When I set out to write Never Seen, my first crime novel, it was with great anticipation of the fun I would have delving into the workings of the criminal mind. Everyone loves a ‘baddie’, and what better way to really go to town on one than in a crime story. The opportunities were limitless. From the abused kid who becomes the abuser in adulthood, the dead-end smackhead born on the wrong side of town, the smart teen drawn into a bad crowd, the mother of five who’ll do anything for money to feed her kids. So many possible characters and their stories…
But forget all those, I was starting strong. I went in for the kill. Of course I did.
Bring on the psychopath.
(Bear with me…)
Rubbing my hands together, I pictured my killer and how he’d become this cruel person he was, and slowly his story revealed itself to me. I pored over research, watching documentaries about how murderers act and how they’re caught, and ordering a bumper encyclopaedia of serial killers which, when it arrived, I read with one eye closed and never at mealtimes.
Fascinated with the human mind in all its guises on most other occasions, as I peered closer, that safe protective screen put up by movie depictions of (bizarrely) attractive and compelling compulsive murderers began to crack. Perhaps it was because I was bringing myself closer to the mind of the killer in order to write as one, that for the first time I glimpsed something of the reality of these crimes – their brutal violence and unjust horror, not just (ironically) the fictionalized version of them we’re sold. However, undeterred now I’d started, I went on with my creation like an obsessive Dr Frankenstein, confident I was building something that would be brought to life on the page and run boundless and wild through the minds of readers.
But then came a wallop to the jaw I never saw coming.
Because in strolled the detectives...
My detective would have to be the central character in my story, I knew this. But so blinded was I by the glittering vile promise of the bad guy, that I was utterly unprepared for the impact my research would have on me next.
I had a lot to learn about how a murder was investigated. The TV shows and movies (like the serial killer thrillers) weren’t going to cut it. And quickly I learned I’d need to go deeper than just how to work a crime scene. Suddenly I needed to know about police agencies, departments, personnel structure, training, equipment, procedure – for technical purposes, yes, to get my story right; but more than that… to understand the mindset of the homicide detective after years of training and on-the-job police work.
I needed to know my entire detective’s life as if I’d lived it myself.
Out came the books, the podcasts, the true crime documentaries, the YouTube videos (how do I grip that Glock again?). And before I knew it my psychopathic bad guy had crawled back under his rock. Because without expecting to, I’d discovered a human mind much more complex and fascinating to explore, and more crucial to the story than any bad guy I could let loose on the page.
The aging, lonely detective with a drinking problem the size of Texas, as worn out as his clichéd caricature, was someone I wanted to leave well alone. So I took a good hard look at the life of my detective, and it wasn’t anything like I’d expected.
I started with his past, his grueling training, the intense personal evaluation, and the tough skin he had to quickly grow to withstand the relentless piss-taking; this latter serving him well when training ended and the streets replaced the classroom.
Since then he’s managed the expectation bearing down on him from parents and peers; the tense, uneasy relationship between his police life and personal life; the heightened awareness he can’t switch off at will; the pressure of taking control of a situation and making the right decision, sometimes in only a split second; the learned instinct to act, to be the first to help, no matter that he sprints headfirst toward the unknown; the persistent niggling whisper that he might one day have to take a life… the silent prayer hoping to Christ that won’t be today.
Then there’s the teamwork, the partnerships, the willingness to stand beside and step in front of the colleague at his shoulder; the moments alone when he has no choice but to deal with what he’s seen – of human nature and human destruction – so he can carry on as ‘normal’; the grace to take the gratitude alongside the vile threats and a mouthful of saliva running down his cheek, sometimes other things; the courage to hold his temper and his nerve with those his job demands he serve, protect… and respect.
There are the moments when he’s not sure if he’s done ‘the right thing’; the overwhelming fear of making a mistake, of failing to protect, of losing his cool – or worse, his control; of misinterpreting the situation, of the flinch of his finger too tense on the trigger, not enough sleep, no time to think, no room for error, get up and do it all again; the nights, exhausted, wondering… what’s the fucking point?
All of these things and much more, I learned, root that tired old clichéd detective in a truth many of us may never fully appreciate.
Of course, not all of this goes into the book. It’s a story, after all, of the good guys chasing the bad guys, not a political statement or a comment on our culture. But the beauty of fiction is it allows us writers, and then readers, to open our eyes to worlds that hover on the edge of our own. To see and learn and appreciate, sometimes enjoy, what goes on in the lives of others, what drives them, what makes them do that thing they do.
In our social-media-fuelled world, where we’re increasingly focused on ourselves – how I look, what I’m doing, my life, my problems – isn’t that why we still read fiction? To look outward, to what’s out there, who’s out there. And so that those we might not notice until they cross our paths, or we need them, are seen.
Bad guys are one thing. But never, ever, underestimate the good guy…