Monday 26 June 2017

Guest Post | Sweet Little Lies author Caz Frear: With ‘true crime' at its peak, should crime fiction authors be worried?

Published by Zaffre on June 29, 2017

‘With ‘true crime' at its peak, should crime fiction authors be worried?

Come closer, I’ve got a confession to make. Don’t judge me too harshly, will you?

*whispers, so the literary gods don’t hear

For the past two weeks I have barely picked up a book.

You might be outraged by this and you’ve every right to be. I mean, it’s not like there’s a lack of stonking books around at the moment - my TBR pile is as tall and inviting as a luxury skyscraper - and yet for the past fortnight, it’s been wobbling by my bed, mewing at me. Scowling at me for having the brass cheek to resist its usual charms.

But resist it, I have. And all because I’m entranced, nay obsessed, with The Keepers, a true-crime Netflix series that documents the murder of a nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, and its link to the cover-up surrounding a paedophile Catholic priest. It is quite literally heart-stopping and strangely heart-warming in equal measure and when I’m not watching it, I’m talking about it. When I’m not talking about, I’m thinking about it. When I’m not thinking about it, I’m watching it again so I can double-check things. The Independent has claimed it’s even better than Making a Murderer.

Which brings me to Making a Murderer, of course. Let’s just say I was so obsessed with that headspin of a show that I actually went to see the two defence attorneys ON TOUR (and was more excited than when I saw New Kids on the Block, age 10).

Then there’s The Staircase, West of Memphis, Murder on a Sunday morning, The Jinx. And it’s not just US true-crime leading the way; recently the UK has aired Interview with a Murderer (the Carl Bridgewater case), The Chillenden Murders, Amanda Knox, Three Girls, based on the Rochdale grooming scandal, and who can forget the awful but spell-binding, Appropriate Adult, which dramatised the crimes and subsequent arrests of Fred and Rose West.

And that’s just TV. Don’t get me started on podcasts. Oh ok, go on then. Well there’s Serial, Sword & Scale, Criminal….

So what does this mean for our beloved crime fiction? If, as demonstrated by all these shows, the very worst monsters are real and living among us, how can crime fiction keep chilling our bones, day in, day out? How can our nerve-fraying prose, macabre plot-twists and inventive death scenes ever compete with the one abiding thought that haunts us while watching/listening to true-crime…

This ACTUALLY happened to someone.

That wild unfettered rage you feel for a real-life victim, for their families, or sometimes for the accused, in the case of a a miscarriage of justice, can never be quite evoked in crime fiction, can it? You can’t feel the same gut-wrenching anguish for a fictional character’s fate as you can for the destruction of a real human life, surely, no matter how great a job the author has done at drawing you in?

So I think now, more than ever, with greater demands on reader’s time and infinitely more choices available, we need to focus on what we do best as crime fiction writers (and what true-crime documentaries can never really do).

We create worlds.

Done well, we create three-dimensional, all-singing, all-dancing, sensory experiences for our readers, and where true-crime tends to focus solely on presenting the key people and their actions, crime novelists go beyond and present the periphery, the context – smells, tastes, the tiny sounds, the inner thoughts, the whole shebang. Ok, sure, a nifty bit of footage can certainly convey to the viewer that it was a cold, crisp morning when the body was found on the dark, dusty building site, but it can never convey – or isn’t interested in conveying - how the cold sliced through the skin that morning, or how the dust from the site prickled the back of the throat.

Only words can do this.

Through words, stories, fiction, we allow the reader to create their own world, to bring their own experiences to the party. After all, my dark, dusty building site would probably look different to your dark, dusty building site, no matter how clearly the author has presented the details. Ultimately, we all see/interpret images differently and there, I think, is the enduring triumph of crime fiction over true-crime. True-crime, with it’s focus on facts and the way things actually happened, is restricted in nature, while in fiction, there are no facts, as such. There’s nothing the reader has to take as gospel. They’re free to put their own spin on even the most tightly-drawn narrative.

Weighing up my love for both genres, and putting recent obsessions aside, I’m glad to report that I’m very much with Willy Wonka….

Now, I really must cancel that Netflix subscription……

Sweet Little Lies, published by Bonnier Zaffre, is out Thursday.

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