The Debutante’s Fatal Flaw
A heroine on heroin. This was my editor’s summation of Catherine Berlin, the investigator at the heart of my debut novel, In Her Blood. Short, snappy, not-so-sweet? I had aspired to create a plausible, engaging and complex character. Now she was a sound bite.
I quickly learnt that this was not a bad thing. As a neophyte interviewee I was prepared to give thoughtful, discursive replies to questions. This was my first mistake. Brevity was required, leavened by controversy. After the first few interviews, I changed tack.
Interviewers clearly wanted to know if I was a heroin addict, but phrased it obliquely. One radio personality asked during the drive time show “Do you share any of Berlin’s foibles?” I responded in jocular fashion that my demon was coffee, but given the price of a decent cup these days, I may soon start mugging old ladies. There followed a moment which I have since been told is known as dead air.
The difficulty I faced in trying to spin the conversation to the book, rather than me, was that I do have a lot in common with Catherine Berlin: gender, age and occupation. Twenty years as an investigator has equipped me to ask questions, but not to answer them. At least, not honestly.
There was also the fact that I worked in London with a team pursuing loan sharks, who are my bad guys. Protesting that it was a work of fiction sounded hollow, even to me!
I realized that I had to be careful what I said about Berlin’s ‘flawed’ personality, because it was my own that was really in play. But a flaw she had to have, because without one she would be boring.
Real investigators may be teetotallers and live contented lives, but who wants to read about them? As Mark Billingham puts it “Who wants to know about a cowboy without a gun or a horse?”
This seems to me to be absolutely right. I suspect a low threshold for boredom is a characteristic of both the creators and consumers of crime fiction. But I think it’s only part of the story.
Critics of crime fiction point to what they regard as clichés: the persistence of the tormented, difficult protagonist is often the main offender in their eyes. So when does a trope or convention become a cliché, and hence boring?
My answer would be when it’s badly written. The investigator as outsider, along with the problem to be solved and the rupture of the everyday by evil, persist precisely because of the pleasure of repetition. The contemporary expression of these elements changes, but the form remains the same.
We love crime not just because we want to indulge in acts of violence by proxy, or vicariously experience the extremes of human behaviour, although both may be true. But essentially we want to do it the same way every time. Genre fiction of all types – romance, sci-fi, historical – caters to that same need for repetition. Why?
Obscure nineteenth century German experimental psychologists don’t often turn up in articles about crime fiction, but here’s one: Gustav Fechner. There’s no record of his literary predilections, but he defined pleasure as the result of an economy of psychic effort, leading to a lowering of tension. You can’t argue with that.
If there is one thing that all crime fiction fans would agree on, it’s that reading it leads to a lowering of tension. It may be disturbing, horrifying even, but it’s also relaxing.
Which brings me back to the debutante’s (potentially) fatal flaw, hers and mine. It’s clear why I gave her one: it’s there to satisfy the conventions of the genre and reader’s expectations, and to give me free rein to indulge my interest in the politics of addiction.
But when it comes to the question of why I chose to make her a heroin addict and to what extent that reflects my own life choices, I’ll stick to the line that the personality of my protagonist is a product of the imagination. As long as she’s never boring.
Thank god for guns and horses.
Released: 24th May 2012
Read SHOTS' review of IN HER BLOOD