Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The old, old story of a dish served cold

by Bill Kirton

A while ago, I had a bit of a mini-revelation. About why I write novels. Seems like it might be all about revenge.

I was one of several writers pitching their books to some readers in a lovely wee independent shop in Glasgow called Lost in Fiction. (The sadness is that the shop has since ceased trading. Not because of me, I hope.) Anyway, my three-minute pitch went like this:

The question we’re always asked is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ In the case of The Darkness, it’s central to how I wrote the first version and how it developed into this one. Many years ago, I was having dinner with my wife and friends at a restaurant just outside Aberdeen. The waiter serving us had a West Country accent – English West Country. I said to him ‘You’re a long way from home’. He said ‘Yes, I needed to get as far away as possible’. I asked why and he told me his wife and two young daughters had been killed by a drunk driver. He’d been caught, sentenced to eighteen months, but got twelve months off for good behaviour. As the waiter said, ‘That’s two months for each life’.

I felt so sorry for him, and the story stayed with me. I wanted revenge on his behalf and the first version of The Darkness was exactly that. My agent sent it to Piatkus. They liked it but didn’t want a stand alone thriller at that time but said they’d be interested if I had any police procedurals. So I wrote one. They bought it. And I wrote some more.

I started thinking about making The Darkness part of the series, but it was crude. It was me, red in tooth and claw. My own vigilante tendencies bother me. When it comes to capital punishment, imprisonment and so on I’m a liberal, I’ve corresponded with a prisoner on Death Row, and yet I know for a fact that if I could get my hands on some of these paedophiles and so on, I’d do very nasty things to them. And I’d do it knowing it was wrong, but I’d still do it.

So, in the end, I wrote and rewrote The Darkness over and over again, exploring the balance between the law and justice, revenge and compassion. The motives and the personnel changed. It’s now the third Jack Carston novel and it’s taught me so much about my characters and the whole business of crime and punishment that I now know that the Carston series will consist of just six novels. The fourth has already been published, the fifth is ready for submission, and then, there’ll be just one more. I already know its plot and structure and it’ll have an even darker ending than The Darkness itself.

Given what I’m claiming for the book, it was nice to read in one of the reviews that ‘When you read The Darkness be prepared to be manipulated and have your moral compass reset’. And the same review ended by saying ‘get yourself a copy of The Darkness and ask yourself this; what would you do?’

OK, that was my spiel – and I meant it, and it was true. But later, reading an article about books being made into movies, I suddenly remembered reading First Blood, which is the first of the Rambo stories. I haven’t seen the movies and have no desire to, but that was a well-constructed thriller and a good escapist read. At the end, though, I felt frustrated and cheated by a choice the protagonist made. It was about revenge. But his ‘failure’ to exact the full revenge, while morally ‘correct’, was out of character in the context of the story. This isn’t a criticism of the writing, it’s just my take on the morality involved. I won’t reveal the specific incident to which I’m referring because some people may not have read it so I wouldn’t want this to be a spoiler.

The point, though, is that it made me want to write a novel in which the revenge impulse was allowed its full scope. I imagine that many if not most people experience the visceral eye-for-an-eye urge and it doesn’t do to pretend that it’s not there. I’m not proposing a free-for-all, but it’s honest to acknowledge that it’s a factor, even in the most liberally-informed debates.


Earl Staggs said...

Bill, I've written a number of short stories in which justice is served a step or two outside the law. I don't believe murderers and child molesters should slip through the legal cracks. I can't do anything about it in real life, but in fiction, I can.

Bill Kirton said...

Exactly Earl. While I steer clear of using real people in my books, I do exact little revenges on people I dislike. We don't have to make them corpses or anything, just naming a sewage plant after them will do.