Friday, May 17, 2013

Fact and Fiction. The Crime Writers' Responsibility?

I recall being at a forensics event where my good pal the crime writer Alex Gray was speaking.  It was a few days after the spree killing in Cumbria where Derrick Bird had killed 12 people. Bird had shot his twin brother eleven times then drove to the office of the family solicitor and killed him also.  Derrick was a taxi driver himself when he opened fire on four other taxi drivers, killing the only one he actually knew. The police considered them targeted shootings, but Bird then went on a random spree killing another nine people.

Bird was a granddad, described as a popular and quiet man.  There have been many reasons speculated, a family feud over  money, he had just been  rejected by a Thai girl he had met on holiday and three of the dead had worked at the  Sellafield power plant where Bird had been  accused of stealing wood, found guilty and received a twelve month suspended sentence.
                                                       Derrick Bird
Against that background, Alex had to stand up and promote crime fiction to the police and forensic staff who deal with these tragedies day in and day out. It was a tough call.
She started her speech by saying that she wasn't that proud to be a crime writer on that particular day. I understood what she meant but it's not something that has ever troubled me in particular.  Real people commit real crimes. We write stories that amuse people waiting in airports and in dentists' waiting rooms. We set puzzles for people to solve. The two things are miles apart.

But thinking about it, I realise that I do have some reservations about a crime writing friend of mine who openly admits that all her fiction is based on fact. She cuts stories out of newspapers, changes the name, sexes them up a bit and hey presto there's a new novel. So much that the real people involved are recognisable in the fiction. I also remember listening to a TV scriptwriter who said that she bought stories from victims of crime to use in her TV series.  Big ones to base the series on and smaller stories to act as background.  (I think she called the little ones stringers). I then watched the TV show, the story was based on the murder of a four year old child who had been killed and put in a drain pipe. I knew it was based on a true story - and I couldn't watch it.

 I can watch true documentary of crime as long as they are well made, but not drama based on fact...because at the end of the day it is entertainment based on the tragic death of somebody's son, somebody's daughter.  Even in fiction, I think it is a big turn off for the reader when the murder becomes a technical exercise, with it having no emotional effect on anybody, especially the investigative team.

It's a line I think we all have to draw somewhere.

However to balance that I do believe that crime writers have a chip of ice in their heart, as do most medics. You need to have an investigative mind. As soon as the empathy is over, the investigation begins - the what if's, and the why's, and all the other questions.

I've thought a fair bit about including this case in this blog, as it is close to the bone. If I had read it in a fictional novel, it is fascinating, reading a factual account would be interesting
 but as it happened  in the last week, not to somebody that I know, but somebody who is a friend of a good friend it's a bit raw but also serves as an example that we should be aware of the tight rope that we walk sometimes.
                                                               Margaret and Nicola

This case raises all kinds of questions, something that we might never get to the bottom of. It is a tragedy in every sense of the word.
It concerns a mother and daughter, two very normal people from Paisley. Margaret was 52, a nice, happy woman, committed politically - she had stood for the Lib Dems in two local elections - a hard working woman, mother of five grown up kids, foster mother to another two. She was divorced but on very good terms with her ex husband.

Her daughter Nicola was 23, a graduate in social work and was working for a local charity.
Then last week something went drastically and horribly wrong.
On Thursday at 9am, Margaret dropped off one of the children at nursery in Paisley. She is then seen with Nicola in Balloch at about 11am. The 17 hours after that are confusing. At 2pm Margaret fails to pick up the child from the nursery, the staff alert the family, the police pay a  visit to the family home at night as a routine call. But it's not in Margaret character to fail to turn up where she was expected.  There are now concerns about their welfare.

                                             Premier Inn, Courtesy of The Daily Record

Later it was discovered they had driven to Greenock and checked into the Premier Inn (which is a respectable motel type of place ideal for short stays for business men, overnight stays for early morning flights etc)
On Thursday night, they are both spotted in Linwood and Paisley, before returning to the Premier Inn somewhere between 12.30 and 1 am.
                                                      The last known movements- courtesy of the Scotsman

The tragedy unfolds at 7am the next morning, when a guest of the inn walking along the corridor discovers Nicola, lying badly injured in the hall. Her mother is found in a nearby room. The wounds have been described as slash wounds.

Both are rushed to hospital, the mother is critical, the daughter is serious. Margaret died later in hospital. Nicola held onto life for two more days, her dad holding a vigil at her bedside. Then she too passed away from her injuries.
The local papers are all screaming blood bath.
But it has to be noted that the police, very early on said that they were not looking for any third party. Vague sources (who refuse to be named) say that there may have been a suicide pact between mother and daughter and that an amount of paracetamol was found in the room. As yet the police do not have the results of any tox screen.

The police are still very keen to find out why they were driving around the area back tracking on themselves, why book an inn less than twenty miles from where they lived?  And so the questions go on, so the chip of ice eats away. And I'm sure it is eating away at their family and friends more than anyone.
The police as yet have given no indication as to cause of death, but they have confirmed that the family was not known to them.
The whys and the what ifs - the strange drive, the last few hours,  what was going on in that room, why did nobody hear, why did nobody help, could anybody have helped... we just don't know... and we may never know.
Maybe at the end of the day it is none of our business.
It's all very sobering and a reminder that we do have some responsibility in what we write, and that we shrug off that responsibility at our peril. But I'm sure that some crime writers take comfort in trying to make sense of such heartbreak.
Here's Nicola in happier terms, a clever, bonnie lassie with everything in life ahead of her.   Like I said, a huge tragedy.

