Notes On A Crime Novel

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I came pretty late to the Detective story. Sure, cop shows on TV were unavoidable when I was a kid, and I developed a fondness for Inspector Morse years later, not so much because of the mystery solving (while Morse has occasional flashes, he’s a long way from being the world’s greatest detective. It’s a pity the way the newer prequel, ‘Endeavour,’ attempts to reimagine him as Benedict Cumberbatch), but because of the grand, almost operatic scale of the storytelling.

John Thaw was simply magnetic as Morse, and the stories were lingered over lovingly. They were essentially movies – most of them were even shot with cinema cameras – as much about the feel and morose grandeur of Morse’s world as solving the crime at hand.

In terms of reading, I had paid very little attention to detective novels since I was a child. Occasionally, during some unusually long period of idleness (maybe on one of those rare holidays where nothing much was happening) I might come across an old, yellowing Agatha Christie paperback. I could admire the storytelling skill and neat prose (it’s rarely mentioned that Christie was actually a very decent stylist) without getting terribly carried away.

Maybe this is because while Christie’s stories are powerful, and treat – as murder must – of the most raw and visceral human passions, we’re seeing them through the prism of ‘safe’ characters like Miss Marple and Poirot. Christie’s sleuths thus serve two purposes: they solve the crime and serve as a kind of comfort blanket for the reader, they are a protective layer between you and the very worst things that human beings are capable of.

It was when I began to read Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories that some sort of process was touched off in my brain. I had never read them as a child, and my impression of Sherlock had been rendered a bit jaundiced by a few crazy efforts to ‘reimagine’ or ‘reinvent’ the most famous character in English Literature. One of the worst of these was a hilariously hysterical effort in which Nicol Williamson (as Holmes) bumps into Sigmund Freud, who proves that his unpleasant character and mania for crime solving are – you’ve guessed it – the product of something he caught his mother doing when he was a kid.

Later, there was the long running TV series with Jeremy Brett as the great sleuth. This garnered much praise for its fidelity to the original stories and attention to Victorian detail, but I always found Brett’s performance too fussy, too camp, and the show’s stately pace could be stultifying. The original stories themselves, by contrast, can fairly crackle with a pace and energy that TV and film versions have only rarely lived up to.

The latest BBC version of Sherlock, starring the aforementioned and ubiquitous Benedict, try to inject some of that amazing energy by massively sexing and teching everything up. It works, up to a point, but if you want to touch Conan Doyle’s genuine genius, go back to the stories, and marvel at an achievement which is still being ‘reimagined’ over a hundred years later.

Beyond the puzzles, which must have been fiendish to devise and resolve, Conan Doyle was decades ahead of his time by choosing as his hero someone with distinctly unpleasant traits. Sherlock is (or has been) a drug addict. While not actually cruel, he is capable of enormous callousness, particularly towards the ever faithful Watson. He appears to have an almost pathological aversion (never fully explained) towards sexual contact with women, while at the same time going to great sentimental lengths to help any damsel in distress within a hundred mile radius of London.

Moreover, even though he’s a genius, he sometimes gets it wrong. There are times when, stuck in a self-indulgent miasma, he doesn’t react quickly enough to save a client. Elements such as these – fallibility, self-indulgence, unpleasantness, wouldn’t start appearing in mainstream TV detective characters until the 1980’s. Conan Doyle died in 1930.

Yet the unpleasantness and complexity of the character is one key reason why Holmes has become perhaps the most famous fictional person in the world. His oddness makes for a more interesting prism through which to view the world of evil. The reader still has the comfort blanket of the unerringly moral and sentimental Watson, but Holmes represents both danger and reassurance, a remarkable achievement.

To me, that seems the most important element of any detective story, not who is murdered and why, but who is your main character. It’s something I had to think about for ‘The Killing of Sheila Price.’ Who is going to process and interpret all this madness and malevolence for the benefit of the reader?

It’s become the ultimate cliché these days to make your lead Detective an alcoholic, and at first I thought I wanted to avoid this with Dan Hogan. Since Sherlock, it’s become unthinkable for a Detective not to have a dark side. All that horror, all that daily evidence of how bestial and vicious human beings must – so the literary reasoning goes – have some sort of visible impact.  Either he has a trunk full of dead bunnies, or he must be either an alkie or a junkie.

I decided in the end that it made sense for Dan because it sat with the other elements of his persona. Like most fictional Detectives, Dan is horrified by human nature, but he internalises it in a way the others don’t. There’s a line in ‘The Killing of Sheila Price’ which refers to his sparse hair standing up like a shocked question mark against human brutality.

