A column I recently wrote for the "Crimescene" website:
Crime, to a writer, presents a fascinatingly sleazy little paradox.
The problem is, no matter how much we’re all supposed to fear and loathe crime: it’s just so bloody entertaining. The problem is, frankly, the way you feel about crime – if you’re a writer – has all to do with context.
Crime outside your house: Bad.
Crime all over your hard-drive, notebooks, fevered imaginings and daydreams: Good.
The spooky note here is that the distinction isn’t always as clear-cut as it seems.
For instance, halfway through writing Contract – in the course of which I was obliged to spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking like a real, plausible, not-like-in-the-movies hitman – I began to catch myself sizing-up the people around me as targets. No, really. I’d walk down the street clocking entry points and exit routes round my neighbours’ homes. I’d find myself looking for viable ammo-stashes in my office; scanning the Lonely Hearts pages for coded messages; peering down from high places and wondering – say – at the relative effects of wind-shear on a .30 hollowpoint travelling a fraction above Mach 1 towards him or her or…
You get the idea.
And yes, of course, all that predatory analysis stuff is always a little tongue-in-cheek. It’s always idle musing; gone as soon as it’s noticed. But it’ll freak you out, even so, when it shows-up uninvited. You can’t dunk your enquiring senses into the sweaty armpits of Unpleasant Illegality and not go home smelling a little ripe. You can’t spend all day every day writing about criminals without – just occasionally, just dreamily – wondering if you’d be any good at… well… Being one.
One way of looking at a crime writer is, at least some of the time, they’re essentially Hypothetical Criminals.
Listen. Out there, right now, crime novels are enjoying a larger share of the fiction market than ever before. Cue all the usual dangers of overabundance: cliché, homogeny, stagnation… So in order to keep audiences on the edge of seats and protagonist-supersleuths suitably challenged, crime writers find themselves obliged to nudge that shady Hypothetical Criminal inside to ever-higher levels of realism, of originality, and of creatively-breaking-the-law...
For Contract, that meant busting a few preconceptions. That meant letting people know – don’t shoot the messenger – that, sorry: Hollywood lied. Silencers don’t really make that asthmatic little ffft. People don’t really get up and keep running when they’re shot through the leg. Organised crime isn’t really that organised, E-Fit pictures aren’t really that worthwhile, and that expensive sniper-rifle with a scope like something off the Hubble satellite, really: it can’t bullseye-a-baddie from a mile away after all.
For Contract, it also meant winkling-out a few curious little truths. It meant discovering that – say – the micro-creases in those black leather gloves sported by the Hollywood Assassin du jour are every bit as unique, every bit as identifiable, every bit as give-you-away, as human fingerprints. It meant knowing all the best ways to dispose of a body according to where it is, how long you’ve got, and the strength of your stomach. It meant knowing how to buy an illegal gun, how to launder cash, how to avoid being recognised, and how… well… To get away with murder.
Of course, for the writer, so long as you’re not actually intending to put any of your underworld revelations to the test, it’s tricky to confirm their veracity. But there’s a danger here, because while it’d be all-too-easy to assume none of the readers are going to know either – or at least aren’t going to admit it – the truth is that there’s always someone who knows.
My nemesis was a nurse.
See, there were several little hypothetical criminal tricks I came up with for the benefit of Contract that I was really rather proud of. One had to do with bullets. Conventional mercenary-killer-wisdom – such as it is – suggests you should fill your hollowpoint rounds with poison, then seal them with wax. This means that even if something goes wrong and your shady antihero’s killshot doesn’t quite do its job, there’s still a solid gram of liquid lethality glomming-about in his victim’s circulatory system. Clever, right? Except “poison” is a tricky thing to define at the best of times, and – obsessive research or not – it doesn’t take long to start discounting possibilities. The truth is that pretty much every deadly substance out there is either too expensive, too tricky to get hold of, or takes too damn long to work.
But, hang on… Cheap… Easy to get… Immediate effects…
A gram of pure heroin’ll O.D. a sumo-wrestler. Hell, it’ll O.D. a hardened junkie if it’s followed by grams 2, 3 and 4. With this realisation my Hypothetical Criminal, I thought, had excelled himself.
Enter The Nurse.
The nurse who’s seen the effects of overdose more times than she can remember. The nurse who knows – only too well – that smack won’t stay in a liquid suspension unless it’s hot. The nurse who gently suggests that a hitman who keeps all his bullets at high temperatures is destined to have no fingers, and the nurse who – in one fell swoop – wipes the big stupid grin off my Hypothetical Criminal’s face. There’s always someone who knows.
Crime works best, in fiction, when it bears all the hallmarks of reality. The trick is to check all your facts, to verify all your cliché-busting creativity, to make sure it really works, without ever having to test it yourself. This is a lot harder than it sounds.
Just for the record, a little dribble of lemonjuice will keep a gram of highgrade rendered diamorphine in a liquid suspension for as long as you want. Don’t ask how I know this, though to the best of my knowledge I didn’t break any laws finding out. Either way, it saved my bacon.
So thank %$£# for lemonjuice, and thank %$&# for nurses; because as long as that shady criminal lurking inside remains purely hypothetical, it’s a lot more fun killing clichés than killing anything else.
Listen: it’ll startle you something rotten, halfway through all this research malarkey, when you begin seeing the world in terms of criminals and victims. This is because, sooner or later, stopping yourself from sizing-up all those Potential Targets in the street, it begins to dawn on you that – maybe – some of them are sizing you up too.
And they can’t all be over-immersed writers.