An acquaintance of mine – whenever alcofrolics are afoot – can be relied upon at some point in the evening to recount an anecdote from his adolescence, watery eyed and guilty. It regards his first ever drinking experience and begins with him staggering home from the local pub, along a village pathway, successfully-used Fake I.D. proudly in-pocket, while passing a fenced-off stretch of train track.
(Fret not. I’m working up to something here.)
See, he’s bumbling along adjacent to this railway line – probably singing, possibly pausing to liquidly-violate innocent trees – when he comes across an old, rusted oil drum. It’s probably been lying in that bush for years: this crumbling, oxidized skeleton of a cylinder. The way my friend tells the story, in his virginally-pissed-up state the discovery somehow feels like fate: a hidden artefact, retrieved after aeons. He is obliged to play with it.
So he starts rolling this thing around. Heaving it at bushes. Being… well. Male. Young and male and drunk and boisterous; that simple, honest enjoyment of destruction and damage we’re not really supposed to admit. And at the height of his chest-thumping little frenzy, in that split second between “Conception Of Idea” and “Analysis Of Same”, his beery brain tells him it would be just splendid, oh-my-goodness-yes, what-larks-it-would-be, to heft the oil drum onto the train tracks.
So he does.
Now, the way he tells the story, the instant it’s left his hands he’s already regretting it. It’s a busy stretch of track after all, and the fence is topped with barbed-wire. No way will he be able to clamber over and retrieve the barrel before something – something massive and fast and full of passengers – hits it.
And then, kapow, it’s news-readers looking doleful to report a tragedy; derailed carriages like a dead millipede; helicopter footage, fire engines, jaws-of-life, broken windows and scorched bodies and The Police Believe This May Not Have Been An Accident, and so on.
Thus run his thoughts, in that endless little moment between heft and strike.
The drum hits the third rail. The live one. There is – as he tells it – “a big blue fucking explosion.” A chrysanthemum of gauss electricity and smoke, which re-launches the barrel into the air on a plume of sparks. It thumps into the verge beside the track, the smoke wisps away; nobody’s any the wiser. And our youthful storyteller, by this stage, is already a hundred feet down the path and still accelerating.
What this has got to do with anything is: my friend is now a Criminal. Thanks to that one moronic, childish, drunken moment of gitwittery he’s a criminal for life – in the eyes of the law as much as his conscience. It’s only dumb luck he’s not a mass murderer to boot.
My contention is, that’s the face of real crime. It’s random and stupid and hateful; a thing of rage or greed or madness, often drunken, rarely premeditated. It’s about unpredictable chaos and cruelty, and – frankly – it doesn’t make for a terribly engaging or mysterious story. You don’t easily get 100,000 words of simmering tension, keep-‘em-guessing enigma and burgeoning fear out of “Some Drunken Wanker Chucked An Oildrum On The Tracks”. So: we in the fiction community tend to avoid “crime” – on those terms. We’ve established instead a series of beautiful artifices: heavy with tropes of ingenious forensic insight, superhuman deductive skills and serial murderers, each with a more terrifyingly idiosyncratic modus operandi than the last.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling or decrying the form. In the pursuit of crafting a gratifying mystery these are the tools which have evolved to perfectly fit their niche, and like all the greatest traditions they work best when broadly – but not fully – adhered-to. Twists in the trope, unexpected approaches, unforeseen breaks with convention: these are the hallmarks of a brilliant Murder Mystery. But let’s never lose sight of the fact that what we’re actually dealing-with is an unobtrusive form of Fantasy Fiction: a cheerfully-accepted and shared make-believe world. A lot of writers try to somehow bury that truth as if were a guilty secret: garnishing their fantasies with such swathes of “realistic” detail – forensic methodology, police procedure, psychological expertise – that their more extraordinary fabrications seem to adhere to a “believable average”. Hey, I do it too – because detail implies narrative authority, which permits readers to surrender their disbelief without fear.
I just… I don’t think we should be ashamed that our beloved genre has a few in-built traces of the improbable. In my latest novel, A Serpent Uncoiled, I’ve even tried to embrace it in quiet ways: that gorgeous tension between the real and the unreal. This, after all, is a genre built entirely upon our heroes’ ability to perceive things – to intuit things – differently or better than their peers. It seemed a natural extension to simply twist my narrator two steps further away from conventional perception, so that his broken brain often leaves him uncertain as to whether he’s experiencing truth or delusion. If it’s the latter, he knows, he’s going insane. If it’s the former – even worse – then the world is a far stranger place than he cares to believe.
It’s a fun tension.
One last thing. I’ve heard my friend tell his story, in various degrees of alcoholic regret, perhaps a dozen times. Occasionally it’s not an oil drum he finds in that bush, but an old metal dustbin. Sometimes that fiery burst of sparks is white, or yellow, or green. Sometimes the missile shoots twenty feet into the air before crashing back down, other times it simply flops aside with a thunderous bang. Sometimes there’s a train already coming round the corner.
If even his confession – his “real” crime; tawdry and random and stupid – is as subject to exaggeration and invention as anything else, why should we “proper” crime writers be so desperately keen to camouflage our greatest flights of fancy?