evseymour

Word on the Wire

Month: April, 2014

It’s Official: Crime Falls

This week it was proclaimed that violent crime is falling, not just in the UK but right across France, Germany, Holland and other parts of Europe. The big question researchers and criminologists are asking themselves is why? There doesn’t appear to be any single, identifiable factor to explain it. Greater minds than mine are grappling with this conundrum but it’s interesting to explore, particularly from a crime writer’s perspective. Some reasons suggested for the drop by those ‘in the know’ are as follows, my comments are below:

Police are better at detecting.

Recently, the police have come in for a bad press. Instances of police failing to act in domestics before it’s too late are well documented. Likewise, police attitudes to rape and sexual crimes often leave much to be desired. Far too many rape victims are reluctant to report crime because they fear how they will be treated, and with good reason. Not all police officers are sympathetic, and violated women are as likely to be accused of ‘making it up’ as have their claim taken seriously.

Our crime statistics are now collated differently so that not all violent acts are registered or categorised in the way that you or I might think they should be. However it’s rare for a killer to get away with murder, even in complex cases. Strides forward in forensics play a large part. The police now have access to a wide range of technical support, including CCTV. In summary, at the sharp end, the police deserve all credit for their work, but is it overstating it to suggest that they are appreciably better at detecting?

There is a societal shift in attitudes towards aggression.

18-30 year-olds fall into the age range most likely to be either a victim or perpetrator of violent crime. Evidence suggests, according to criminologists, that it’s not seen as cool to get into a scrap, and violence of any kind is, therefore, not tolerated. I’m not sure it ever was seen as cool, other than within gangs where violence is mandatory, but if there has been a shift, fine. However, what of the rather more insidious societal creep towards ‘passive aggression’?

Ever made a complaint to a call centre because of an error with the energy company/the council/yes, and even the police. You raise your voice one decibel higher than the norm and the customer care person, or whoever, on the other end will pounce with ‘there is no need to be angry and if you persist I’ll terminate the call.’ Nobody is advocating giving someone a mouthful or bellowing at them, but when people are afraid or upset, they will and do get angry. It’s how humans work. Not everyone who gets a bit exercised has ‘anger management issues.’ To suggest otherwise, is almost a form of aggression in its own right and guaranteed to receive a sparky response.

To unpack this further, we may be less tolerant of aggression, which is a good thing, but there are an awful lot of angry people about and some with good reason: folk hit hard by recession, who will never own their own home and live in crumbling and expensive rentals; those who will never have a decent job, have the right medical and social care for their kids and their parents. I could go on. Sometimes, the result of this grinding pressure can be witnessed in the way people drive, as though they want to kill you. You can view simmering and not so simmering rage on social networking sites between people who have never met each other in person. You can feel it in the street when you’re barged into without a sorry. We might be intolerant of up-front, in your face aggro, but isn’t it too simplistic to maintain that, because we are intolerant of aggression, we are less aggressive either individually, or en masse?

Attitudes to alcohol have changed.

There’s a school of thought that our European café style society, popularised during the Blair years, has much to do with a more sensible approach to alcohol. Certainly, hospital admissions for alcohol related injuries have been cut. Sales of alcohol, particularly among the young have fallen. Many youngsters don’t drink at all. It’s easy to understand. Recession has made jobs and money hard to come by while the unit price of alcohol is higher than it once was. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to work out the correlation, but is it wise to ramp it up to the next level, as certain professionals suggest, by applying punitive taxes on alcohol? If banning or demonising alcohol were the Holy Grail, Prohibition wouldn’t have sprung up in the States during the 1920’s, a gift to criminals. Not everyone who drinks is a lush, a prospective candidate for cirrhosis, or a walking crime statistic.

All of the above can be debated until we go blind, preferably not through drink. My interest lies elsewhere. If crime is on the wane, why is it that so many don’t feel it’s true? Is it skewed public perception? Is it extensive 24/7 news coverage when it can at times feel as if the tide of crime is rising and not falling? As previously mentioned, not everyone who has had dealings with the police, as a victim of crime, has found it an elevating experience.   And where does all this leave the humble crime writer?

