Sometimes, life is beautiful, and you get to interview writing heroes, and pick their brains about how they go about creating their fictional worlds. I really, really love those moments.
Michael Robotham was kind enough to let me interview him For Hush Hush Biz while he was in town on his Close Your Eyes book tour, just days before he beat Stephen King and J.K Rowling to the ultimate crime writing award: the Golden Dagger. I was very, very awed.
So without further ado, it’s Robotham time:
What drew you to crime writing?
I’m very much an accidental crime writer. When I wrote my first novel, I wrote 117 pages which became the subject of a bidding war at the London Book Fair, and I had no idea it was a crime novel, I had no idea how it ended. I was as surprised as anyone. I knew it was going to be one of those Hitchcock-ian, suspenseful, wrong man, wrong time, wrong place stories, but I didn’t think I was becoming a crime writer. When it came out, I got asked all the time, everywhere I went ‘why crime’, and I guess going back over a long career as a journalist, I could see there were seeds there. The fascination was sort of why things happened. Not so much the what, the when, but why. I was always more interested in the why than anything else.
There’s an idea that certain people write certain genres for certain reasons. So, crime writers are all about making things ordered, and horror writers are about working through their fears. Do you think it’s quite as psychological as that?
To me, maybe, I’m probably more on the horror side than the ordered side. It’s often said that one of the great appeals of crime novels are the sense of order that they have, that order is restored: the bad guys get their comeuppance, the good guys triumph, and in the real world that doesn’t always happen. People gain comfort from that, and that’s one of the reasons they read crime. I fall more into that area with psychological thrillers, the fact that people like being scared. It’s the reason ghost stories have been told around campfires since we were cave painting.
All my fears, all my nightmares involve my wife and daughters being in jeopardy. Maybe I’ve put fears like that on the page in some way to ward them off. I’ve never tried to analyse it too much, for obvious reasons.
I think they’re more psychological than procedural. Police procedural ones, they very much rely on the layering of clues and putting things in order, and working things out. My books tend to be the sort that make you want to check the doors are locked.
Close Your Eyes is a really unsettling book, especially in terms of the menace and threat toward the female characters. Given how often in the media violence against women is being explored, did that influence your writing?
It didn’t, although you’re absolutely right.
The book is dedicated to victims of domestic violence. I felt quite uncomfortable about the fact that in so many of my books, the people in jeopardy tend to be women or teenage girls. Even though we’ve had this terrible, terrible spate, and domestic violence is an absolute scourge, in reality, the group of people most likely to be murdered in this country are young men. And yet, very few crime novels write about the victims as young men.
The only person I’ve ever heard explain that to me was Tess Gerritsen, who is an American crime writer. All her victims are women, as well as her heroes. The heroes are strong women- it’s not as though they’re all just women tripping over tree roots and screaming for help from some man. They’re strong female characters, but the victims tend to be female. And she believes it’s because the majority of readers of crime fiction are women, and that those readers relate more closely when a woman is in danger then when a man is in danger.
She said that the one time in her books where she decided to have a man as the victim, she got feedback from her readers saying ‘we didn’t like that so much. We liked it when we could put ourselves in that position of running and trying to get away. We wanted that.’
I don’t imagine the world is a dangerous place. I know exactly that there are no more child murders now than there were 40 or 50 or 60 years ago. There are no more murders per head of population than there were that long ago. The world is no more dangerous now. The only thing that’s probably more dangerous is riding a bike on the streets ‘cause there’s more cars. In reality, it’s the 24 hour news cycle that has created this fear that we imagine that there are men in vans trying to pull children off every street corner, and that everything’s more dangerous. And it’s not true, but that doesn’t stop us still having fears. All I think I do is I tap into those everyday fears.
Every parent has been in been in the situation that at some point they have lost sight of their child in a busy supermarket or on the street. They’ve turned around, and they’re just not there. And it might only be 30 seconds, but it’s the most terrifying 30 seconds of their life. Or you’ve been in a situation where someone you love or care for has promised to be home at a certain hour and they’re late, and you can’t raise them, and all the gremlins creep in. I just tap into the age old fear.
Other than your fears, what inspires your novels?
