Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Detective fiction: just how dark can it go?

We’re deep in the darkness this week, focussing exclusively on the grimmer end of the crime fiction spectrum. In that vein, I’ll be reviewing David Pinner’s famous horror/thriller of the 1960s, RITUAL – which eventually hit the cinemas as THE WICKER MAN. In addition to that, I’m going to repost a blog I wrote for the A LOVER OF BOOKS website back in September, when they asked me the following intriguing question:

HOW DARK CAN DETECTIVE FICTION GO?

Before we can answer this question, we need to remember that detective fiction is a pretty broad church, ranging from the pastoral-flavoured subgenre of the village green murder mystery to the ultra-violent world of inner city cops and the heinous criminals they pursue.

But by the nature of the beast, I think we must expect that it will always have the potential to get pretty dark. The bedrock of modern detective fiction for me is still the Hardboiled genre, as pioneered by the likes of Hammett and Chandler, and in which cynical antiheroes walk tightropes through worlds of crime and corruption.

Even back then in the more censorious 20s, 30s and 40s, our fictional investigators found themselves confronting the dregs of humanity, encountering contract killers, incest, rape, drug addiction, child abuse, sex slavery, domestic brutality – the whole gamut of social ills that still make us shudder when we’re watching the newsreels today.

It’s one of those difficult areas, I guess. In most cases, people read as a form of recreation, and therefore we authors write as a form of entertainment. But can it ever be morally acceptable to dredge through the most miserable of human experiences so that others can have fun?

The answer to that must be that we all live in the real world, and that we writers would be short-changing our readers if we tried to pretend that this wasn’t the case. It would be like telling a war story without the violence, or writing about the Third World as if there was no poverty or disease.

But the question still stands. How dark can you go?

Well … I’ve seen it done superbly well at the extreme limits of the spectrum. If you look at the world of horror novels rather than thrillers, some amazing examples stand out: THE WOLFEN (1978) by Whitley Strieber, in which two New York detectives hunt for an apparent cannibal killer and gradually come to realise they are tracking a werewolf pack; and LEGION (1983) by William Peter Blatty, in which a time-served cop investigates a series of appalling torture murders in Georgetown, only to find that he’s dealing with Satanic ritual. Neither of these books stint on the horror, but such is the skill and intensity with which they are told, that they are basically unputdownable.

In these cases, of course, the supernatural element is likely to
alleviate any concerns one might have about excessive gruesomeness and depravity, because that earmarks these works as fantasy, which means that not only is it not real, but that it’s not supposed to be real.

We authors are on slightly dodgier ground when we are purporting to tell stories that could easily be true.

For example, when I sat down to write STALKERS, my first DS Heckenburg novel, in 2012, I wondered if the idea of the Nice Guys Club, a crime syndicate who for big money would provide clients with rape victims of their choice, belonged more in a horror novel than a crime thriller. It seemed a very extreme notion. However, at the time, and despite my prior police experience, I truly had no idea how much sex trafficking there is in the world, how much torture-for-fun, how many Snuf movies are made. It soon transpired that I had no need to worry about my risky concept, because it was only representing one harrowing aspect of real life.

I think that’s why I’ve tackled my latest novel, STRANGERS – another potentially controversial one – in full-on fashion. This one is a no-holds-barred tale of the hunt by undercover policewomen for a female killer known to the press as Jill the Ripper, who preys on her johns and sexually mutilates them.

We’ve all seen TV dramas in which female detectives go under cover as prostitutes, and it’s often treated lightly, as if all the heroine needs to do is don a short skirt and stand sexily on the nearest street-corner. However, I’ve seen enough of it in real life to know that this is far more difficult and dangerous work than that. And after extensive discussions with fellow author and good friend of mine, ASH CAMERON, who as a long-serving policewoman in the Met, performed this duty many times, I felt I had a duty to paint as realistic a picture as possible of this grim business.

So … I make no apologies for the grimy subways or dingy toilet blocks, for the vomit in the gutters, the needles in the back-streets, the abuse the girls suffer from their punters, the violence from the pimps and dealers, the thrown excrement, and so forth.

Yes, I suspect STRANGERS is the darkest crime novel I’ve ever written, but no – because of the desperate state of some of our real lives – I don’t think I, or any other crime writer of my acquaintance, has even come close to pushing the boundaries towards unacceptability thus far.

You think crime writing’s gone dark? You ain’t seen nothing yet.



THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.


RITUAL by David Pinner (1967)

In the late 1960s, the Cornish coastal village of Thorn is rocked when a young girl, Dian Spark, turns up dead at the foot of an ancient oak tree, apparently murdered in ritualistic fashion. But when idealistic young police detective, David Hanlin, is sent to investigate, he finds that he has entered a world apart.

It is a hot and beautiful summer and Thorn is a remote community, but this is not the picture-postcard Cornwall that we all know and love.

To begin with, the village itself is in a poor state, dull and impoverished, many of its buildings decayed, while the villagers themselves are odd and unfriendly. Mrs Spark, Dian’s bereaved mother, is a sultry but mysterious presence, courting a reputation for witchcraft and yet on the surface strongly opposed to the ancient rites that she is convinced caused the death of her youngest daughter. Her older daughter on the other hand, Anna – a seductive beauty and wannabe nymphomaniac – captivates Hanlin with her wanton ways, though, as he’s of a puritanical inclination, he also finds her revolting.

