I’ve shaken hands with killers. I’ve stood outside their homes and drunk their coffee and made snide remarks about the state of their curtains. I’ve watched them tearfully appeal for witnesses and seen them urge their loved ones to come home. I’ve spoken to murderers on the telephone and made one laugh with a story about my daughter. One particular psychopath brushed past me on his way to take the stand at Hull Crown Court and then humbly apologised for standing on my foot. If he’d been equally repentant about stabbing a young woman to death, there would have no need for a criminal trial…
What I’m saying is that I’ve met the men and women that provide the ‘characters’ in real-life drama. I’ve looked into the eyes of people who have taken another life, and I’ve seen my own features swim on the irises of the damned. But the funny thing is, I’ve never met a single killer who is anything like the murderers in fiction. I’ve never met a Hannibal Lecter or a Gretchen Lowell. I’ve met jealous husbands who have gone too far while holding a pool cue and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and I’ve met drug pushers who didn’t realise quite how hard it is to just shoot somebody in the legs when you’re holding a gun that kicks like a mule. But I’ve never sat through a murder trial and thought ‘this would make a good novel’. I’ve never thought that Lincoln Rhyme or Clarice Starling or Kinsey Millhone should be out on the mean streets of Yorkshire trying to get to the bottom of some real-life tragedy rather than trailing brilliant psychos somewhere more cinematic.
My point? Crime fiction, and crime fact, are a million miles apart.
I would love to think there is a real-life equivalent of the fictional hero. I’d love to think there is a lone investigator with piercing insights and a genius IQ who can see through the villain’s eyes and stop further tragedies. I just can’t convince myself of it. Killers are people who lose their temper, or have easy access to a gun. Despite the brilliant premises of endless books and films, very few killers go to the trouble of pinning notes from the Bible on the corpses of their victims, or nibbling off their fingerprints. No, they tend to just say “you bitch” and then lash out with whatever is closest to hand.
So, given the gulf between reality and fiction, why are so many people addicted to crime novels? Well, perhaps the gulf is the attraction. The ideas at the centre of most crime novels are so fantastic and unbelievable that even though readers may weep when characters are killed, they are aware that it’s still just a work of imagination.
The reality is somewhat different.
If a real-life case were made into a novel, it just wouldn’t work. I sat through a two-week murder trial a few years ago that has stayed with me ever since. A young, beautiful, sweet-natured woman, had walked home from a New Year’s Eve party to go and check on her new kittens. On the way, she bumped into a young man who was on his way to a neighbouring property after a night drinking with friends. Somehow, he got her into his flat. He killed her and her body was found days later when the police searched every house in the neighbourhood. It was an open and shut case, though the killer came up with some incredible bullshit defence in which he blamed his best friend for the crime. The trial was agony for the family. Her name and character were dragged through the dirt. Her family endured endless torments. The killer told such lies that we in the press pack wanted to puke. And then he was found guilty and given life imprisonment. It was a horrid, raw, and eviscerating experience for all concerned, and at no point did I imagine how a fictional detective would have got to the answers more quickly. I did vaguely entertain the notion of a Jack Reacher simply dispensing a different kind of justice, but in reality, Reacher would be up in court a few months later when the whole process began again.
In essence, reality is just too horrible. So go read a grisly crime thriller for some escapism.
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David Mark has been a journalist for fifteen years, including seven as a crime reporter. The Dark Winter, the first in the Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy series, is his fiction debut. He lives in Great Britain.