I’m a tolerant reader, in the main. I read to be entertained – to be scared a little, perhaps – and I don’t easily give up on a book. I’ll put up with a paper-thin plot if the characters are sufficiently addictive, and I’ll gloss over a clichéd cast when the story gallops along so fast I can’t turn the pages fast enough. In short, it takes a lot to put me off, but I have certain pet hates in crime fiction that’ll have me hurling a book across the room in despair.
- Poor research into police life
Note that I didn’t say ‘police procedure’. Despite being an ex-copper, I’m not a stickler for accuracy when it comes to forensics and procedure. We’re writing fiction, after all, not a police manual, and as someone who has studied every inch of Blackstone’s Police Manuals I can assure you that there is little entertainment in them. What is important, in my view, is creating an authentic police ‘world’, and research into this is a must. Crime novels in which inspectors are called ‘sarge’ (try ‘sir’, ‘boss’, ‘guv’, or ‘ma’am’), or in which hot-shot graduates skip uniform and start their careers on the murder squad are guaranteed to make my blood boil. Every police force has a website, with the rank structure, departmental names and career advice clearly posted, and the six degrees of separation theory means it isn’t hard to find a police officer to answer a few well-thought-out questions.
- Vomiting police officers
My father was a pathologist, and occasionally I’d have to go into work with him on a teacher training day. I have fond memories of sitting on a slab, swinging my legs, while he decided which corpse to slide out of the fridge next. I didn’t watch a post-mortem as a child, you’ll be relieved to know, but I was fascinated by the body parts floating in jars in his office. Years later, when I joined the police, the mortuary felt a familiar place to hang out, despite the famously unpleasant smell that clings to the dead. (To be perfectly frank, I’ve been crewed with a couple of living colleagues who were less than fragrant…) I have never once thrown up at a post-mortem, or at a gruesome crime scene. I confess I’ve felt the bile rise a little at a six-month-old corpse, but no self-respecting copper would blow chunks at a crime scene. CSI would go ballistic, for a start. If crime fiction is to be believed, police officers are delicate little flowers who pack smelling salts next to their baton and cuffs, and can’t bear the sight of blood. In reality, the only time I witnessed a colleague throwing up was after a fitness test, when the bleep test coincided with a particularly grim hangover.
- Torture porn
I’m not squeamish about violence, but nothing makes me put down a book faster than when it opens with a woman (usually beautiful) tied up (usually naked) waiting for an unknown attacker (always male) to return. The last few years have seen an explosion of TV dramas and novels in which female victims are raped, tortured, abused and objectified in the name of entertainment. Such crimes exist in real life, of course, and there’s no reason why they can’t be used as inspiration for fiction, but they can’t come out of nowhere. Why is this character behaving like this? If torturing naked women is a believable product of this back-story, do we really need every last detail? I’m a firm believer that less is more. The reader already has in their head the most terrifying thing they can think of, and the chances are it’ll be worse than whatever the author had in mind for his victim. Leave the reader to join up the dots themselves; like sex, the best violence happens off the page.
Clare Mackintosh is the author of I Let You Go, a Sunday Times bestseller and the fastest-selling title by a new crime writer in 2015. It was selected for both the Richard and Judy Book Club, and was the winning title of the readers’ vote for the summer 2015 selection, and ITV’s Loose Women’s Loose Books. Overseas rights have now sold in 30 countries.
The book has been shortlisted for this year’s Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award.
Clare latest book, I See You, is published on 28th July.