you, that world is closed off, those people will never be met, those relationships will never be developed. All this puts me in mind of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, and has inspired my short story of the same title that will appear here soon