Keeping characters on life support, and the occasional kiss of life (why we serialise crime)

This an article I wrote for CWA’s Red Herrings (September issue) to coincide with the imminent publication of the fifth book in the DI Marsh crime series.

Our instinct of survival is the strongest of them all. Fictional characters have it too. Some of them seem to live forever, often against the wishes of their creators. Who can forget Arthur Conan Doyle’s steely resolve to kill off Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls? With a few strokes of his pen he cruelly sent the well-loved detective to his certain death in the embrace of his nemesis, Dr Moriarty. But Sherlock beat his maker at the game of survival of the fittest. Apparently, young ladies swooned at the news of the great detective’s (unconfirmed) death, and men in London took to wearing black armbands to mourn him. The pressure was unbearable and the maker’s hand was forced. Sherlock was resurrected in The Adventure of the Empty House and went on to outlive his creator. Arguably, he is now immortal. And he is not alone. Ian Rankin dispatched Inspector Rebus into retirement only to find him Standing in Another Man’s Grave, alive and kicking. There is talk of the TV series returning to our screens too after 10 years on the shelf.

Holmes, Rebus and many other fictional detectives, once unleashed onto the world, break free from the confines of their creators’ minds to become indestructible. How do they do that?

Crime writers are adept and often merciless when it comes to body count. Murder is the name of the game. Death rules supreme. But even the most barbaric crime writers struggle to kill off their heroes at the end of the story. The mystery may be solved, the culprit apprehended and the balance between good and evil restored. And although we may have murdered most ingeniously a whole raft of unsuspecting victims and finally reach the satisfying end of the story when all is revealed and no loose ends hang in mid-air, we can’t always bring ourselves to say farewell to our sleuths. Thus, we resort to serialising crime.

It isn’t just us, the authors, who are compelled to grant our heroes a reprieve and keep them alive after their job is done. Readers, just like writers, form relationships with characters. I have my favourite fictional detectives, Poirot, Wexford, Morse, Agatha Raisin and her distant cousin Hamish Macbeth, said Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Rebus, to mention a handful. They have grown on me over the years of our random encounters. I enjoy meeting them again and again, checking up on them and finding out how they’re getting on. In the end, crime fiction isn’t just about solving crime. It’s also about continuity, familiarity and shared values. It is about restoring law and order in the community. And communities are made up of characters. Those pesky characters come to life and get under our skin. We try to understand them. We worry about them, get angry with them and love them to bits. Both as writers and readers. We are, after all, human, whether we’re fiction or real.

Anyway, where does reality end and fiction begin? Fictional characters are reflections of real people. Some of them are our self-portraits, often distorted or embellished, but still recognisable. Others are snapshots of people we know or have known – people who left lasting impressions on us. Some of our characters are collages of ourselves and those around us – our mini-me Frankensteins. They are constructs of our observations, likes and dislikes, fears and memories. Once we’ve put them together and breathed life into them, they go out into the world, make a few friends and several enemies, and take on a life of their own. It’s hard to kill them just because we have reached the end of a story.

It is for that reason that I write series. My DI Gillian Marsh crime series is now on its fifth instalment. A Conspiracy of Silence (Headline Accent) will be published on 15th October. Much has changed in Gillian’s personal life since she first hit the pages of the series in 2016: she’s found, and lost, a lover, found another one, her daughter has flown the nest, and her parents have entered centre stage. So Gillian isn’t finished yet. She has her hands full, and not only with solving murder. Life goes on for her as it does for all of us. I tried to terminate Gillian and move on. But in typical Gillian fashion, she was having none of it and forced her way into my new cosy crime series, The Shires Mysteries (Headline Accent). She will make cameo appearances there alongside a brand-new cast of characters. I just couldn’t bring myself to let her go, even though she is not an easy woman to get on with. She is a handful, but she is a damn good detective and my amateur sleuths could do with her expertise.

DI Marsh doesn’t exist in splendid isolation. She is surrounded by characters, who too, over the course of the series, grew as people, dealt with the challenges life threw at them, suffered, loved and worked their backsides off to earn their place in the books. I have no heart to simply vanish them. Their fictional world thickens with new layers like the rings of a tree trunk, and grows a network of relationships and dependencies. It is a living ecosystem. Incorporating that world and those characters into my new series seems like a natural progression. Fresh faces will appear and take over the lead, but the old and the familiar will be buzzing in the background, adding a third dimension to the page.

A Conspiracy of Silence is out on 15th October 2020. To order, follow this link: http://mybook.to/AConspiracyofSilence

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