Cut Her Dead - interview
Why crime fiction?
I always wanted to write novels that could confront the real world head-on. If you approach it in the right way, crime fiction lends itself very well to that ambition. I’ve nothing against well-written fantasy or allegory but I knew from day one that it wasn’t the kind of fiction I wanted to spend my own time writing. Even within crime fiction itself, there are unrealistic sub-genres that I have no interest in exploring: amateur sleuths (especially historical amateur sleuths), detectives who – bizarrely - run up against serial killers in every single book, ‘cosy’ crime novels which trivialise the psychological and social consequences of criminal acts. In the UK at least, the only people who routinely deal with serious crimes such as murder are the police. So from the beginning, I knew I would be chronicling the investigations of a modern British police detective – and one who would be senior enough to get involved in the most serious kinds of cases. A policeman like DCI Jacobson can go anywhere, access any layer of society. I use him as a kind of human scalpel, scraping away at whatever area of modern life I want to focus on in a specific book.
Hence race killings, political extremists, drug abuse, sink estates, financial scams, middle-class familicide, internet crime, murder for kicks?
Exactly. I write about the kind of crimes that really happen, maybe ones that tell us something important about the state we’re in – where we’ve got to as a nation. Agatha Christie pretty much covered the pitch for anyone with a hankering after stately home murders and village green scandals. And she did it much better than her modern imitators. Unlike engineers or doctors, writers are peripheral to the day-to-day survival of any society. One of the justifications for what writers do is that they can create a record of what it was like to live in a specific time and a specific place, what life felt like. They can also help people to think about how they live, what’s good, what’s bad, what their moral choices are. Even in an entertainment genre like the crime novel, it’s never enough, in my view, just to tell a story. The story needs to be thought-provoking and worth telling. I like to keep the old motives in there too of course: revenge, obsession, madness, jealousy, greed.
Cut Her Dead, your latest book, is the fifth in your Crowby series. Is it a challenge to keep your series characters fresh?
Yes it is. But it’s a good challenge. Crime fiction is a very disciplined genre in that respect. In a crime series, you need central characters who engage the readers’ interest, not just once but time and time again. They don’t have to like them incidentally, just be gripped by them. A lot of readers tell me that Jacobson is too rude, too bad-tempered and too cynical. Yet they keep on reading about him! Likewise, they’re also waiting for the day when the wife of my second main character (DS Kerr) finally discovers his long-term adultery. I enjoy writing those soap opera elements. Especially as I don’t know too much more than the readers do about where Jacobson’s and Kerr’s personal story-lines will take them in the future.
Your fictional town of Crowby feels like a real place too, almost a character in its own right.
Most of the recurring locations in Crowby are real – just scattered across half-a-dozen actual Midlands towns and then re-assembled, with certain modifications, in my imagination. I like the freedom this brings to the writing process. I can say things about fictional people and fictional institutions in fictional locations that might have to be censored out for a ‘real’ location.
Rock and Roll or Mozart?
Actually mainly Bach this year, since I was given the complete works on CD as a present last Christmas. Jacobson doesn’t have much of an ear for music but Kerr started out life as yet another of those modern detective characters with a heavy-duty popular music fixation. He met his wife at a Fall gig and knows all the words to ‘Desolation Row’. The more cops-digging-music has become a modern crime fiction cliché, the less I’ve featured Kerr’s musical tastes in the books. Kerr is still firmly stuck in his rock-and-roll loop though. These days he probably views me as a traitor to the cause. But, as time passes, I’m finding that life’s too short to waste it on the Arctic Monkeys when I haven’t remotely heard everything by Beethoven or Monteverdi.
© Iain McDowall, 2007. All rights reserved.
This feature first appeared in New Books Magazine, issue 43.