I found a nice review this morning. It’s a review of Cry for Help, and it appears in Publishers Weekly here. When I mentioned this on twitter, someone pointed out it was also a starred review, and I – naively, but semi-honestly – asked if that was a good thing. I don’t think I’ve ever been reviewed in Publishers Weekly before.
Anyway, this isn’t just flag up the fact that someone liked my book (although, having not found Still Bleeding in a single Leeds bookshop this afternoon, that alone would be good enough for me), it was the first sentence of the review that caught my eye, and also the curious eyes of a few curious friends of mine.
In Mosby’s powerful thriller, set in what might be Nottingham, England, the police are baffled by an unknown killer who’s been tying up young women and leaving them to die of starvation and thirst.
Nottingham? My first thought was, well, no. It just isn’t. I have a passing knowledge of Nottingham city centre, but only from occasional trips down to Rock City with a couple of mates, usually – as it happens – to see The Wildhearts, before crashing on another Nottingham-based friend’s living room floor. But I wouldn’t dream of setting a book there. Then again, my second thought was … well, I think I actually did go to Nottingham while writing Cry for Help – to see Nine Inch Nails this time, if you’re interested – and so maybe something seeped in there without me realising. And my third thought was that I keep banging on in interviews about deliberately not setting my books anywhere in particular, so that “might” is all it takes. It might be set in Nottingham. In fact, if that’s what you think as you’re reading it, then it is. Although I suppose could is more what I’m after.
But why Nottingham? Not to single out this particular reviewer – whom, it’s entirely realistic to say, I actually love – but the emphasis on realism in crime fiction has always interested me. Fiction in general, I guess, but crime fiction in particular is an absolute bugger for it. I’ve forgotten too much about Cry for Help to be sure, but all I can think is that it’s the mention of Staunton Hospital that did it, as there’s a place called Staunton near Nottingham. At least, I think there is. In truth, the hospital is loosely based on one in Steeton and Silsden near me; I called it Steeton in my working draft, then just knocked the middle out and round. The irony is I did this to stop the story being anchored to something that happened to me in a particular place. And all I can think is someone took the invented name (free, in my mind, from associations) and threw down an anchor somewhere else, to bring the story to rest.
I guess that’s part of the whole reading process: that every reader anchors it for themselves. But I do think it’s interesting that people look for real places in which stories are set. They want to bring a story down to earth: not just so it exists in their heads but so it exists somewhere real, as though these made up people doing their made up things must be doing them in a place that isn’t made up. And in crime fiction, there’s a special emphasis on that. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because of the whole crime versus literary fiction debate, where the front-runners seem to earn their medals on the basis of depth of social commentary. And there are certainly a hell of a lot of crime writers who focus on individual cities or areas, to the point they’re indelibly associated with them – and can even be seen as writing about those places as much as the imaginary characters wandering about in them.
(There’s also a special emphasis on police and forensic procedure too. You often hear writers say “You’ve got to get the procedure right – readers are so savvy these days”. And, of course, they’re not. It’s just that tons of crime novels use procedure, and what’s presented there gets absorbed into the overall narrative of crime fiction as a whole. But it isn’t like many readers have done courses in forensics. Reminds me of what Jeffrey Deaver said once: in one of his books he had a SOCO put elastic bands around her shoes to distinguish her prints from the others in a dusty room; totally made-up; sounds realistic; made its way into CSI. And even if readers were savvy, isn’t this insistence on realism leaning dangerously close to the alleged crossword puzzle of Golden Age crime fiction?).
I haven’t really worked out how I feel about all this yet, or even what I think. One of the most difficult bits of Still Bleeding, and I’m using ‘difficult’ in context here, was pinning it down to the UK. I just couldn’t do it any other way without inventing a country name – and given my record I’d only have made one up that already existed. I don’t like pinning it down. But I do occasionally get it in the neck (again, in context). I had emails about The 50/50 Killer saying “there are no woods like that in the UK!!”. Well, I know. It’s not really happening in the UK. It’s just a story: existing solely in the words on the pages between two covers, and then in the images in your head those words create. It’s a story about fairytale notions of love. Hence the fairytale forest. Sometimes, my thinking is even more obscure. In The Third Person, there’s a place called Asiago. It’s a corporate-sponsored recreation of an old fishing village, designed to inspire affection and nostalgia, but it’s ended up going the same way as the genuinely old fishing villages did. It was sort of about how, if you had the chance to relive supposedly happier times, you’d only make the same mistakes again. Asiago is actually a place in Italy. It’s called that in the book because an old girlfriend had a road-sign for Asiago, stolen by her father, on her wall at University, and the association was there for me while I was writing the scene because of what happened between the two of us afterwards. Meaningless for anyone else, in this case. The book’s not set in Italy.
As I mentioned in the Black Static interview, the realism thing genuinely puzzles me because my brain doesn’t work that way when it comes to stories. They’re fiction. All fiction is fantasy by definition. Either it actually happened, or it didn’t, and naming a real place isn’t going to change that. There is no definitive scale there, or not one that I can see, anyway. So Cry for Help isn’t set anywhere in particular. It’s set in a place that doesn’t really exist, which means wherever you want it to be set while you’re reading it. And it’s about a murderer who ties your friends up and leaves them to die from lack of caring – and then blames you for not being there for them the way you always said you would be. It’s kind of a metaphor, I guess. But whatever – serial killers like that don’t really exist either. Even in Nottingham.