A Crime Novel, A Bad Guy, And A Wallop To The Jaw

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…

 “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Is this really real...? Derealization Disorder

“The room was starting to spin and he began to wonder if this was one of those dreams he’d wake up from to find himself alone on the cold garage floor. Because none of it felt real. He himself didn’t feel real. Being here. Doing this. Saying that.”

In Unmasked, the final book of the Hidden Sanctuary series, Jacob meets his brother for the first time in twenty years. The last time he saw him was following the most traumatic episode in both their lives, and one which shaped the person Jacob was to become thereafter.

In the intervening years, Jacob dealt with the trauma by way of drug abuse and also psychogenic amnesia – a period where his brain temporarily blocked all memories of that past event. And while he now remembers everything, these coping mechanisms have altered his perspective over time so that he might even convince himself it never really happened at all. 

The reunion with his brother, then – someone who was there at the time of the event and who testifies to what occurred in their family both prior to the tragic conclusion and afterward – ignites a state of heightened anxiety in Jacob; as if he is reliving that time once again, or having it confirmed to him as real. And such is his difficulty in processing this situation, he experiences the symptoms of a disorder known as derealization.

 “He felt stifled. Couldn’t breathe in that room let alone speak or think. He looked to the three huge windows spanning the entire wall but they were all closed. He could see outside but not feel it. And the whiteness of it all – the sofa, the walls, the bookcase – all too bright, too glaring. He got to his feet, unsteady for a moment, focus jumping too quick from one thing to another.”

Many people experience some symptoms of derealization during their lifetime – that feeling of existing in something of a numbing daze; perhaps after a traumatic experience such as the death of a loved one. But when these feelings are persistent and last over a period of time (sometimes for no apparent reason), it can be a particularly frightening experience, one that leaves the sufferer wondering if they are losing their mind.

The primary sensation of derealization is of feeling disconnected from your surroundings – literally, nothing seems real. This may be an emotional disconnect and/or a physical sensation where the world around you is either ‘distorted, blurry, colorless, two-dimensional or artificial’ or you see it with ‘a heightened awareness and clarity’, a place you exist in but don’t feel grounded (mayoclinic.org).

The onset of the disorder may be linked to a traumatic experience, or may just show itself in individuals who are more susceptible to it (through ‘genetic and environmental factors’, for example). Either way, it’s often periods of increased or prolonged stress that trigger the symptoms. These symptoms may last for hours, days, weeks or months, or may be ongoing. Medical treatment is in the form of talk therapy and counselling, and is recommended when the symptoms are interfering with normal functioning and daily life.

For Jacob, his mind and body have developed to protect him against the stresses and traumas of his upbringing. For the most part, as a member of the Tribe who promote a pressure- and judgement-free existence, he is able to live a normal life free from mental illness. However, when the past does threaten to re-emerge, as in the reunion with his brother, his mind defends him from the brutality of those past hurts by temporarily taking him ‘out’ of the situation and into one that feels less real and damaging.

Source: “Depersonalization-derealization disorder”, Mayo Clinic (Accessed 7 May 2019) https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depersonalization-derealization-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20352911

A Raging Case of Impostor Syndrome

In all three books of the Hidden Sanctuary series, a recurring thread haunting Jacob’s conscience is that of being ‘found out’. In Hidden, this threat of discovery is tied up with his friendship with Sada, an Outsider, which the Tribe’s doctrine wouldn’t condone. In Exposed, it manifests as a fear of not living up to the role of mentor that was bestowed upon him by his predecessor who he greatly respected. And lastly, in Unmasked, it’s the fear of how his friends will react if they find out the truth about his past.

Fear permeates Jacob’s existence, and while in books 1 and 3 he fixates on tangible reasons to dwell on what could go wrong, it is in book 2 – Exposed – that his self-judgement alone does the most damage. It’s only by thinking he’s not good enough that he takes himself down a path of detachment, isolation, and finally self-destruction.

In modern psychology, this act of self-sabotage – originally thought to be most prevalent in women, but now known to affect both sexes equally – is referred to as Impostor Syndrome.

Unless we’re narcissists or psychopaths (we’ll save those for another blog), none of us are completely sure of ourselves all of the time, no matter how much of a confident persona we may project. We all experience doubt, and we’re often our own worst enemy. But Impostor Syndrome is that unhelpful voice among all that negativity telling you that you’re out of your depth and sooner or later you’ll be found out.

It knows exactly what it’s doing. It’s debilitating and will punch you right where it hurts the most.

At its core, it’s driven by shame and feeds on fear. Shame that you might not live up to the person you claim to be. Shame that you’re deceiving people. Shame that when you’re found out, no one will want to know you. And fear of this ultimate shameful outcome is what will often have you stopping in your tracks, turning back, and perhaps never reaching your full potential.

Fraud is the word that screams in Jacob’s head when he wakes from yet another nightmare in Exposed. He doesn’t think he can ever live up to Michael’s portrayal of what a mentor should be. But what Jacob isn’t able to comprehend for himself – but others around him do – is that there are many ways to be a leader/mentor, and Michael’s was just one.

And the treatment for Impostor Syndrome? The courage and self-love to accept that not everything you do will be right or perfect, but it’s enough just to keep trying and keep learning. You are worthy, and you deserve the things you achieve.

psychogenic amnesia

In the Hidden Sanctuary series, the protagonist Jacob is suffering from the effects of a childhood trauma. In book one, Hidden, he has no recollection of what this trauma actually is but his recurring and vividly gruesome nightmares are a red flag to a past he doesn’t think he’ll want to remember.

The increased nightmares have been triggered by his encounter with Sada, but Jacob resists exploring what they might mean. He’s long had a sense there is something his mind is protecting him from and he fears learning the whole truth.

It’s difficult to imagine how a person’s mind can be so clever as to block memories of a traumatic event. But the body and mind have evolved to protect and survive to extraordinary lengths.

What Jacob is suffering from (if suffering is the right word) is psychogenic amnesia, also known as functional amnesia or dissociative amnesia. The life event that triggered it happened when he was fifteen years old, a period when the developing mind is particularly sensitive to traumatic experiences. Unable to process this ‘intolerable life situation’, Jacob’s mind blocked the details out instead.

In the difficult years that followed for Jacob, these memories sank deeper and deeper until triggered by associated ‘identifiers’, in his case the sight of blood on white cotton, and his brother’s name.

Source: www.human-memory.net/disorders_psychogenic.html

Come over to the dark side

Welcome to the dare to delve deeper blog, where I indulge my fascination for all things different, difficult or unusual.

My interest in people who are, or who act, different to the accepted norms of society often leads me to the psychology behind what motivates them to behave a certain way or adopt a particular persona. I want to know why they act the way they do, what drives them, what or who influences them, what in their past has shaped them into the person they are, can they change and how can they, and do they even want to.

What makes one person comply with society and another resist it?

When does the child become the violent adult?

How far can one person influence another?

Why are certain individuals drawn to committing atrocious acts together?

How can some people have no capacity for empathy at all?

Then there are the dark places - the abandoned room that’s been left untouched as though its occupants left in a hurry; the alleyway in the city where only certain people go in the early hours of the morning; the dead quiet of the forest or the isolated cabin by the river; the rough estate or the town where the residents won’t go out after dark or leave their doors unlocked during the day.

These are the themes, the people and places, I explore in my stories as I delve into the depths of the human mind and its capacity to soar or self-destruct in a world of its own creating…