Ethics and the Novelist

I’d seeded the presence of a knife murderer in the first three stories, referring to his crimes, with my protagonist worrying that he’s responsible for the deaths he’s investigating. The problem is, that the killer exists in real-life.

I’ve written five crime novels in the last four years, and in the winter of 2019, I am halfway through the sixth story. My stories are set in Cornwall, where I live, and follow the investigations of an erudite, but troubled, detective.

Image result for botallack cornwall
Botallack Mine


So far, I’ve had Chief Inspector Neil Kettle tackle serial killers, rustlers, human traffickers, drugs and armaments smugglers, poisoners, abusive husbands, racists and escaped lynxes and mountain lions. All typical of dozy old Cornwall….

I thought I knew where I was headed as I started writing the fourth book. I’d seeded the presence of a knife murderer in the first three stories, referring to his crimes, with my protagonist worrying that he’s responsible for the deaths he’s investigating. The problem is, that the killer exists in real-life.

It’s one of the most disturbing cases I know of, as the Dogwalk Slayer has been active for 29 years, killing at least three women. Two other deaths are linked to him, and there have been recent attacks on women and children out walking their dogs. It’s unusual for there to be so long between the murders. If you’re interested, there’s a short article about the crimes, here:

‘Dogwalk slayer’ on the loose: One man behind ‘cold case’ murders, says ex-cop

I’ve decided against writing about these hideous crimes. Fictionalising real murders would be wrong, for there are grieving friends and family still around.

There is, of course, a rich tradition of turning real crimes into stories, as well as chronicling them in non-fiction—think of the whole Jack the Ripper industry, for instance. But these books are published long after the crimes were committed.

Image result for jack the ripper books
ahttps://www.amazon.com/Five-Untold-Lives-Killed-Ripper/dp/1328663817


I changed direction with the fourth novel, called Sin Killers, to write of a sanctimonious husband and wife team who are kidnappers, killers and cannibals.

Have any of you censored your writing over ethical considerations?

The Detective as Shaman

In other words, a detective is a kind of priest. Throughout history, priestly castes have boasted a unique capacity to answer the great riddles of existence….’

Crime writer P.D. James reckoned that:

Image result for p d. james 'What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.'

Her observation is something that I’ve kept in the back of my mind when writing my own Cornish Detective series.

My protagonist detective is as much a healer as he is an avenger. But, he’s considerably more vengeful than his boss, the Chief Constable, who worries about the image of the force. He’s willing to cover up investigative failures if it prevents holidaymakers from being scared off from visiting Cornwall, which depends on tourism for much of its income.

I’ve been confident about the stance of my protagonist, who is an unusual character, while still fretting a bit that he’s too freaky and also that he’s a bit boring. I rationalised this, by remembering that villains, the antagonists, are always easier and more fun to write. Also, even if I’ve written a truly frightening fight scene, it’s not going to scare me as I know exactly what happens!

It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d created a protagonist who’s in good fictional company:

https://aeon.co/essays/unholy-modernity-and-the-shamanic-powers-of-the-detective?

The article is written by crime novelist Jason Webster, whose Spanish detective Max Cámara is an unorthodox character. Webster is a maverick author, at least so far as Fatal Sunset, the sixth story in his series goes, for he seemingly kills his hero on the last page—leaving a mystifying cliffhanger, which made me eager to read the next novel to see how he gets out of it. It’s a useful technique, for it made me remember the author’s name more than if all of the loose ends had been neatly tied.

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Webster makes some wise observations about what function a detective serves:

If nothing else, he (and, later, she) is a problem-solver; someone who can restore order where there is chaos. Faced with the worst crime (what could be more existentially troubling than a murder?), the detective gives us answers to the most pressing and urgent questions: not only whodunit but how and why and what it means. He does all this by taking us on a journey, discovering pieces of evidence, seeking out hints and clues. In the best examples of this game, we see everything that the detective sees, yet we are unable to solve the crime ourselves. Only the detective, in a final display of mastery, can reach the correct conclusion. We need him, with his special knowledge and abilities, to make sense of it all.

