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Practising Crime for a Living
ScotLit 24, Spring 2001
Writers and readers share a question about any branch of fiction: Do I want to spend time on this kind of book? The way I came to write a detective series may be of interest as having a bearing on at least this writer’s view of the opportunities and problems of the genre.
I had written four novels, published between 1984 and 1992, which differed markedly in tone and subject matter. When I got the itch to do another novel, I was drawn to the story of Detective Lieutenant John Trench of the Glasgow Police, who in attempting to prove that there had been a miscarriage of justice in the Oscar Slater case faced dismissal from the force and persecution by his ex-colleagues. Interested in the fate of the whistleblower and the political background to the story, I moved the events to Edinburgh and to the present and turned it into the novel Kissing Judas. The central character was a police detective called Jim Meldrum only because that’s what the story required. As far as I was concerned it was a one-off book, a study in integrity and what it cost.
Then I had a call from my agent to say that Hodder & Stoughton wanted to publish, and were offering a contract for another two books about this detective Jim Meldrum. Almost by accident, I had the opportunity to do a series of crime novels featuring the same character. One advantage, and it was one I found completely unexpected, was that the useful discipline of having to produce a book a year taught me that novels didn’t necessarily have to be written slowly. Now, four years later, I’ve had four Meldrum books published, and have just finished a fifth.
Anyone, however, who commits to a sequence of novels about a detective would be advised to think hard about Douglas Gifford’s percipient observation that crime fiction of this type may be ‘prevented from inclusion in the range of the most substantial and significant fiction because it inhibits its depth of human exploration by placing itself within limiting conventions and stereotypes.’ But this challenge to transcend limitations and turn rules into a strength is exactly what makes working within a form, whether it’s the sonnet or the detective novel, interesting if you are a serious writer.
As a practitioner, I see the problem of the series detective in terms of what E. M. Forster used to call the flat or round character. If you have a detective who is essentially a bundle – rather a small one – of vivid characteristics (Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes) then there is no problem in running him unchanged through ten or a hundred investigations. But if you make him or her a round character – that is one who is affected by experience, altered and modified – then things become much more difficult. In so far as he is round, the reader may chafe against too much exposition of his previous situation or find him getting diluted as book follows book, or changing in ways which are inconsistent with the original conception.
Meldrum is affected from book to book by what he’s gone through. In Darkness In My Hand, the fifth book of the series, he reflects at one point that he’s a worse man than he was at the time of Kissing Judas. He is, of course, the same man – there’s something central to each nature; but how far it evolves and changes, erodes or is recovered is one of the things which interests me in doing the series. As you progress with that, you have in common sense to recognise that the reader who will start with you at the first book and read them in sequence is an improbable deal. Never, however, losing the momentum of storytelling in each novel as a separate entity while putting these other layers in is a useful discipline. I’ve realised, too, that, far from the crime novel forcing you to deal in stereotypes, the Meldrum books have given me the opportunity to revisit, extend and rework themes from earlier novels.
At the moment, I’ve notes for a sixth, a seventh, possibly an eighth Meldrum. Meantime, I was struck by something Allan Massie wrote about the most recent one, Death Knock. He said: ‘The question being probed here, as obsessively as the tongue seeks out a painful tooth, is what makes people step out of line, out of their normal lives.’ He talks about the various characters in crisis, but then goes on: ‘There is a fourth character within a short distance of disintegration and this is Meldrum himself. It will be interesting to see if he can get through another case, and another book, without cracking up.’
At the moment I’m trying to work out the answer.
Copyright © Frederic Lindsay 2001
Last updated 23 August 2010.