A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It happened a few weeks ago. After a long period submerged in various sorts of book-related tasks (my debut novel, Shadow Man, will be published on 2nd November) I’d met a dear friend for coffee and a long overdue catch-up.
Endlessly kind and supportive, she’s not a huge reader, so I was surprised and flattered when she said she’d read her advance copy – I’d meant it as a keepsake, a ‘thank you’ for all the times she’d encouraged me to keep going, not another task to be crammed into her already full diary. But she’d raced through it over a long weekend and what’s more, she’d loved it.
‘It was great,’ she told me. ‘Mind you, in places it got a wee bit … well, political, don’t you think? For a detective story.’
I gulped. I really did. Because Shadow Man had started life with a single image, a bride in a blood-stained wedding dress. That image hadn’t made it into the book, but I’d always intended the novel to be a straight police procedural, set in an area I’ve lived in most of my life and feel a strong attachment to. But I’d begun writing Shadow Man in late 2014, after the Scottish Independence Referendum – and if you weren’t in Scotland during the run-up to that vote, then it’s going to be almost impossible to explain to you how massively it affected nearly everyone in the country at that time.
Forget the media pundits, forget the barrage of pro and con propaganda, the ‘Yes/No’ debate belonged to the people. It took place in bars, in shopping centres, on ferries – sometimes unruly, sometimes funny, sometimes not – but always passionate. Always engaged. To have been unaffected by it, you would have had to have been a hermit crab living on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic. And what I realise now is that I couldn’t have written any sort of novel that didn’t reflect that in some way. Whatever I’d intended, the marks of what we’d experienced would always be visible, like the indentations left on blotting-paper which help to bring down the villain in so many tales from crime fiction’s ‘Golden Age’ years.
And in the end, you know, I think I’m fine with that – those marks are anchoring the novel to a particular time and place, not neon signs proclaiming any sort of political allegiance. I was fascinated recently to hear another crime writer talk about finishing the edits for their 2018 novel and starting one set in 2019. For me, that would be like trying to paint a room in pitch darkness. How would you choose your colours – how would you even find the paint?
Of course, the shades you choose might not appeal to everyone, particularly those whose colour charts run differently to your own. In the wake of the referendum, Val McDermid wrote an article for the Guardian in 2015, arguing that modern crime fiction was broadly left wing in tone. I’m not sure I agree entirely – even if not wholly comfortable with the established order, in the end hero detectives don’t challenge it, they uphold it – but it’s certainly true that crime fiction often highlights social injustice and underlines the need for change.
In fact, McDermid goes further. Looking back to the 2014 Referendum debate, she points to the high levels of engagement within the creative community, and suggests that perhaps one of the reasons for this was what she calls the ‘perceived disconnect’ between politicians and the electorate. Mistrustful of the political establishment, were people looking to find truths they could believe in from other sources, perhaps even from those who tell stories for a living?
Again, I’m not sure how far that analysis holds up – did people ever really trust politicians to that extent? But even if it’s only partly true, it seems to me there are only two options: we either disconnect from the here and now, and set our stories in some other time and place (which brings its own difficulties regarding what we choose to see and say, or not) or we square up to the contemporary world and call it like we see it.
This isn’t without dangers, of course. We write primarily to entertain our readers, not beat them over the head with our take on the issues of the day. Particularly in crime fiction, story, not message, is king – if we forget that, we may as well give up on fiction and howl into the void on Facebook or the Twittersphere (Which does, of course, have its attractions. But remember what happens if you stare too long into the abyss …).
In Shadow Man, I made a conscious effort to remain balanced and give equal time to both sides of the Independence argument – which led to a very interesting discussion with another friend who was most indignant as she’d assumed I’d converted to the other side! Arguably, given what I’ve suggested above, I was too scrupulously even-handed. But sidestepping the debate entirely was never an option for me. Or my characters.
So here we are, staring at that blank sheet of paper again. Writers, just wanting to tell stories. Wanting to entertain without, perhaps, any particular axe to grind. And yet, unable to look away from the contemporary elephant in the room. The scary, what’s-that-Eejit-in-the-White-House-done-now, Oh-God-we’re-looking-at-actual-nuclear-war sort of elephant.
I think maybe it’s time to walk right up to that elephant and make friends with it. Give it a bale of hay, take it out for a walk (or a shopping trip followed by a restorative G&T if it’s that sort of elephant). But please don’t ignore it.
Because I’m not sure any of us, no matter which field we write in, will be able to do that for very much longer.
Shadow Man will be published by Orion on 2 November 2017. For more about Margaret, visit her website.