Caro GB 17/05/2013 


  1. On this subject, Caro, you've touched a nerve with me. It's not any gripe I have in general with writers who pass off as their own ideas rewrites of actual events--after all that's what non-fiction is all about--but rather with one particular mystery writer known to all in the world but who shall remain nameless as far as I'm concerned.

    I was attending a Super Bowl party in NYC many years back and the host introduced to me to a woman who I was told had a question for me. When the woman said it was about a mystery writer I assumed it had to do with my own writing, but I soon realized she was interested in my other hat (at the time) as a lawyer.

    She began at the beginning. With the birth of her daughter, and took me in excruciating detail through a myriad of events haunting that poor child into young adulthood, including a considerable amount of time spent in an institution for those enduring serious psychological problems. Ultimately she was released, her life turned around.

    I felt for the woman, but it was now 20 minutes into her story, I'd missed a quarter of the game, had no idea where she was headed, but had the sinking feeling she was just warming up. To be honest, I wanted to kill the host. It was my chip of ice moment.

    Then she dropped the bomb.

    She handed me a copy of a best-selling mystery novel and said it was the story of her daughter's life in virtually every detail. When the daughter learned about the book she thought the whole world now knew the shame of her story and relapsed. Doctors had no idea when or if she'd ever recover from the shock.

    Her mother's question was, "Can we sue the writer?"

    My question was, "Are you sure it's your daughter's story?"

    Answer, "Yes."

    "How can you be certain?"

    She opened the book to the acknowledgments page and pointed to names. "They worked at the institution in which she was kept."

    I couldn't believe it. At any level. It was obvious to the mother that the writer had employees inside the institution (and who knows where else) providing confidential information on patients for the writer to turn into best-selling books!

    I told her that I wasn't sure what claim she might have against the writer, but there was one hell of a claim against the institution.

    But from the way she spoke I knew she'd never sue. Her daughter couldn't take the pressure of the litigation. All she could bring herself to do was curse the writer.

    As did I.

  2. I read mysteries and thrillers all the time. I thoroughly enjoyed Anthony Prices's espionage series with David Audley as super spy. Charles Cumming is excellent. Maybe there is some truth (there certainly is in Cumming's TRINITY SIX), but it is sanitized. For the most part, the evil-doers get their comeuppance.

    But real life tragedy casts a shadow on imaginary loss and sorrow. I did not follow the trial of Jodi Arias but I have been watching the penalty phase and, in doing so, have heard more than enough of the death of Travis Alexander. Jodi Arias was in a relationship with Travis for about two years. When Travis started a new relationship, Jodi was displeased. She stabbed Travis 29 times, cut his throat, and shot him in the head. Sounds awful on the page but it is nothing compared to the actual details of how this man died. I don't know how his family managed to get through the trial. Jodi has been found guilty and it is the penalty phase that is fascinating. Jodi was found guilty of first degree murder making her eligible for the death penalty. Arizona allows individuals who know the accused to testify to mitigators and aggravators that should be taken into consideration by the jury as they decide whether Jodi is sentenced to death or to life in prison. The jury has to try to understand that which can't be understood.

    Margaret and Nicola appear to have had a very close relationship but how does a mother participate in a daughter's suicide? What brings these two women to the point where each decides she can't live without the other? What if one had survived? What about the rest of the family?

    In a book, when a writer dispatches a victim with a slash of the throat, it seems quick and painless. It isn't and two minutes is an eternity.


  3. I found this a really interesting blog and I'd be intrigued to know which you thought was worse, a drama based on fact that keeps to these facts or one that twists them for entertainment purposes?

    From an academic point of view, I've often seen literary representations become part of popular myth surrounding an event or person (just look at your blog on Richard III and how Shakespeare portrayed him!)and I can imagine that this could be quite damaging given the sensitive subjects that crime writing handles.

    Its horrible to think that someone is gaining from someone else's trauma and perhaps that's the big difference between well-written crime novels that seem real, and reality re-packaged as fiction.

  4. Richard III died in 1485. Shakespeare wrote the play about one hundred years later. He didn't have to worry about his portrayal of Richard being damaging. The point of the play was to damage Richard's reputation to the point that it didn't resemble the real man at all.

    A drama based on Jodi Arias can be as damaging as the writer wants because she has been convicted of murder. The dramatist needs to make Jodi bad just as he would need to make Travis Alexander good. If Jodi killed a rapist, the world would look at her quite differently.

    Shakespeare owed his livelihood and his life to Elizabeth I. If Richard hadn't been killed, Elizabeth's grandfather wouldn't have become king. Shakespeare had to make sure everyone got the message in the play that Richard's death was a good thing. At the Arias trial, the media noted the pain suffered by both families. Well written crime novels acknowledge the humanity on both sides, even that of the perpetrator.


  5. Thanks for your comments, it's an unsettling issue. I like to think that somewhere in the crime writers brain is a tumble dryer of ideas that absorbs all sorts and creates a story that is totally unrecognizable but credible.
    Weirdly, I have had the opposite happen to me - I wrote a novel then a serial killer started doing the same thing- the media even called him the same name as I had called the killer in the book. Was that sheer coincidence or is there a serial killer train of thought that a writer can lock onto. Scary thought.