Every story needs a hook, the inciting incident (the event from the story sparks.) In crime novels, it’s quite often a murder, or a scene when a detective is called out to view a corpse, and the rest of the story unfolds from this point as the detective’s quest to nail the killer is told. I can’t remember a single book I’ve read where the hook involves someone getting smashed on a Saturday night, beating the living daylights out of some unfortunate, with predictably fatal consequences.  More likely scenarios: acts of revenge, crimes of passion, and ‘removal’ of witnesses, particularly in drug/gang storylines. If there is any drinking going on, it’s usually the lead detective (and main protagonist) who has the problem, not the killer.

Perhaps, we crime writers are disconnected from reality. Perhaps, lost in our fictional worlds, we have it all wrong. Or do we?

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WHEN ‘BLACK DOG’ BARKS!

Some years ago, Simon Brett wrote eloquently in the Society of Authors about his struggle with depression. It was an honest piece written with his customary wit and style. I was briefly introduced to him at Harrogate Crime Writing Festival and he struck me as an incredibly warm, smiley individual. I had no idea of the depths of self-doubt that lurked beneath.

And yet it’s an all too familiar story.

There is a well-documented school of thought that believes depression provides the catalyst for creativity. This idea doesn’t simply extend to writers. Vincent van Gogh was a tortured soul. Plenty of musicians have succumbed to heavy-duty drug habits as a result of dancing with the dark side.   Chicken and egg, one might think. But what of the reverse – and I’m not talking sunny side up. Does art, itself, make depressives of us all?

The first thing anyone tells a new writer is this: be prepared for rejection. Rejection, one might say, is part of life. You didn’t get the job. You didn’t get elected to the board. Your child failed to get into the school you’d chosen. These are natural, if dismaying, events, but to have one’s work rejected repeatedly feels like a personal assault because, as any writer will say, their heart and soul went into their novel.

I must receive, on average, a couple of emails a week, every week, from writers, often very successful individuals in other walks of life, who are baffled, angry and almost traumatised by what they regard as catastrophic failure to have their work represented, or picked up. My advice is always the same: it’s not personal, take a little time out, keep going, start something new.   I rarely tell them that this is one hurdle to vault, followed by a succession of others. I doubt I’d be believed.

Don’t get me wrong, obtaining agent representation is cause for celebration, but the agent then has to sell the novel. In tricky times, publishers are more select about the novels they choose and, consequently, success is not guaranteed. The process, itself, can be arduous as a novel ‘does the rounds’ with a six-week turnaround time between editors standard. Try explaining that to a high-flying business bod who reckons he’s going to make a killing with his spanking new story. I usually say, because it’s the truth, it’s not the agent’s fault and it’s, quite often, not the writer’s either. What is inescapable: disappointment for both can be a difficult path to navigate.

Let’s say your novel is picked up by a publisher, broad smiles all round, but not every writer is a performer, and having to strut your stuff in public or on radio can be a daunting and, ultimately, stressful experience. The first time I did a radio interview I was physically sick in the loo minutes before I went on air.

Schmoozing on social media is now a big part of the deal and not every writer takes to it with flair – another stressor. But, in many ways, this is peripheral stuff. It takes strong mental muscles not to be blindsided by a poor review or lower than expected sales.   Obsessively checking Amazon ratings on an hourly basis is a sure sign that a writer is on the slippery slope.   There are now so many books and writers clamouring for attention that, if you let it, one’s perceived place in the great literary scheme of things can dominate existence.   And, if you enjoy a degree of success, you might then spend a great deal of energy chewing your fingers down to your elbows in a bid to hang on in there while watching the perceived success of others with fear tinged with green-eyed envy. Oh, and did I mention financial insecurity?

God help you, should you ‘fail’ to make the grade in either yours or your publisher’s eyes, because it can sour everything that is good in your life. There are many talented writers whose sense of their own worth has been shattered. Tales of nervous breakdowns are not anecdotal, a genuine example of ‘suffering for one’s art.’ To put it bluntly, self-doubt is a killer.

If you’re a self-published writer, you may believe that you’re off the hook. You might have more control on cover, publication and finance, but marketing one’s own work is not for the faint-hearted and the same laws of the literary jungle apply.

