Ever since Blackwood’s Magazine published Thomas De Quincey’s satirical essay, ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, in 1827, the British (and of course the rest of the world) have been fascinated by the slaughter of our fellow man in all its many permutations and variations. De Quincey’s musings were prompted by the Ratcliffe Highway murders, which also saw a change in reporting the events in the newspapers, as the press rose to the challenge of spreading the shocking tale wide and far.
But what is it that so fascinates us about this most heinous of crimes?
Over recent years, I’ve found myself reading more and more accounts of true crimes, from vicious Victorian slayings such as the Mile End Murder, to more recent ones including those committed by John Christie, Graham Young (the Teacup Poisoner) and Ted Bundy. I’d guess the main reason such gruesome details appeal to me is as a means of answering two questions:
What was the motivation for the murder?
How did the police catch the killer?
The first one is the most interesting, as there are clearly a great many reasons why one person may want to kill another. As a teenager, a schoolfriend of mine was killed when a relative stabbed him with an ornamental sword. Though I don’t recall the details, it’s fair to assume that the lad’s death likely occurred as a result of an argument that got out of hand. However, if the killer had deliberately set out to commit murder, that raises another question—when a murder is premeditated, what is it that drives someone to the point where they (presumably) cannot see any other alternative?
Writing a murder mystery series forces me to consider why and how a murder occurs—who is responsible, how it comes about and if murder is the only solution to their problem. However, because I’m what’s known as a ‘pantzer’ (a writer who doesn’t plan his novels), this requires that I create a murder victim without having any clue as to how or why it happened, or the events leading up to it. Writing the book, therefore, is my means of working out who’s responsible.
The trouble with this method is that, invariably, I arrive at the penultimate chapter and still have no idea who the killer is. That I always do work out who did it, is obvious, since otherwise I’d be unable to finish the book, but I’m never quite sure how the process of discovering the killer’s identity occurs.
My answer—and it’s a pretty lame one—is that because I’ve spent so much time reading crime fiction and true crime books, that the details of hundreds of murders have somehow seeped into my brain and sit there ruminating on whatever problem I have until they come up with an answer, which then emerges through my fingers, into the keyboard and finally, onto the page.
In truth, I don’t claim to go through any kind of process of ‘working out’ who the killer is, as more often than not, the solution simply pops into my head, a few paragraphs before I need to write it down.
This might sound a little ridiculous, but it backs up my theory, and since I rarely have to go through the book page by page trying to identify any clues I may have subconsciously planted, it’s a method I’m happy to continue.
Well, okay, not ‘happy’ to continue, as the experience of reaching that point when I really do need to solve the murder, often fills me with trepidation that refuses to leave until the book is finished. Clearly, it’d be a lot easier to plan the book first—if only the salient points, so I’m not left floundering around wondering who the hell killed my character. But to do that, I’d have to know the ending before I started writing, and that would be unthinkable.