Friday, October 19, 2018

Blurred Lines

We have woken up today with the tragic news of yet another student walking round a school with a gun, killing. This time it was in the Crimea and, at the time of writing this there are 17 dead and over 40 wounded. Valdislav Roslyakov then killed himself in the college library. His mother was a nurse at the local hospital, treating the victims of the shooting without knowing if it was her own son whose finger had been on the trigger. As is fairly typical, the perpetrator was said to be unsociable and spent much of his time putting depressing messages on social media.

Anders Breivik

It caught my eye as I was intending to blog about the TV drama I watched last night.  22nd July. It’s about the atrocities of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway. Firstly, the bomb attack on Parliament and then he, a far-right extremist, took guns and ammunition to an island, Utoya, where some teenagers were on a Workers' Youth League summer camp. Eight died in the explosion, sixty nine on the island. The total injured was over three hundred and twenty. He was sentenced to 21 years' preventive detention.
It’s uneasy viewing, but very low key on the horror of the situation. The emotional hook was the boy who Breivik shot seven times but survived.  He’s on record as stating that Breivik looked at him, ready to shoot him again, then walked away. The boy believes his Aryan looks made his assailant think twice.  In the drama, we see his parents go through all the emotions. They find one son alive, the other is unaccounted for. Then they find him at the hospital, fighting for his life.

What does come across is the dignity of the Norwegian people, ‘we shall not react down the barrel of a gun but by the due process of law.’
The drama was heavy on fact, light on horror. The events are allowed to unravel and tell their own story. I have also seen Elephant, the film based on the Columbine School massacre. It’s also hard watching, but the story is there.  Yet I suspect there would be outrage if something similar was made about Thomas Hamilton and the events at Dunblane Primary School. Is that a matter of emotional distance?

I was doing an event last week and was asked if there was anything that I wouldn’t write about. The answer is I wouldn’t write about something that is recognisably true. I am uneasy about a dramatized version of real life events. Especially if there are no survivors.
And I’ve read books (well half read them as I tend to fling them against the window) where the events are basically a real-life crime where real people died with the names changed and little more. Sometimes they are so close to a well-publicised case, I can tell how it ends. It ends exactly the same way the real life version ended.

The last two books which have won the McIlvanney Scottish Crime book if the year are both based on ‘real ‘events.  One based on the Peter Manual killings, the other on the Bible John case. Both cases are recent enough to be in living memory of victim’s relatives.
                                                           Simon Toyne 
Simon Toyne has a programme Written In Blood, were he walks a crime writer through the case that inspired the book. Sometimes the word ‘inspired’ is accurate. There is very little correlation between the real life crime and the fiction that comes out at the end of the process. In other cases, it is far too close, for me, to be comfortable and I can't help but sniff profiteering at somebody else’s misery.
One book was Alex Marwood’s Wicked Girls, inspired by the case of James Bulger in 1993. This was the two year old boy that was led out a shopping mall by two older boys, along a towpath and eventually killed by them. For all kinds of reasons, it was a horrific and unforgettable crime. Thompson and Venables were only ten years old at the time of their crime.
                                            The film that shows the two year old being led away

The boys were released, their sentences short (in English law ) due to their age. One is back in jail for possession of child porn,  the other lives under an assumed name.  They have been ‘outed’ by the press a few times, their locations made public, gag orders have been invoked by the courts, people have been prosecuted by citing their supposed whereabouts on social media (in an attempt to cause bodily harm to and the persecution of a totally innocent individual). Alex took that idea, turned the guilty party in to two girls. What would happen if they grew up to be respectable mums themselves. Time moves on, they have served their sentence, they have new identities in every sense. Then somebody finds out who they are.

A lot of what ifs.

The story is far removed from the real life case that inspired it. And I could see my own imagination taking that story as a baton, then running a fair way with it before committing a fictional spin off to paper.

What would his mother feel like, picking up a paperback and reading something she recognised?

I was once asked to read a book which was a fictionalised account of Britain’s most famous female child killer, Myra Hindley.  Hindley died in jail in 2002 without ever gaining her freedom. The book starts off with the premise that she gets out with a new identity. The story of her death was faked. The character in the book has the same name as the killer, it’s in the title. She has plastic surgery, a new face, a new body, and moves far up the social structure.

                                                Myra Hindley

It was the kind of book that made me want to wash my hands after I had finished it.
It doesn’t sensationalise what she did. Myra comes across as a rather pathetic, unremorseful character. The book is well written, and the story comes across as not a far fetched as it may sound.  But it would, in my opinion,  have been so much more acceptable if the main character had not been called Myra Hindley. Or if the title of the book had not used that name, or the name of the famous landscape they used as a disposal site.

But then it was nominated for a few awards so what do I know.
I’m interviewing two crime fiction writing journalists at Grantown’s wee crime writing festival. I think the blurred lines of fact into fiction might come up in conversation.

19 10 2018


  1. A most thought-provoking post - on a topic not often thought about by readers of crime novels I suspect.

  2. I'm with you, Caro. I'm currently working on finishing up a (privately printed) book about the murder of my father's brother in 1955. The story would make a solid start to a crime novel... but I could never do that. I've seen the emotions first hand that STILL echo down time over 60 years later.

  3. Based on personal experience, I have no patience for writers who exploit private tragedies as a vehicle for their plot lines.

    Years back, while I was still practicing as a lawyer, I was introduced to a woman at a party with the line, "I told her she should talk to you." To boil the story down to its essence, a VERY WELL KNOWN writer had published a mightily successful book that told in vivid detail the tragic story of this woman's daughter. After years of institutionalization the daughter had finally somewhat overcome her situation, only to now find that her ENTIRE story was now on the best seller list--with a decidedly negative impact on the daughter.

    Frankly, I didn't believe the story--cynic that I am--and asked the woman flat out how she could prove this. She said that was simple, because the author had given an acknowledgment credit to the institution where her daughter had spent so much of her life! You can't make this stuff up. I told the mother that she would most likely have a lawsuit at least against the institution, but the mother said she could not bear to subject the daughter to more anguish. She just turned and walked away and I have no idea what happened next.

    Except that I swore never to do what that author had done. (No, not the best-seller part, the other thing).

  4. Sensationalism is not art. I cannot imagine another reason for writing such a book except to exploit someone else’s tragedy for personal profit. Shame on the writers who prostitutute themselves in such a way. And quadruple shame on the publishers who salivate over the profits. I believe in free speech, or I would call for a law. Especially when the victims are children. I cannot bear to read or watch such stories—real or fiction or bastardized. To me, it is a cheap shot for a writer to choose children in danger as a way ot titilating suspense and fear. No need to create a character the reader cares about enough to fret over whether he or she will survive. Just have the bad guys go after an innocent child. How easy, how quick. Facile stories say nothing interesting or useful about the human condition. So what’s the point of them?

  5. Agree. Don't read books sensationalizing real human tragedies. Won't do it. I don't read true crime either. There is enough on the local news every night.
    It's enough to read crime fiction, and that which is more about the characters and the investigation and the location are far superior to those that dwell on the brutality.