He holds long private monologues in which he attempts to address the ghost of the dead woman. Whereas other professionals would practice ways of emotionally distancing themselves from trauma encountered in the course of work, Dan does the opposite. He uses the internalised pain of others as fuel to propel him towards solving the case. This seems to get results, but he knows that it’s shortening his life. This doesn’t bother him so much, though, because like many other Detectives, Dan fell out of love with life a long time ago. He is perhaps a little more systematic, though, in terms of actually trying to give it up.

He tends to view the world in passive terms. Stuff happens to him, not the other way around. He is attracted to Buddhism, both as a kind of shock medicine for the horrors of the world but also because of his suspicion that any action, however well intentioned, is either meaningless or destined to bounce back upon the actor.

He no longer has much use for reason either. Whereas someone like Sherlock clings remorselessly to the power of reason and the rational mind in the face of indescribable madness and horror, Dan – made of less stern stuff – gave up a long time ago. Grace, the psychic he consults without telling his bosses, recalls him telling her that he had run out of mathematics, and now needed voodoo.

While there are aspects of Dan Hogan’s character that seem old-fashioned, I think this makes him extremely contemporary. We live in a world that makes a little less sense every day. A giant orange oompa loompa is running against a despised power junkie for the most powerful office on the planet. Some quite reputable scientists are talking out loud about the entire Universe being a computer simulation. Bob Dylan has just won the Nobel Prize, and as he says himself: “people uh cwazy an’ life is strange.”

In a world such as this, Dan Hogan makes perfect sense. I also wanted to make the story contemporary by including details I believe to be true about the society he inhabits. Sheila Price’s death occurs not long after the Irish property crash, when the country’s entire economy was placed on life support while the Irish Government – obeying the demands of the EU and Germany – took it upon itself to pay off the debts of criminal bankers.

This was a time when it became obvious that the Irish State itself is a kind of hologram, a failed pyramid scheme still loosely clinging to the pretence that it is some sort of country.

‘The Killing of Sheila Price’ is also one of the few contemporary novels to refer to the existence of ‘alternative’ sexual communities in Ireland: people who practice organised partner swapping, orgies and so on, often in parts of the country (rural Ireland) where such things are thought not to exist. There’s a good deal of anecdotal evidence that such practices are actually very widespread in Ireland: the last veneers of social control exercised by the Catholic Church are gone, and appear to have left exposed a kind of orgiastic nihilism which may actually be what passes for the real Irish soul.

Like so many other activities in Ireland however, such as police and political corruption, these things remain secret, and their secrecy is guarded fiercely by a corrupt legal system which ruthlessly stamps out freedom of speech. It sometimes seems incredible that we can have these North Korean levels of control and secrecy in a country that sits slap bang in the Western sphere, but there it is.

Public life in Ireland (all official life to an extent) is basically a legal fiction, with the borders of this fiction being constantly patrolled by lawyers. Underneath the fiction is a sort of free for all where, so long as you belong to this or that protected group, pretty much anything goes.

Who other than a Dan Hogan can possibly guide the reader through such waters? Again and again, Dan has to chart his course knowing that various, undefined forces are ready to shut him down the minute he strays into forbidden territory, and it is my experience and belief that just about every serious criminal investigation in the Republic of Ireland has to do exactly the same thing.

Finally, Dan has to grapple with the whole issue of marriage, 21st Century style, since central to the entire plot is the marriage between Sheila and her estranged spouse, Harry. It’s alien territory for Dan, who can barely remember his own brief marriage. But as his method includes approaching things with a sort of Buddhist absence of assumption, Dan begins to find out things.

There has never been a theatre with more potential for visceral cruelty than the noble institution of marriage. People get to do things and behave in ways that would surely earn incarceration if you did them anywhere else. One of the assumptions of the legal fiction that defines official life in Ireland is that cruelty in marriage is practised exclusively by men. It leads to a lot of criminal behaviour by women going unreported. People think there’s no point because even if it is investigated, it certainly won’t be prosecuted, and of course they’re right.

Being that unusual creature, a policeman who thinks for himself, Dan Hogan knows different. And some of his discoveries touch interestingly on the inferno that is sexual politics in the 21st Century.

“The Killing of Sheila Price” is available for download on Amazon Kindle. Simply type the name into the Amazon search engine or:

 

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