The old adage has it that truth is stranger than fiction. It could be argued that nowhere is this truer than in crime fiction.
At first glance it might seem like this proposition couldn’t possibly hold water. Many of the events that happen in crime fiction are easily out of the ordinary for the average person. And people we might never meet in a lifetime of living dominate the pages of the best known detective and noir stories.
And yet – real life is messy and irrational sometimes in ways that most crime novels are not. While a work of crime fiction may weave a complex web, by the time you’ve reached the end you can be assured that it was actually organised chaos. Everything serves a purpose. And because there is this thread of logic, often times the sleuth is able to figure out what happened, answer the question of whodunit and the bad guys are brought to justice.
Crime fiction author Katherine Howell’s first published book came out in 2007. Frantic was the result of three major re-writes and is the only one of the six books that have followed to have not revolved around a central murder. What is common to all her books is her leading lady, the tough but likeable Detective Ella Marconi, and the revolving cast of primary characters who are all paramedics.
This was no coincidence. Katherine spent fifteen years as a paramedic before she wrote Frantic. In speaking to me, she said that using the paramedic point of view offers the reader a fresh insight on a crime.
‘It was a different look at the crimes rather than just the straight police approach.’ Using the paramedics, she said, ‘you could be the first one on the scene and get a different perspective on it and learn [different] things.’
Although Katherine’s books are informed by her experiences as a paramedic, as you would expect there are areas where her fiction departs from real life. She gave the example of how in her early drafts, she would accurately reflect what paramedics would do when attending to a car accident: take a person’s blood pressure every few minutes.
‘I felt that to be realistic I have to put in every little detail. So the scenes just went on and on. So an important thing was to work out, okay, a little sprinkle of detail.’
Katherine strived to make the psychology of her characters true to life, ensuring they behaved in ways that were believable. All the while, the situations she placed her fictional paramedics in were several steps removed from her own experiences.
Her stories might begin the same, with a team of paramedics arriving at the scene of a crime and the giving of statements to police. But in real life what followed was sometimes attendance at coroner’s court to give evidence about what she saw and then her involvement in the case would be over. In her fiction, Katherine’s paramedics are intimately connected to the central crime, have a relationship with the victims, and are there to help put the baddie away or see him meet a gruesome end.
Katherine said, ‘That was always one of the challenges, [working] out a plausible way to keep the paramedic involved. Which is why it often came down to some secret from their past or some family situation as a way to keep them hooked into the story there.’
As could be expected from a work of crime fiction, the events that occur in Katherine’s Ella Marconi series are big and dramatic. In Frantic, the main character Sophie’s husband is shot in the head and her baby is kidnapped. In Web of Deceit two seemingly unconnected storylines come together and the whole thing ends in a shootout on a pier.
The central murders are carefully planned and are conducted on the basis of complex motivations, in stark contrast to Katherine’s real experiences.
I suggested a theory to Katherine that while real paramedics and her fictional ones quickly learn the answers to the ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘how’ of a crime, her paramedics always find out ‘why’ a crime happened, whereas in real life paramedics may not learn the answer.
She seemed to agree at first, but then indicated that for her, the truth did usually eventually surface – though not in a way that was as exciting as how her characters live it.
‘Sometimes you’d read it in the paper or you’d hear about it; we were friends with the local cops so you might hear about it that way.’
She added, ‘And even then it was often something completely pointless. Y’know, somebody wanted $20 off somebody else or something like that.’
Michael Robotham provides a definition for a perfect murder in the opening to If I Tell You… I’ll Have to Kill You. He says it’s one that is ‘committed by a complete stranger who has never met the victim, has no criminal record, steals nothing and tells no one.’
‘For a crime to be truly perfect it can never be detected, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for a writer.’
By this definition, the murders in Katherine’s novels are imperfect. Many statistics have it that 80% of victims knew their killers; in Katherine’s novels this statistic goes up to 100%. Her murders are targeted and the result of a grudge of some sort. Twisted though their logic might be, her killers have a distinct rationale for their crimes.
Katherine said, ‘A person’s motivations to do something have to be solid. Even if the person’s crazy there still has to be a motivation, like, “Oh, I see, so he’s killing everybody who has a green car because he thinks a green car is the sign of the devil” makes much more sense than, “He’s just randomly killing people for no reason at all.”’
‘In fiction there needs to be a strong and plausible reason for any action, especially something as serious as murder, but in real life people sometimes do stupid stuff on a whim.’
In asking Katherine about her killers’ motivations, she replied, ‘The reasons do often come down to those major ones – love, hate, revenge, money. I’ve talked to my detective friend about that, and I have Ella think and talk about it too.’
‘In real life it’s what the cops look at first – who’s closest to this victim? Who might benefit from this death? Did their relationship just break down? Because, generally speaking, strangers don’t tend to feel strong emotion towards one other. (That’s leaving out the stupid murders, of course.)’
So why do crimes in fiction need a strong and plausible motive?
Katherine explained that this is part of the unwritten contract between the crime writer and the reader; that a plausible reason exists, that the clues are present and that the reader will be able to put the clues together ‘if they could only look at them in the right way, or realise X, or understand Y’.
‘An implausible reason breaks that deal, because there’s no way the reader would ever be able to work it out. That’s when they’d throw the book across the room and tell all their friends it was awful.’
In terms of the question of something being implausible, this quandary is one that many fiction writers across all genres have had to contend with. Sometimes in life there are people or events that would seem unbelievable if translated into fiction. And even if murders are often pointless, as Katherine observed in real life, as a reader, it is easier for us to accept that someone had a compelling reason for killing somebody else than it is to swallow the idea that there was no motive.
When we ask ‘why’, we expect a decent answer.
If for a perfect murder, the killer is virtually unidentifiable, the logical assumption would be that the opposite is also true. This is not the case though, in Katherine’s novels or in many other works of crime fiction.
In some of her books, such as Web of Deceit, the suspect seems obvious but their alibi is strong. In others, there is a whole list of people who could have ‘dunit’ only for the killer to emerge late in the game.
I asked Katherine whether she always knows who the killer is before she begins writing or whether sometimes someone else presents themselves as a juicy candidate.
‘I always knew who it was,’ she affirmed. ‘There were a couple of times when I got towards the end and I thought, “I could pick from a couple of people.” But I always stuck with the one I had chosen from the start.’
To make it difficult for the reader to guess the killer, Katherine spoke about confusing things with characters telling lots of lies to keep the truth hidden. And sometimes, she will throw in red herrings that come in the form of being a little cheeky with the reader.
‘You’re always looking for little things you can twist so that the reader reads it and interprets it one way that you hope when they get to the end they’ll go, “Ohh, I see. I get it now”. It’s about putting in detail that is technically correct but can sort of be interpreted in a different way in the hope that you can lead them down the wrong path there.’
‘They’re madly trying to work out who did it and why. And you’re trying to hide that truth for as long as you can.’
Katherine Howell’s latest book in the Detective Ella Marconi series is Deserving Death (2014), which is published by Pan Macmillan.
Article published in the December 2014 edition of ACTWrite magazine, by the ACT Writers Centre.
Visit Katherine’s website: www.katherinehowell.com