So what am I saying: that writing should come with a government health warning? Not really, but perhaps depression should be viewed as an occupational hazard of the ‘biz’.   If put on the spot, I tell new writers to be aware of the risks and go in with both eyes wide open. Don’t put so many high expectations on yourself. Stick with the reason that you became a writer in the first place, not to command fame and fortune, but because stories are what make you tick.   Most of us don’t give up the day job. We make a point of not getting sucked in to the extent that we sideline spouses and lovers, family and friends. There’s a smart reason for that. It’s called survival.

The Kill List

It’s been a little while since I picked up a novel by Frederick Forsyth. I’ve read a fair few in the past and, in a variation on a theme, if I were stuck on a desert island with eight books to choose to take with me instead of eight pieces of music, I’d probably include ‘The Fist of God.’

Meanwhile, back to ‘The Kill List’. Reading Forsyth’s work is a bit like watching a top-notch, hard-hitting drama documentary. Authentic, crammed with research, his novels make it hard to know where non-fiction ends and fiction begins, and who cares? And this is the other thing about his mastery of storytelling: he breaks rules to brilliant effect, one of which is the dreaded SDT.

For the uninitiated, this means ‘Show, Don’t Tell.’ Still baffled? It’s an inexperienced writer’s tendency to ‘tell’ the reader what is happening, what someone does, what happened when they went to the bookshop, what they had for breakfast two days ago – I’m being deliberately flippant – instead of dramatising the event and ‘showing’ the reader. A handy way to avoid it is to insert a piece of dialogue. It’s all about keeping the narrative active. You don’t need tell the reader that someone is fed up, miserable, angry. Show us! A slightly more sophisticated version of this is when a writer tells you all there is to know about a weapon, a set of events or a character’s backstory. It translates to the reader as ‘pin your ears back and listen.’ A turn off, it can rapidly lead a reader into snooze time.

And yet…

The opening pages of ‘The Kill List’ are very much along the lines of ‘pin your ears back and listen’ but, because of Forsyth’s experience, skill and mastery of his craft, the reader is eager and willing. I want to hear about the political landscape prior to the start of the story. I want to know about secret organisations with strange sounding acronyms. I want those juicy bits of knowledge that make me think about foreign policy and what shapes it. I don’t give a monkey’s if I’m told everything there is to know about the main protagonist, where he was born, to whom and what his inside leg measurement is before we get cracking.  

Like I said, in the right pair of hands, rules are made to be broken. Despite the lateness of the hour when I crawl into bed, I just have to get my fix of Freddie.

GIRL POWER

The time change really messed with my head this week. I woke up at what I thought was 3.10 a.m. and, unable to sleep, convinced myself that it was okay to sneak out of bed, write this blog, and return to bed. Imagine my surprise when later I discovered I’d got up at 1.20 a.m. Some may believe that it’s a fine distinction, but for me it sort of summed up my week, which is why the blog I planned to post has been ‘shelved’.   A lot of weird thoughts go through your head in the middle of the night!

Fortunately, Emmy nominated ‘Strike Back’ came to the rescue. Yep, I know I’ve blogged about this superb series before, but I wanted to pick up on a particular element: the role of women in fictional Section 20.

Before I begin, it’s time for a confession: I’m on record as saying that I find it easier to inhabit male characters than females, which is true. But I also go on to say that my reason for this is because men can get down and dirty in a way that women can’t. Scrap that! Hands up, I was wrong.

When you come across women who are trained to kill, they are, as Rudyard Kipling cottoned on, more deadly than the male. In ‘Strike Back,’ they lead. They do the brainwork. They operate technical gadgetry, crack codes, locate bad guys and operate in the field on the same level as their big meaty, pumped up male counterparts. They look as ruthless; move lightly on the balls of their feet at speed, do that whole 360 degree scoping the enemy stuff; their skill with a submachine gun is cold and surgical. They don’t shirk from manually breaking an enemy’s neck when the need arises, or sticking a knife in, or cutting a throat or three. But the female combatants in S.B. are not simply professional killing machines. They have other lives. Some have children. They joke. They have fun, a lot of it. They are passionate about their jobs. It’s a country mile away from the portrayal of women as victims, as the exploited and downtrodden, as helpless damsels in distress. And thank goodness for that.

Next time my back is against the wall and time is tight, I want Sgt. Julia Richmond to come to my rescue.