My journey as a crime writer – Part 1
It started with a simple idea – could one person make a difference?
It could easily have been a woman, but I felt more comfortable writing about a male protagonist, especially one who was going to embody my values and experiences. I envisaged someone with a strong sense of fair play and justice, someone who would take action to deliver it.
But not a police officer. I’ve worked with the police, but I’ve no real idea what it’s like to be a murder detective or part of a Major Crimes Team. Besides, there were too many police procedurals in the bookshops and on TV. Even more now crime fiction is the most read genre.
Not a private eye either. Though a huge fan of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, who inspired much of what I was to create, there were also plenty of PIs on the bookshelves and TV.
I wanted an ordinary person to solve murders – someone different, distinctive and original.
The idea posed quite a few challenges, namely credibility.
Ordinary people don’t solve murders, do they?
You wouldn’t wake up one morning and decide to solve a murder. You can’t go down to the police station and offer to investigate some of their unsolved crimes to help them out.
And where would you start? How would you collect evidence? What about personal safety?
Okay, Agatha Christie and writers of cosy mysteries have had ordinary people solving murders for years, but I wasn’t interested in quaint village murders, solved by a local resident who judged competitions at the flower show. I wanted something that resonated with the real world, something contemporary, but still a traditional whodunit.
The choices were simple.
- My protagonist could have a personal connection to the victim, such as a lover or close relative. This works fine for the first book, but it would become repetitive and unbelievable after a few of books. It wouldn’t take long before my protagonist had no close family or friends. I’d also need a list of killers with a grudge against him and his family.
- The police arrest the wrong person. This seems to be a favourite among crime writers and TV dramas like Murder She Wrote. Again, it doesn’t take long to become repetitive. And I’ve never liked the idea of showing the police to be inept. They have a difficult enough job already without me adding to their problems.
- The protagonist stumbles across something that puts him in danger. This is more thriller territory than murder mystery and I can’t compete with the likes of Dick Francis and Simon Kernick.
Besides, the thought of shoe-horning my protagonist into solving murders didn’t appeal. I wanted my ordinary person to evolve as a sleuth, not set out to be one. This seemed more natural and credible – more plausible in today’s cynical world.
In the end, it all came down to the character of the protagonist.
I needed someone with strong principles and a sense of duty. This person couldn’t simply stand by and allow an injustice to happen. He was no knight in shining armour, but someone who felt he could make a difference, albeit a small one. This was a man who had a history of standing up for the underdog, battling for justice and fair play.
He would also need the means and time to investigate, to take action. Either he was rich and retired or he had to fit murder investigation around his day job and life outside work.
Slowly, my protagonist began to take shape in my mind.
He was the kind of person I would have liked to have been.
This realisation clinched the deal.
I was an environmental health officer – a law enforcer, protecting the public, improving health and the environment. I worked with the police, which meant I had contacts that could help me, like a Scenes of Crime Officer, for example. I had the skills to undertake complex investigations, interview suspects and build a case to prosecute offenders.
I occasionally investigated deaths – people who were killed in workplace accidents. This was part of my role in health and safety at work, protecting employees and ensuring workplaces were safe.
All I had to do was disguise a murder as a fatal work accident and my protagonist would be drawn into his first case.
There was still plenty of work to do, several false starts to overcome, and my ability to bring such a character and story to life.
Those are issues for future blogs.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in a complex murder mystery that pays homage to the classic whodunit, the Kent Fisher murder mysteries maybe for you. You can find out more on my website, where you can also sign up to my email newsletter.