I’ll never use the word ‘inspire’, because most of them are seeded. I don’t like to think that another crime would inspire me to write, ‘cause no one should be inspired by crime. But they’re all seeded in real life events. Close your Eyes was seeded in a true story from 1995, the murder of a woman called Janet Brown, in a farmhouse in Buckinghamshire. It’s an unsolved murder. She was found lying at the bottom of the stairs, naked, handcuffed. Savagely beaten. It’s never been solved, although really interestingly, the new techniques in DNA mean that they’ve now got a DNA sample, and the police are more confident that they might finally solve that crime after this long.
But that interested me, that case. Because there were so many elements of it that the police couldn’t understand in terms of… nothing was taken, she wasn’t sexually abused. But the way the person broke in and what he did in the house didn’t make any sense. So they called in a psychologist to help them. And the interesting thing the psychologist pointed out was that the mother lived with her teenage daughter. The teenage daughter would normally have been home that night, and the teenage daughter’s car was parked out front next to the mother’s car, but the daughter wasn’t home. So the thing the psychologist posed to the police: did he come for the mother, or did he come for the daughter? That was the question that stuck with me. And that’s when I created the murders in Close Your Eyes. As you know, both mother and daughter die, but they both die in very different ways. One left almost tenderly or reverentially, and the other shockingly violated. But how do you work that out? Because one crime contains such anger, and the other crime contained, it’s not so much love, but there’s something there, tenderness almost. That’s what I was interested in exploring.
Quite a few writers have boundaries that they set around what they will or will not write about. Do you have any taboos that you avoid, or are reluctant to explore?
I’ve never harmed a child. Peter Temple and I were once interviewed about if there was a taboo area, and Peter said that, ‘we could boil a baby and eat it with truffles and that would be fine. But heaven help you if you harm a family dog.’ And I did test that theory out in a book called Bleed For Me where the family pet dies horribly. And I’ve never had so much hate mail from readers. Even my own mother, you know. I found it quite perverse, that people would come to me and say, ‘I was enjoying the book up until then.’ So they enjoyed the grooming of the schoolgirl by the teacher, they enjoyed the shocking murder she was blamed for, they enjoyed this, but the dog scene was beyond the pale. I’m an animal lover, but I still thought that was perverse.
As dark as the books are, the violence is always off camera. I’ve never, and I would never, describe a particularly violent rape or a torture scene. I would never describe it. And I know that in a book called Say You’re Sorry, which is about two teenage girls that go missing, and it turns out they’ve been abducted, I know some people thought that I had put this terrible scene in this book. I had them argue with me, and they said, ‘That was a horrendous scene that you wrote.’ And I said, ‘What scene?’ and they said ‘Well, you wrote this.’ I said, ‘No I didn’t. Go back and look at it again.’ I didn’t describe it- in their imagination, they imagined this, but all I described was people’s reactions after the event. And in their mind, they had painted the whole thing in their head. That’s what I will do. It’s like classic Hitchcock, where you never see it. Even in that famous scene in Psycho, the shower scene, you never see the knife going into the person, you just hear music and the curtain. And yet people, their imaginations describe that as one of the most frightening scenes ever put on film, and you see virtually nothing.
Do you think that’s the stronger way to go about writing violent scenes?
I think it is. I think there is no greater tool for the writer than the reader’s imagination. That is the greatest tool we have. We are in a sense manipulators. We manipulate your emotions. Hopefully we make you laugh, cry, scare you. Whatever. Sometimes we want you to look at our right hand while our left hand is planting a clue, so that later you go back going, ‘Why didn’t I see that?’ All writing is about manipulating your reader. That’s the great power of the book. That’s why so many famous books struggle to be filmed- because people have this picture already in their head about what the characters look like, and the imagination is the most vibrant technicolour 3D adventure playground that we have.
Clearly, you’ve spent a lot of time researching the crime that seeded Close Your Eyes. How do you go about researching, and making your books so realistic?
I was very fortunate to work in the UK many years ago with a guy called Paul Britton. He’s the forensic psychologist that Cracker was based upon.
Paul Britton worked on that Janet Brown case I mentioned, the unsolved case. So my knowledge, a lot of it comes from working closely with him.
I mean, I do walk the streets, to the point where it is so accurate that the lawyers come to me and say, ‘That farm house, where the mother and daughter are murdered, does it exist?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Is it where you describe it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Does it look the way you describe it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Someone lives there, and you’ve just put two bodies in their house. You have to change the location.’ So I will have to go back and alter it to make sure I don’t upset someone. But I will try to be as accurate as possible.
