A hero for today

Have you ever read a book or watched a TV programme and wished you could write something as good?

Inspector MorseNeither had I until I saw the original Inspector Morse series. The superb characterisation, complex and intriguing plots, and the beautiful Oxford settings captivated me. About the same time, BBC 1 aired the Miss Marple series, adapted from Agatha Christie’s books.

Both programmes evoked the same emotion and desire to write a complex murder mystery.

At this point, I should tell you I was already a writer. Not a successful one, unless you include the national short story competition I won at the age of 12. That early enthusiasm and promise never quite materialised into something a publisher would want or take – until Morse and Marple got under my skin.

I sensed a brighter future. But first, I needed a hero for my murder mysteries – someone different, someone flawed but principled, charismatic and up to the job.

Police officer or private investigator?

While I’d worked with the police many times as an environmental health officer (EHO), I had no idea how they investigated murders. With DNA evidence making its mark, I thought I’d leave it those who understood such things.

Sue GraftonEqually, I had no idea how private investigators worked. Sue Grafton’s first novel, A is for Alibi, featuring PI Kinsey Millhone tempted me to create my own investigator. The character was feisty, sassy, funny and quite ruthless in completing any job she took. The books were a joy to read.

Could I create a male version of Kinsey?

It took some time for Kent Fisher to evolve. The name took almost as long to create, but that’s a subject for another day. He was tough, determined, single-minded, hopeless in love, and had a good stock of witty one-liners.

But was he flawed?

In his first outings, he was more like Rambo than Morse. That’ll teach me to make him a former paratrooper. He was married to an unsuitable woman. While it seemed like a good idea at the time for extra conflict, I couldn’t imagine him falling for such a woman. Net result – I failed to write with any conviction.

My attempts to make him a PI fared no better.

Thanks to my healthy appetite for Dick Francis, that left me with one option. Many of his heroes were ordinary people, drawn into adventures and investigations that often put them in grave danger.

Kent Fisher became an EHO

Kent Fisher and ColumboAn environmental health officer conjured up an image of a person in a suit, carrying a clipboard and talking like some dreary, faceless bureaucrat. That was how TV writers saw them at the time. It was hardly an image to inspire readers, was it?

So I gave Kent a past as a hunt saboteur and environmental protestor, who chained himself to trees and bulldozers to stop developers destroying the countryside he loved. This ensured he had as many enemies as he had supporters, offering plenty of storylines for the future.

Without thinking, I knew he would live in an animal sanctuary, confirming his dedication to the natural world.

While I doubt if he’s anyone’s idea of a detective, to me he’s a hero for today. He’s an ordinary person who solves the most complex and difficult murders I can dream up.

This posed another challenge – how would an EHO solve a murder? Let’s be honest, during my long career, no one has ever walked into the council offices and asked me to investigate a murder.

I’ll admit I’ve wanted to murder many awkward members of the public, councillors and restaurateurs and publicans over the years. Luckily, I can now do that in my novels.

Finally it came to me – disguise a murder as a fatal work accident. Kent Fisher goes in to investigate with the police. They pass the investigation to him and he uncovers a murder.

Simple.

But no one believes him, of course, so he has to solve it himself.

It led me to the highly original title of No Accident, which was traditionally published in June 2016.

A fresh approach to the traditional murder mystery

Thoroughly modern, with contemporary themes about protecting wildlife and the environment, Kent Fisher was like no other detective out there. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on how much you like the traumatised police inspectors with pen-pushing superiors that seem to dominate crime fiction these days.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the part the characters and backstory would play in the hearts and minds of readers. I simply set out to build a world around Kent and fill it with strong, engaging characters that would impact on his life and work.

HarveyAnd that’s before we get to the rescue dog he adopted. Named Columbo after Kent’s favourite TV detective, the West Highland white terrier would become a firm favourite with readers and reviewers.

With his personal life as complex as the murders Kent solved, the story drew in people who didn’t normally read crime. Readers cared about these people, about this world Kent lived in, as much as they enjoyed trying to solve the murders.

But that’s something for another post…


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No Sex Please We’re Crime Writers

19th February 2021.

Have you ever wondered why there’s so little sex in crime fiction?

Maybe there is and I’m reading the wrong books. Maybe sex and murder are not good bedfellows.

Some categories of crime fiction, such as cosy mysteries, exclude explicit sex, graphic violence and excessive swearing. In my book, literally and metaphorically, this doesn’t exclude romance, sexual tension and people sleeping together. It simply frowns on graphic description.

But sex scenes should only be in a story if they are essential to the plot or character development. This should be the case in any book in any category. If a killer, for instance, seduces his or her victims before killing them, does this need to be shown in detail?

Crime Scene - No sex please

You could argue the same for murder. Does it need to be shown in great detail?

It depends on the type of book and the writer, I guess. With so much emphasis on the collection of forensic and DNA evidence at crime scenes, detailed description that may lead investigators closer to the killer would be essential.

It’s up to writers to show the world as they see it.

Personally, I’m not a fan of torture scenes or any graphic descriptions that involve violence or someone inflicting pain on another human being or animal.

That’s not to say I live in a closeted world where everything’s rosy. I simply don’t need to read the details. I have an imagination. If someone is being tortured as part of the story, tell me. I need to know. But do I want to know every detail of what the killer’s doing?

Some writers like to get into the minds of killers, to show how they’ve become who they are. We’re all inquisitive and the subject’s fascinating, but that doesn’t mean it needs graphic descriptions.

It’s the same with sex. My readers can imagine a sex scene much better than I can write it. And let’s be honest here, each person will imagine it a little differently, making the story more personal to them.

Fun readingSurely, that’s what we want as authors – readers to enjoy our books. Reading is an emotional experience. The imagination fills in the blanks. We see characters in a particular way, even when they are described in detail. It means readers are more likely to get something personal to them from what they read.

Of course there are times when you have to lay things out in detail, if only for accuracy or credibility, but I would suggest there’s always some room to allow the reader’s imagination to personalise what they’re reading.

If I want everything laid out for me, I’ll watch TV.

Then I can complain on social media that the main character is nothing like the one I pictured in the books.

Not that I really picture them. I’m more interested in who they are, not what they look like.

And that’s the point, ultimately. No two readers are alike. Every one of us has different tastes, values and attitudes. I prefer to read books that aren’t graphic or filled with profanities. I know people swear in the real world, but they also belch, fart, pick their noses, scratch their bums and so on.

If the story and characters are engaging, some swearing and violence won’t put me off a book.

If the swearing and violence feel excessive or unnecessary, I can stop reading – and often do.

I want people to enjoy my books. I want to entertain my readers.  I want to tantalise them with complex plots and mysteries in a contemporary world that feels real.

I don’t need graphic sex, foul language and excessive violence to achieve that. It doesn’t make my books soft and fluffy or unrealistic.

I’m writing a murder mystery not a bonk buster.

Reading questions

How do you feel about swearing, sex and violence in crime novels?


Learn more about the Kent Fisher murder mysteries.