Monday, April 29, 2019

Crime Fiction Myths - Busted

I'm just back from the Crime Writers' Association conference, held this time at Windermere in beautiful Lake District, stamping ground of Wordsworth and the other Lake Poets. The daffodils were out, living up to the publicity and obligingly 'fluttering and dancing in the breeze'.

We were blessed with dry weather, not always the case here — as my husband said, lakes don't just happen by accident — but it was distinctly chilly as we took our boat trip. Here I am with my lovely agent Jane Conway-Gordon, well wrapped up against the chilly breeze.

It's always one of the social highlights of the year but it's also when we have talks from the professionals who actually work in the world we like to write about in our books. This year, the session that made the most impression on me was delivered by a husband and wife team.

He is a forensic pathologist and she is a detective constable and their eyes met, if not actually over a corpse, then across someone in hospital shortly to become one. They both, as you might expect, have the classically mordant sense of humour that you need to cope with the situations they have to deal with.

They didn't spare us. Those of a sensitive disposition look away now! The most graphic picture was of what looked to be a murder but was in fact what had happened to a man who died of a heart attack — and happened to have a large dog. (Cats are apparently worse!)

They then proceeded to disabuse us of some of the most cherished tropes in detective fiction. Firstly, no detective asks the pathologist for time of death and gets an answer that isn't 'between the time the victim was last seen and the time the body was found' There are so many variables that it is in practical terms impossible to give one. So there go a whole lot of plot ideas.

Then it was his wife who pointed out, very firmly, that the person who interviews a witness is the detective constable. Not a detective sergeant, not an inspector and certainly not a chief inspector. The role of the promoted ranks is to assess the information bought in on the computer on their desks and shape the investigation from there. She had actually turned down promotion precisely because that was the part of the job she loved doing - rather like teachers who won't leave the classroom for promoted posts that would take them away from the kids.

We'd always sort of known that but there was a collective groan and one author said plaintively, 'But a DI who never leaves his desk wouldn't be much of a hero for a crime novel.' He got the tart reply, 'Then don't make your hero an inspector. Make her a constable instead.'

So there's a thought for a new series. But I'm ashamed to say I'm going to go on as I am. I don't think my readers come to the books for an accurate portrayal of contemporary policing. I'm relying on their being content to apply what that other great Lake Poet Coleridge called 'the willing suspension of disbelief' when it comes to DCI Kelso Strang.

And finally: there were laughs too. We had an excellent talk from a barrister at the Criminal Bar. She was pointing out that unlike the villains in our books, most criminals are not very bright, and gave examples. My favourite was the one who had robbed a shop along with a pal but unfortunately for him the shopkeeper recognised him. He denied it, of course and since this was at the time of identity parades, one was arranged. For the line-up, the police used to offer £10 to anyone who would agree to join it. The accused found a friend he thought could use £10 and he accordingly obliged. When the shopkeeper was brought it he immediately identified the accused and then looked along the line and said — yes, you've guessed — 'Oh look, that's the other one!'


Anna said...

I chuckled at your warning to "those of a sensitive disposition" -- does the audience for this blog include anyone who isn't a reader or writer of murder mysteries?
After many years of medical editing, I long ago ditched any "sensitive disposition" I might have had. One of the most interesting journals I worked on was in the field of forensic pathology, which dealt with all kinds of picturesque ways to die (not necessarily murder) and usually included graphic illustrations. Heart attack/stroke victims who died closed up with their pets, as in this post; a child who had fallen into his father's many-toothed farm machine; the victim of an exotic form of ritual murder. Lots of raw (pun intended) material there to keep dozens of mystery writers occupied for life.

Susan D said...

Thanks for sharing, Aline. Very interesting.