The psychology, I try to get right. All the villains I write, there’s a reason that they become the person they become. They’re not just born from nothing. There’s a reason that they become twisted and do certain things. There’s a family background of abuse. In his case, losing his mother, and then the brutal father and all those things that feed into it.
That’s one of the things I really love about your books. It’s never just about a diagnosis. Shows like Criminal Minds are all about the label they can give the criminal- ‘Oh, he’s a psychopath. Oh, he’s a sociopath.’ You actually make it real, and it’s scarier because it’s not just a title, it’s a person, and it’s someone any of us could become.
It’s not a science, psychology. It’s not exact, so you can make mistakes. In the end, if someone got murdered in this room now, and a psychologist came in, he could only deal with what he could see. And at times, and the classic was with Paul Britton, when he was working, and he worked on the cases like Fred and Rosemary West, and Jamie Bollinger, and a lot of celebrated cases. If he looked and couldn’t see a psychological print, almost, of the person that did it, he’d just say ‘I can’t help you. There’s not enough information here for me.’
It’s only when he could walk into a crime scene and could see things that tell him something about the person that did it. The way they’ve done something. The way they’ve broken in, the way they’ve tied the knot. Whether they’ve got an organised mind or a disorganised mind. How well they plan for their escape. All of this says something about their level of intelligence, what their level of education would be, what sort of relationships they would have. How quickly they disappeared, so how well they knew the area…
But if you come upon a scene where there’s no clues, the psychologist simply says to the police, ‘I can’t help you. I’d just be guessing.’ That’s why I don’t really watch those shows like Criminal Minds. ‘Cause oftentimes, yeah. And it’s also, the Americans do it differently. They use empirical data. They profile differently to the UK.
The reason Paul Britton has this knowledge is he spent 30 years working with the criminally insane in Broadmoor in secure psychiatric hospitals. He knows their deepest, darkest fantasies. He’s coming from the basis that he knows the way they think. In America, they come from the basis of having 100 years of every detail of every rape and every murder put into a computer, and you can pump the new details of each new crime and almost spit out a profile based on computer modelling as opposed to what Paul Britton does.
It sounds like the UK version would be somewhat more accurate.
It depends on the skill of the profiler, and it’s interesting, as it’s shown in this book, where I’ve introduced the character of The Mindhunter, Milo Coleman. A man that thinks he’s a profiler, who thinks he can do what Joe does. That’s the difference between the good profiler and the bad one. I make a point about that. There’s a line very early on where Joe says he can’t understand how some of these psychologists and profilers get excited about it. Joe hates doing this. How can you get excited about a murder? Someone’s dead. He calls them glory hounds.
How important is setting in your work?
Not as important as it is for a lot of writers. I think I could have written that same story in another part of England. I could have chosen to set it somewhere else other than Cleveland in North Somerset. So in that sense, the setting, it didn’t dictate where the story was. The story wasn’t dictated by the setting in any way.
I think it’s important to get it right, though, because there are a lot of people reading my books live in that area.
It’s common for protagonists in crime and thrillers to have some fatal flaw- it used to be alcoholism for private eyes. You’ve given Joe Parkinson’s, and it’s fantastic to see a character having to learn to live around his illness and not being shown as just a victim. But how hard is it for you to write his character?
I never intended Joe to be in any more than one book. When I gave him early onset Parkinson’s, I did it for two reasons. One was because I wanted this guy with a brilliant mind and a crumbling body. He wasn’t going to be Jack Reacher, or Jason Bourne, Or James Bond. He was going to have to out-think his way. But secondly, because I never thought I would use him again. I never thought he would be in another book. And I didn’t bring him back, really, until Shatter. Oh, he had a little role in Lost. But if I could go back, I would change it. Because he’s got a use-by date. It’s 11 years now since that first book. And he’s 11 years older. That’s 11 years with Parkinson’s. There’s a limit to how long he can go on. And as much as readers love the character, I do say to them, ‘There will come a time, and it’s not far away, where there won’t be any more Joe books.’ But it does mean that I have to do a lot of research into Parkinson’s.
I’m going to reach a time soon where he mentally cannot do what he’s doing. Eventually his mind will start to go. Because it happens with Parkinson’s, the body first, and then the mind. So I can’t keep him going forever.