Although she has had a number of stories in other periodicals, Edinburgh native Lucy Ribchester makes her EQMM debut in our March/April 2015 issue (currently on sale). Earlier this year, her first novel, The Hourglass Factory (Simon & Schuster, U.K.) was released to critical praise. The book is set in London in 1912, at the time of the suffragette movement, and it’s in the classical tradition she discusses here. —Janet Hutchings
When I first heard the phrase “cosy crime” I thought it sounded like an oxymoron. No matter how twee the community in which the crime is committed, from St. Mary Mead to Midsomer, surely murder is murder. There is nothing innocuous or cockle-warming about being stabbed, strangled, or poisoned to a painful death.
Nevertheless it’s a subgenre that continues to enchant us the world over—upstanding, tea-drinking, God-fearing communities with all sorts of sinister secrets at their hearts, leading to violent demises of vicars and grand dames. Whatever it is about it there is no doubt we want to read about murder in a light, safe and entertaining way. When I sat down to write my first novel, The Hourglass Factory, although I didn’t necessarily want to write something too cosy, I was suddenly faced with the dilemma that must confront every crime writer from hardboiled P.I. creators to psychological chroniclers: How (and why) do you transform something as abhorrent as murder into entertainment?
Ignoring the argument that crime fiction puts an important squeeze on its fictional societies, forcing them to reveal their fault lines and true colours (because while I do believe that is true of many writers, that isn’t my goal when I sit down to write), there is the plain and simple problem of describing death in a way that keeps the reader hooked, while showing enough respect for the victim. How do you judge how much empathy we should have for them? How to judge the correct amount of horror to sit between thrilling writing and salaciousness?
I found that precedent helped. When trying to emulate your heroes you don’t stop to think too much about why they made their decisions—just paying attention to the tone of their descriptions and how they use murder in their plots is enough at first, like a sketcher trying to trace the shape of an existing drawing. Agatha Christie described her books as “puzzles,” Dan Brown has called his “treasure hunts.” Seeing the murders for their functionality in fiction rather than for the devastation of their real-life counterparts helps to create distance from the horror of what you are setting out to do.
Christie also was a master at choosing an odious victim—someone the reader is invited to hate (along with everyone else in the book). Brown’s and Jed Rubenfeld’s murders tend to happen to peripheral characters we don’t get to know very well. If the murder of someone we dislike or have not invested much in serves to take us on a symbolic journey that brings the world’s forces back into alignment by the end, then they have served as a sort of stand-in sacrificial lamb in the land of the book.
But when it comes to description, having a horror for what you are writing probably helps. Assuming your reader is a reasonable human being, there shouldn’t be the need to spoon-feed to them that what they are reading is repugnant. Christie favoured blood-lite deaths; poisoned darts, lethal injections, single gunshot wounds from small pistols. John Dickson Carr and Conan Doyle focussed on the intricacy and ingenuity of the deaths to draw attention away from their violence. But in novels where gore takes the fore, such as Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books, the author depends on our repugnance—plays to it in fact—to take us to the edge of our terror thresholds, the very limits of our tolerance.
But although that sorts out some of the how, there is still the why. Why is crime fiction entertaining? I’m still not quite sure, but I know that as a reader, film-lover, and writer I’m glad it exists. I’ve always hated rollercoasters. The idea of being plunged upside down or thrown around, disorientated, discombobulated, hurt and dizzied has never held much appeal for me. Yet still theme parks continue to be a staple family pastime: a symbol of wholesome fun. Despite the discomfort of the ride it takes us out of everyday sensations, allows us for a few minutes to feel something extraordinary. Similarly crime fiction allows us to peep behind the curtain of things not usually seen or discussed, aspects of life that hopefully most of us will never confront in the real world—but which still exist.
Hitchcock once said that he was a very easily frightened person, and this he described as his “good luck in life. I’m fortunate to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn’t make a good suspense film.” He advocated turning this fear outward, perhaps recognising how much he enjoyed being frightened: “You should make the audience suffer as much as possible.”
Perhaps at the end of the day entertainment isn’t always meant to be pleasant or pleasurable. We want to stretch the peripheries of the body and mind in all directions, not just the happy ones.