In other words, a detective is a kind of priest. Throughout history, priestly castes have boasted a unique capacity to answer the great riddles of existence….’

My detective hero is a wealthy man, owing to inheritance, and he’s also a son of a farmer locked into the moods of nature. His love of art, music, books and the countryside keeps him sane, but he’s definitely weird when compared to the typical drug and booze abusing detective or private investigator, who also gambles and womanises. My protagonist is left-wing or liberal, believes in a Green approach to living and is Bohemian in nature from his love of art. He doesn’t smoke, do drugs and rarely drinks alcohol. He was also celibate for eight years, following the death of his wife, though I gave him a sex life in the latest story.

I deliberately wanted to create a different type of detective, not that I dislike the hard-boiled tough guy coppers, but they’re better suited to city locations. My stories are set in Cornwall, featuring dark and dirty deeds—poisoning, cannibalism, human trafficking, BDSM, illegal abattoirs and murder as a roleplaying game—but my hero solves the crimes using his cunning and intelligence.

Inadvertently, I’ve written stories that fit into a subgenre of crime writing known as Country Noir or Rural Noir, which is alright with me, for I’d rather create tales that scare the reader, than pen comfortable cosies they can enjoy on the beach; there’s nothing cosy about murder!

Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell—a country noir novel.

Thinking about famous fictional detectives, characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and private investigators like Philip Marlowe and Dick Tracy, they share the trait of being recognisable by their appearance, in the same way, that founts of wisdom such as Gandhi, the Buddha, Confucius, Mother Teresa, Einstein, Steve Jobs and Stephen Hawking all have an appearance that lends itself to being instantly identifiable, even in silhouette.

Hercule Poirot & Sherlock Holmes

It’s certainly something to consider when describing the looks of your own detective protagonist.

Even rough diamonds can take on the role of priest, healer and shaman. I read a dozen Walter Mosley detective novels last year, and the heroes of his two main series of books, Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill are both street-tough brawlers, but they’re also well-educated and have a social conscience, going out of their way to help the downtrodden victims of the crimes they’re investigating. That’s not to say that they won’t take any casual sex that’s offered to them, or put a bullet in the head of a baddy, as that’s more justice than handing him over to the law.

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They both remind me of the proverb quoted by Theodore Roosevelt when referring to American foreign policy:

Image result for Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far. Theodore Roosevelt Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/theodore_roosevelt_130674

DNA discovery

DNA…has been shown to be highly mobile, migrating between objects in previously unimagined ways.

Crime writers, in particular, will be interested in a startling discovery about DNA, which has been shown to be highly mobile, migrating between objects in previously unimagined ways. Instead of DNA being undeniable evidence that a suspect committed a crime, it could just be that skin cells and bodily fluids were transferred by touching a door handle that hundreds of others later touch.

https://www.wired.com/story/dna-transfer-framed-murder/

This could potentially affect us all. Say, for example, that you sneeze while walking along a street. You can’t see it, but some of your sputum attaches itself to a lamppost, which a passerby brushes against, picking up your DNA on her dress. She is murdered that night—your DNA is on her dress. So what, you say, “I’m not a criminal, no one has my DNA on file from a previous conviction.” But unbeknownst to you, your cousin submitted a sample of their DNA to an ancestry tracing service which shares their data with law authorities, and there are enough similarities for you to be arrested! Have you got a provable alibi?

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https://www.wired.com/story/the-future-of-crime-fighting-is-family-tree-forensics/

It’s not as if the police are operating with a clean slate. A British forensic researcher, found DNA on three-quarters of crime scene tools he tested, including cameras, measuring tapes, and gloves, making any evidence discovered at a crime scene highly unreliable.

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I predict that there will be hundreds of appeals against convictions based on DNA evidence, as a result of this revelation.

Only the Lone Ranger has silver bullets.