This is the main text of a talk delivered by Stephen Booth
to the St Hilda's Mystery Conference at St Hilda's College, Oxford, in September
2003. The theme of the conference was 'Absent Friends and Future Loves - the
Golden Age and the Way Forward'. There were several very erudite speakers
at the conference, but the organisers sensibly scheduled Stephen's talk as the
last item of the weekend. Read on to find out why....
Motive? What Motive?
This talk is entitled ‘Motive? What Motive?’. During the next 20 minutes, I hope you’ll come to see the significance of that title. If you do, would you be kind enough to explain it to me at the end of the session. I’d be very grateful.
First of all, I have a confession. I must tell you that I am not an academic, although you might be misled by the quality of my insights and research into thinking that I am. I did, however, attend one of the country’s foremost educational institutions, Birmingham Polytechnic. And I do have a background of impeccable intellectual rigour and integrity, having worked for more than 25 years as a newspaper journalist.
In this country, journalists are renowned for their relentless pursuit of truth, and their obsession with accuracy in their reporting. When I was training as newspaper reporter, I learned the importance in every story of the ‘five Ws’. The ‘five Ws’ are: ‘Who, What, Where, When and Why’. In other words, "Mr Fred Smith murdered his wife in the bedroom of their home last night because she was having an affair with the postman." ‘Who, What, Where, When and Why’. Or: "Tony Blair invaded Iraq this year because it had weapons of mass destruction that could be used within 45 minutes."
Now, you might notice at this point that one of the five ‘W’s is open to interpretation.
As crime writers, we’re often asked questions by readers when we do talks and signings. And those questions can also range through ‘Who, What, Where, When and Why’. For example, some of the questions I’ve been asked when I’ve turned up at events include: "Who are you?", "What are you doing here?" and "Where am I, nurse?"
But the most difficult questions for us to answer almost always start with ‘why’? I often ask myself questions that start with ‘why’. Right now, I’m asking myself: "Why the heck did I agree to do this?" And there are no easy answers.
One thing readers often want to know is why I should want to write all the time about people dying. Well, it’s a good question. And I’ve thought about this quite deeply for a few minutes. And you know, I realised that there actually is only one basic plot in literature, and that always involves someone dying.
To illustrate this thesis, I’ve taken a random sample from some of the best-known literary works – novels, plays or films – from around the world, and I’ve précis’d their plots, reduced them to 10 words or so, to discover the vital elements. And I think you’ll see what I mean. Apart from a few minor differences in detail, there is only one common plot which they all share.
By the way, I won’t mention the names of the works or the authors, in case some of them are embarrassed by being associated with crime writers.
Plot Number 1. Ambitious Scottish couple consult clairvoyant sisters, and die.
Number 2. Hesitant Danish prince sees father’s ghost, and dies.
Number 3. One-legged sea captain tries to catch whale, but dies.
Number 4. Attic-dwelling madwoman lights indoor bonfire, and dies.
Number 5. Hysterical Yorkshire woman falls in love with gipsy, and dies… (but not for long).
Number 6. is one specially for those of us who’ve been to church this morning:
Jewish carpenter’s son performs series of miracles…. actually, I don’t know how they got away with the ambiguous ending of that one.
Number 7. Mixed-up Greek kills father and marries mother. Mother dies.
Number 8. Old man catches large fish. Fish dies.
Number 9. Hairy-footed midget finds magic ring. Fifty thousand orcs die.
Number 10. Adolescent schoolboy magician defeats evil again. Somebody dies.
As you can see, every single great work of literature since the earliest days involves people dying. Since death is a common factor, we have to look elsewhere for any changes that may be taking place in the crime fiction genre. And my suggestion is that the difference between classic and modern crime fiction is this: motivation. Not whether someone is killed, but why?
It seems to me that in a previous era, murder is committed by the villain to avoid exposure of a secret – perhaps the fact that he’s really a criminal, a bigamist, a hypocrite, a homosexual, a foreigner, an illegitimate child or – even worse – working class.
