Monday, June 01, 2015

How Real is Real?

I wrote a previous blog just before I went to CrimeFest, the big Bristol crime convention. I always enjoy these events: interesting panels, nice parties, kind readers and old friends – what's not to like? But afterwards when I think back it's often one of the topics I've been asked to discuss that stays with me long after the parties are only a fond and distant memory.

On one of the panels I was on, the question of realism came up. Realism – often described as 'gritty' – is all important now; the flippant fiction of Golden Age detectives who wonder round explaining to the police where they are failing is long gone and TV crime dramas parade their consultants with on-the-ground experience to prove they have got things right.

But one of the panel members was Elizabeth Haynes, who had actually been a police intelligence analyst working to make sure that police effort is, given the available evidence, directed to the areas of investigation most likely to produce results. It sounds exactly the sort of background you might choose for a protagonist – a little off the beaten track, not just quite another copper – yet she admitted that in reality her job was actually sitting in front of a screen, trawling through reports.

I think we all know, though we may not often say it directly to our readers, that any book that accurately depicted the life of a detective would be so boring that the reader would be asleep before the end of the second chapter. If our protagonist was a humble DC, his life would be spent knocking on doors. More than likely the breakthrough would come when someone turned up at the police station to tell them what happened, possibly even in exchange for money.

The crime scene job is so specialised now that a DI would never be at a crime scene; he'd see the photos or read the reports on screen. By the time he or she reached the dizzy heights of senior rank, their working life would be administration and meetings.

What we write is fiction and the good thing about fiction is that you can make your own rules. On the other hand, there was a highly successful TV drama in Britain called Broadchurch that had everyone on the edge of their seats. It was brought back for a second series but this one involved a court case which was so ludicrous in its inaccuracies that it lost thousands and thousands of viewers, despite a very compelling story. (I stopped watching till the court part was over but I confess I dropped back in for the denouement.) They stepped over the line and forfeited what Keats called 'the willing suspension of  disbelief',' the tacit agreement we all hope to have with our reader.

So does 'realism' actually have any proper relationship with reality, or is it no more than the painted flats at the back of a stage that pretend to be a landscape?    

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