Keeping the Mythic Distance
By Sarah Hilary
My great friend and mentor, the late Ranald Graham, would have been able to explain why I turned to crime. He understood these things and not just because he wrote scripts for The Sweeney, and The Professionals. The difference between UK and US cop shows? “Our (British) cop cars don’t bounce”. We were both huge fans of the horror genre too, and the human stories at the heart of shows like The Walking Dead. Sadly, I never had the chance to ask Ranald why I started writing a mystery/crime series. So I’ll try to muddle through an explanation of my own.
I could blame Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Holmes stories gripped me when I was ten, or Raymond Chandler and Dick Francis in my teens. Patricia Highsmith in my twenties, or Thomas Harris, except the trouble with Highsmith and Harris was their effortless skill had me doubting my credentials; I couldn’t possibly plot like that. I could take a crack at writing great characters – which seemed to be where my talent lay – but plotting? Nope.
Here’s the thing, though, and I’ll bet Ranald knew this: characters create plot. It’s a by-product of their flaws and foibles. You try stopping them, in fact. Like zombies, they keep coming. My break-through moment arrived when Detective Inspector Marnie Rome walked into a story I was writing, and announced that it was the first in a mystery series. I tried arguing with her – “I can’t write plot” – but you try arguing with Marnie Rome.
When she told me that Someone Else’s Skin was a book about secrets, I listened. When she went on to say that it was a book about misconceptions and mistakes, I was skeptical. I love a red herring as much as the next reader, but a whole shoal of them? That would just be annoying, wouldn’t it? No, Marnie insisted, it would be intriguing. All right, but wouldn’t it be fiendishly hard to write? Yes, and..?
As DS Noah Jake points out in Someone Else’s Skin, trying to pick a fight with Marnie Rome is like digging your fingers in marble; you just end up with an ache in your fists.
So I started writing Marnie’s story, about a crime with lots of witnesses. Unreliable ones, damaged women who see with their nerve endings the way blind soldiers are taught to see, and witnesses with axes to grind. Then there’s Marnie herself, hardly less damaged than the others and with an even bigger axe, but you trust her all the same, at least I hope you do. I suppose I was never going to write a straight-die detective, having been raised on Holmes and Marlowe and Tom Ripley.I was asked recently why I think the mystery/crime genre is so hugely popular. Could it be because we love to see justice served? I can’t speak for anyone else who reads (or writes) these books, but I will say that the serving of justice isn’t as important to me as the acknowledging of chaos. Not enough novels do this, I’ve found. There’s a tendency to jump straight from the horror of a crime to the pursuit of its perpetrator. So there’s a puzzle, a chase, a confrontation – all of which is great, and vital for a good story. But the bit that grips me most is the mess. By which I don’t mean lengthy visceral descriptions of brutal crime scenes, although these have their place. For me, it’s all about the mess we make as human beings, the wrong turns, the negligence, the judgments or (worse) the avoidance of the things that matter. Too much viscera can result in numbness. If there’s a crime I can’t forgive as a reader, it’s being made to feel numb about brutality because the horror isn’t put into any human context, because there’s no hint of compassion or humour or irony. Without context, this stuff doesn’t work. Like a horror film that won’t let up; you end up laughing to break the tension. (That’s why George Romero has cheerleader zombies, by the way; he’s feeding us the laugh, getting it out of the way so that he can scare our pants off later.)
I’ve kept you guessing about the title of this ramble: “Keeping the Mythic Distance”. It was a mantra of Ranald Graham’s and I don’t entirely know what it means, because I never asked Ranald for an explanation. Mythic distance is all about ironic perspective, but how to keep it..? I’m going to say it refers to the writer’s need to create a mythology that’s true to itself, honest and not arrogant, aware of its limitations, committed to telling the truth of the world as seen by the characters who’ve been appointed custodians of that truth. That’s the kind of series I’m trying to write, with Marnie’s help.
What are your thoughts on the mythic distance? Or why crime fiction is so popular?