The Honourable Fauntleroy Fitzherbert would strangle his best friend to prevent himself from being revealed as a hypocrite. He would prefer to slaughter every member of his weekend house party before allowing himself to be exposed as a liar. And he would exterminate the entire population of Mayhem Magna, Mayhem Parva and Mayhem upon Marple to preserve the secret of his true identity as the orphan lovechild of an Irish potato sexer.
None of these motives will wash today. In the Golden Age, being found out to be mendacious, hypocritical, or illegitimate could destroy a person’s career or undermine their position in society. These days, circumstances are completely different. Mendacious, hypocritical, illegitimate? What use are these as motives when a man can be elected leader of his country and still be a lying, hypocritical b********.
For motives, we’re left with just the two old stand-bys – sex, and money. And I’m sure you’ll agree that too much of either these things, it can get rather boring. Sex is a bit difficult anyway, and I’m not known for my sex scenes. One reader pointed out to me that over the space of four books, not one of my characters has had sexual intercourse – apart from the goats. And I know that all my readers must have far more money than they know what to do with – otherwise they wouldn’t be buying my books in the first place, would they?
So it’s no wonder that many contemporary crime writers have come to the conclusion they can do without motive altogether. Instead of motive, we have the psychopath. The warped mind. If your murderer is a psychopath, the fact that his mother made him dress up in women’s clothing and locked him in the coal cellar all day when he was a child is sufficient to explain anything he might do in later life.
It’s so simple! The villain is just bonkers. Round the twist. A sandwich short of a picnic. He’s a loony. "So, Mr Smith, why did you murder every red-haired six-foot-four nun in Swindon?" "I’m Napoleon Bonaparte, you know." "And that’s another case solved." It’s easy!
But this is a fairly recent phenomenon, and an author wouldn’t have got away with it a few years ago. I recall that when I was still an aspiring writer desperate to get a first book published, I had a dream. It was a sort of fantasy, I suppose. I dreamed that I was at a big conference somewhere in one of those huge hotels with looong corridors. It might have been a Marriott hotel in Crystal City, Virginia, let’s say.
In this dream, I saw a woman walking towards me down the corridor; and I recognised her as the crime fiction editor of a major British publishing company. (Those are the only sort of women you dream about when you’re an aspiring author).
So I stopped her and I said: "I’ve got this great idea for the plot of a crime novel. It’s completely different from anything else you’ve ever published. Listen to this: "It’s about this doctor. He’s a GP working in some really boring suburb on the outskirts of… oh, let’s say Manchester. And he murders three hundred of his patients before anyone notices."
And in the dream the editor looked at me and she said: "Whyyy?". And I said: "Now, that’s the really great thing. That’s what makes this story so different. Nobody ever finds out why he did it." And in my dream, the editor looked at me and she just shook her head, and said ‘no’. And I was rejected again. And, do you know what, two years later, some beggar stole my plot.
So, the question I know you’re all asking yourselves at this stage is: if we don’t need motive, what are the elements we need to create a successful modern crime novel? Once again, I’ve carried out extensive research on your behalf, and I think I’ve come up with the perfect mixture of ingredients for a guaranteed bestseller of the future.
My research tells me that I need: a serial killer or two; I need a tough, urban setting; and most of all, I need a detective with a multi-racial background and a troubled personal life, who has difficulty forming relationships, is resented by his junior officers and hated by his boss. For the icing on the cake, all I need to do is throw in a few trendy references to the 1960s, and I’ve got it made.
So here we go. This is the Stephen Booth four-step guide to writing a bestseller for the twenty-first century. Complete with illustrative examples.
Step 1. Create a detective with a multi-racial background, working in a tough urban setting.
As in the example:
"All his life, Chief Inspector Mohammed Moshe Mandela McRoonie had suffered the sort of racial prejudice experienced by every single Muslim Jewish Afro-Caribbean Scotsman in Swindon."
Step 2. Throw in a trendy reference to a 1960s fashion item.
"Even when McRoonie was a child - in the 1960s - the kids at school had called him Paki Mac.
Step 3. Give your detective a few personal problems, difficult working relationships with his colleagues, and a boss who hates him
"McRoonie knew that some of his team weren’t happy to be working for a blind, one-legged, HIV-positive, necrophiliac midget transvestite with Tourette’s syndrome, chronic alcohol poisoning and an Evostik addiction.