Other characters in the village are no less awkward to deal with for the out-of-place copper. Pastor White, the vicar, is patently mad. The penniless squire, Francis Fenn, plays bizarre flute music all day – badly, while out in the woods a homeless weirdo known only as Gypo provides a brawny and threatening presence. Meanwhile, at the rotten heart of the village sits retired local actor Lawrence Cready, an insufferably pompous and camp fellow, who occupies the manor house with his gay man-servant, Martin, and engages in strange and inappropriate games with Thorn’s resident tribe of rumbustious, urchin-like children.

We’ve already touched on Hanlin’s puritanical streak, and this soon becomes a key factor. Ever more certain that satanic practices are at play – especially as we draw closer to Midsummer Eve, for which some kind of secret celebration has clearly been planned – he throws his weight around with increasing anger and righteousness, ignoring the instructions of his superiors back in London, bullying some of the villagers and attempting unsuccessfully to make allies out of others. All the time he suspects that elaborate psychological games are being played with him, and yet, despite the occasional clues he finds and the air of decadence pervading the village (which also extends to the youngsters) he is unable to unearth any hard evidence.

When another child is murdered, Hanlin finally starts to realise that he’s out of his depth. His physical aversion to strong sunlight hampers him, the sensual Anna is a constant distraction – even he is becoming aware that his own bigotries are leading him to snap and fallacious judgements – and he feels increasingly tired and disoriented. The only remaining option, it seems, is to stick around for Midsummer Eve, to try and catch the malefactors in the act of their profanities …

The first thing to say about this one-time infamous novel of the occult from celebrated actor and playwright David Pinner, is that it provided a kind of unofficial basis for The Wicker Man, which hit the cinemas six years later. It was not an easy translation from page to screen, however. Though Christopher Lee and Robin Hardy allegedly co-purchased the rites to Ritual in 1971, the story goes that they ultimately found it unfilmable and so screenwriter Anthony Shaffer created his own macabre tale based only very loosely on the original. Some vague similarities are present: the lone policeman investigating an isolated village drenched in esoteric lore; in the midst of it all a controlling and sophisticated man with entirely ignoble motives; and the tauntingly desirable landlord’s daughter, who in the most memorable moment in the book – one scene at least which made it to the film virtually unchanged – dances naked against her bedroom wall, driving her lonely male target on the other side almost crazy with lust.

However, there are also significant differences. The book does not end the way the movie ends, and though Hanlin is unhealthily obsessed with his own cleanliness and upright character, he gives little indication of devout religious belief. There is also more menace in the village of Thorn than we found on Summerisle; no one makes any effort to be reasonable with Hanlin, everyone he encounters demanding that he leave, while several of the oddballs who populate the place, rather than living comfortably in their strange, secluded world, are clearly on the verge of insanity.

But enough said about The Wicker Man. At the end of the day, that was a completely different animal, and now has legendary status its own right. In comparison, Ritual has largely been forgotten, but it is nevertheless a curious book and bit of a mixed bag.

Pinner’s poetic style and ornate language occasionally feels out-of-date in the 21st century. The ‘moral’ stance has worn badly too. While the corruption of youth through sensual pagan practises understandably horrifies Hanlin and is a precursor to our modern-age zero tolerance of child abuse, he also takes issue with Cready and Martin simply because they are homosexual, and at the same time, while massively turned on by village minx, Anna, he also wants to beat her for her wickedness – not much of a reconstructed man, then, David Hanlin.

There are other problems with the novel too. The portrayal of lackadaisical police procedures is pretty ludicrous, even by the standards of the rural 1960s. And I wasn’t entirely convinced by Hanlin’s methods of detection – there was a little too much instinct and not nearly enough deduction for my liking. But in truth none of this really matters. I was very glad to get hold of Ritual. It was a famous book at the time and has been long out of print, and once I dug into it, my various complaints notwithstanding, I still found it a compelling read.

There are genuine mysteries here, and a growing sense of fear as the clock ticks steadily down to the big event of the summer. But it’s also subtly done. With two children murdered, it would be difficult for anyone to argue there is nothing wrong with this place, but very little of it falls into Hanlin’s lap; there are times when even he wonders if he is imagining the witchery he relentlessly hunts. Hanlin himself makes an unusual hero – I wouldn’t say you empathise with him much, but he strikes an effectively forlorn figure as he battles the largely unseen forces of evil. I also rather liked Anna. The hooker with the heart of gold is something of a cliché in thriller fiction, but Anna is altogether deeper and more complex than that, and makes a mischievous and sympathetic foil to Hanlin’s humourless Cromwellian.  

Overall, an intriguing and enjoyable read, recommended for those who enjoy a touch of blatantly old-fashioned occult horror (and aren’t too worried about a distinct absence of political correctness).

I usually like to end these book reviews with a bunch of actors I personally would cast if the tale in question ever made it to the screen. Well, I venture to suggest that the original Wicker Man is probably the closest that Ritual will ever get to that. But just for laughs – it’s always for laughs of course – here are my picks should Ritual (as oppose to TWM) ever get the full celluloid treatment: 

DI David Hanlin – Kit Harrington
Anna Spark – Lily Collins
Squire Francis Fenn – Freddie Jones
Lawrence Cready – Ian McKellen
Pastor White – John Hurt
Mrs Spark – Minnie Driver

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