Many of the older crime writers have been wary of diluting fiction with too much suspense- slackening fact. In Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories (1928), S.S. Van Dine laid it out—Rule 16: “A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no ‘atmospheric’ preoccupations.” H.R.F. Keating warns in Writing Crime Fiction that “facts from the real world that you don’t need for your fiction serve only to clog things up” and although he allows for descriptive passages, he suggests that they be maximum 150 words long. Likewise, Rule 9 in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing goes: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”
However, Rule 2 in The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler states that a mystery story “must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection” and the investigator “must at least know enough about police methods not to make an ass of himself. When a policeman is made out to be a fool, as he always was in the Sherlock Holmes stories, this not only deprecates the accomplishment of the detective but it makes the reader doubt the author’s knowledge of his own field.”
On file: (clockwise from top) Peter James is chairman, British Crime Writers Association,Photo Maxim Aryukov; a poster of the film The Silence of the Lambs; and best-selling author Robin Cook, Photo Wikimedia Commons
So we are to understand that the facts and correct descriptions are important, but should be kept to a minimum. However, the modern crime novelist also knows that readers enjoy learning and that facts aren’t necessarily boring—whether it is about getting intimate with alien cultures, or picking up titbits on forensic science and legal procedure. Consider the case of Robin Cook, a physician writing best-selling medical thrillers; or that rare moth in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, which leads us to the serial killer’s lair.
Or consider Peter James, current chairman of the British Crime Writers Association, author of police procedurals that have sold six million copies in more than 30 languages, who recently visited India to launch the sixth novel in the Roy Grace series. All readers may not enjoy the dreary language of police files featured in Dead Like You but, on the other hand, that is exactly the strength of his novel: We get a close approximation of how Sussex policemen might behave.
Set out in meticulous detail, the plot revolves around frequent staff briefings in MIR-1, the Major Incident Room, which is the nerve centre of the investigation, with various analytical specialists rattling off their jargon, with marker pens and cluttered whiteboards and computer database searches—a genuine flavour of the administrative work that police personnel handle much of the time.
This is deliberate: Even before the Roy Grace series (the first book was published in 2005), James had been hanging out with policemen to understand how they think and work. Interestingly, it all began with a burglary in his home. The investigators were impressed when they learnt that James was a writer.
“Why don’t you come out with us sometime?” a policeman suggested.
Exposure to the realities convinced James of the fact that teamwork is the backbone of modern policing. So, although this goes against Van Dine’s Rule 9 (“To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader”), he decided to make his novels as realistic as possible and populate them with the different categories of professionals involved in investigative work—although, of course, Roy Grace remains the central character in charge of investigations. As a rule, crime novels must have a hero whose private life is an integral part of the story.
When not on book tours, James spends a day a week with the Sussex police, follows them on violent raids, and goes street patrolling. Research can get scary. He told me that for the novel Dead Simple—which starts with a stag party that goes terribly wrong when a drunken bridegroom is sealed in a coffin by his mates who then go on to crash their car—he tested what it was like to be locked in a coffin. When the lid was screwed tight, and the undertaker went away to attend to other work, James suddenly realized how claustrophobic it was. He says, “I knew that the air would last for about 4 hours unless I panicked and started breathing faster, but what if the undertaker had a traffic accident and didn’t come back?”
For his latest book Dead Like You, based on the “Rotherham Shoe Man” case of a fetishist who raped over 20 women in the 1980s, James worked a day in a posh ladies’ shoe shop to study lurking male perverts—to his amazement a corporate-type gentleman in a black suit came in and tried out a pair of golden 6-inch heels. He also collaborated closely with sexual offences liaison officers, to ensure that the rape scenes weren’t titillating, and to highlight issues around rape prevention.
At the end of the day a novel isn’t merely the sum of the research that goes into it. Usually around 6pm James mixes a “massive vodka martini” and then sits down to write. At 11pm he wraps up, watches a soap opera like Desperate Housewives, and then he revises his text when he wakes up the next day. Although he takes his work seriously, James isn’t one of those secretive authors who don’t like to reveal their modus operandi—anybody can follow his research and writing on his blog.
Except for one thing: There’s a red thread running through the series—detective Roy Grace’s own wife went missing on his 30th birthday and hasn’t been seen since. While solving other crimes, Roy keeps looking for clues to her disappearance.
“I’ve got the mystery worked out,” James tells me, “and in a future book you’ll find out too. But if I reveal it to you now, I’ll have to kill you.”
He looks at me and then guffaws. Ah yes, he’s a funny guy in real life.
Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan.
Write to Zac at email@example.com