But that was their problem.
And, for some reason that McRoonie had never understood, even his boss hated him.
Step 4. Secondary characters should include an ambitious female officer with an unconventional background and ambiguous sexual inclinations, at least one rogue detective, and a criminal profiler. And don’t forget the graphic postmortem details.
"According to the gossip around Swindon police headquarters, McRoonie’s sergeant was the offspring of an illicit liaison between an ageing pop singer and a former US president, but she would never reveal their names. And DS Madonna Clinton was a pretty tough cookie, too - some said a loose canon. McRoonie had managed to cover for her one time when she opened fire on a bus queue with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher during a routine strip search of the bingo crowd at the Swindon Odeon. But rumour had it that Clint was providing sexual favours to the mortuary assistants of both sexes in exchange for spare body parts. McRoonie wished he’d known that before accepting an invitation to dinner at her flat and eating the mixed grill.
And criminal profilers. Now, they were a strange lot. Most of the profilers Mo Mo McRoonie had worked with were so weird they were probably sex killers or serial rapists themselves. Apart from the ones who were impotent, of course.
But McRoonie had a good team of officers, and he needed them. Somewhere out there, Fear stalked the streets, terrorising the innocent citizens of Swindon.
"Sergeant," he said. "Call Detective Constable Fear and tell him to stop terrorising the citizens."
"Sir, there’s no time for that. There’s been a murder in Swindon cathedral close. It turns out the dean and chapter have been involved in a wife swapping ring."
"I’m sorry, Clint, you may have to handle this one on your own. But you’re a loose canon, so you’ll fit in just fine."
"But I need your support, sir."
"It won’t do your
career any good, Clint. You know my boss hates me."
Step 5. Having established fully-rounded characters, give them a series of crimes to tackle that have no apparent motive.
"And now Detective Chief Inspector McRoonie was the newly-appointed head of the Bizarre and Unlikely Murders Squad.
In the first few months he had already proved his abilities in the world of Bizarre and Unlikely Murders. First, there had been the case of the six childhood friends who, led by an evil, bearded mastermind, had performed esoteric rituals and sung strange incantations before going out onto the streets of Swindon to murder complete strangers with knotted ropes and sharpened tent pegs. And all for the sake of their Boy Scouts Serial Killer badge.
And then there had been the killer who had chosen his victims based on an obsession with the household in the Big Brother TV series – first he’d killed a really dumb one, then a nasty, scheming one, and then a blonde one with big breasts. Fortunately, they’d caught him before he started on the women.
Most recently, there had been the killer driven insane by watching too many garden makeover programmes. After slaughtering his victims, he dissected their bodies, opened up their chest cavities and used their rib cages to construct attractive trellising covered with night-scented clematis and climbing roses. Then he created an interesting water feature in their lower abdomens, covered them with decking and entered them in the Chelsea Flower Show before anyone noticed.
After working night and day on the case for weeks, the criminal profiler had suggested the police should be looking for a man with psychiatric problems, a sharp knife, and access to a decent garden centre.
Within hours, they’d arrested the killer known as Handy Andy.
But of course, McRoonie’s boss still hated him.
Mo Mo McRoonie was proud of his achievements. Undoubtedly, the streets of Swindon were a safer place to be these days. Provided the police stayed at home.
But the work of the Bizarre and Unlikely Murders Squad was never done. The phone rang before McRoonie could escape from the office for his Evostik fix.
"It sounds like one for us, sir," said DS Clinton. "This murderer is using bits of his victim’s bodies to create guinea pig houses, complete with treadmills, mirrors and comfortable nesting areas."
"That’s straightforward enough," said McRoonie. "I’d say we’re looking for someone with psychiatric problems, a set of spanners and easy access to small furry animals."
"But this is urgent, sir. We may not have much time."
"Why’s that, Clint?"
"It’s the guinea pigs. They’re breeding. Within twenty-four hours he’ll need another victim to house them in."
"Oh my god."
Just then, a gigantic shadow passed across the doorway, and McRoonie’s boss entered. The expression on Chief Superintendent Pinnock’s face was grim.
"McRoonie," he said, "I hate you."
© Stephen Booth 2003
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