‘Don’t be nesh,’ a suspect cautions an apparent accomplice who’s reluctant to enter the crime scene but, before this compelling account of seemingly motiveless malignancy is ended, the reader may be sure they too will share the cold dread that comes from uncommon knowledge of macabre and incomprehensible crimes . . . the killing of a sleeping infant and mother, and a mindless family massacre.
‘We cannot see into the mind of another,’ a celebrated Scottish judge once concluded before sentencing the accused to be hanged for an unusually inhuman murder. ‘The springs of action are hidden. Human personality is such a mysterious thing that one person can never enter into the personality of another. All we can do is judge them by their acts and conduct and by surrounding circumstance.’
His bleak summing-up can be taken as almost a formula for the psychological police-procedural crime novel, which as a genre withholds moral judgement and shuns an authorial point of view with no glib answers forthcoming in denouements that very often, far from unknotting the narrative, tighten the mystery with a further series of unexpected twists. In short, if we consider the prime suspect in any superior suspense novel as a notional conflicted ‘analysand’ in an unresolved case of psychotherapy, then the crime novelists who emerge as the most distinguished open-minded documentarians of contemporary anomic murder will be found to be adherents of that student of early psychiatry, Dr Chekhov, a literary social scientist who declared he had no ideology and no convictions yet denied he was an indifferentist.
Specifically, the objective yet compassionate Chekhovian crime novelist adheres to this author’s belief that what is obligatory for the writer ‘is not solving a problem, but stating a problem correctly.’ So . . . when the reader is faced with a vicious crime (described relativistically and not by an omniscient narrator), can one be certain of one’s own moral compass to judge?
Self-deception in a speckled mirror.Such a novelist is Christina James, whose forensically scrupulous prose in her latest DI Yates novel, Fair of Face, the sixth in her crime thrillers, features a methodology that imitates the split-screen effect of diverse testimonies from both the crime team and their suspects and witnesses, all to some degree the depositions of unreliable narrators who are wanting in self knowledge. Even Detective Inspector Tim Yates is revealed as blinkered to his own bad habit of taking the credit for the successes of his loyal Detective Sergeant, Juliet, his ‘unofficial Girl Friday’ cast in ‘the nice tea lady role’, for whom equally there dawns a recognition of damaging character flaws, ‘I stare at my face in the speckled little mirror that hangs over the sink . . . I’m thirty-five years old and I’ve never understood less what I’m doing with my life.’ Loyal readers recognise that James is an astute anatomist of the dynamics of command.
These character flaws not only impede the investigation but are further exemplified by the blundering actions (‘mealy-mouthed do-gooding’) of a number of do-gooders from the Social Services, whose prickly demarcation disputes between departments compound a bien pensant bureaucratic correctness that amounts to a virtual paranoia consuming the Nanny State. These passages of the novel are social satire of a high order, as if from the pen of a latter-day Zola to skewer petty officialdom’s buck-passing, which in this case fatally sets in motion the final tragedy. The character sketches of a professional child psychologist are the most acute: ‘She’s wearing a mid-calf dirndl skirt and a broderie anglaise blouse with huge puffed sleeves. Her thick blonde hair has been tied back with a piece of embroidered ribbon. She could pass for a very generously-proportioned Coppélia . . . with an aggressive brand of altruism.’
It is to be this fierce self-deluding altruism of the ‘Responsible Adult’ that hinders the investigative interviewing and blinds the investigators in their race to identify the true criminal intent behind the crime.
Crucially, the DS, Juliet, protests to the child psychologist: ‘You know I’ll have to interview her again. I’d be grateful if you could let me get through it without interrupting. You can see how important it is . . .’
[Child psychologist] ‘My job is to protect her interests.’ She’s gripping the iron bannister rail. Her knuckles are white. ‘If I think the interview is distressing her too much, or causing her to incriminate herself unfairly, I shall insist that you stop.’
(How vivid! The child psychologist ‘was wearing a floor-length red cotton tartan skirt and a jacket with a nipped-in waist (insofar as it was possible to nip in her waist) in a clashing tartan of purple and blue.’ A note to movie producers (and their costume department): the depth and quality of Fair of Face as a suspense drama is positively filmic, as is the intensely sharp focus on its dramatis personae. And for set designers the mise en scène of the death scene is a marvel of concision. ‘There’s not much furniture in the room besides the double bed and a small old wardrobe with an oval mirror set in the door. Otherwise, just a chair with a rounded back that might have started life in a pub. It’s heaped with clothes.’ Started life in a pub. A Jamesian line that fully expresses the desperate hardscrabble times and familial dysfunctionalism of her Provincial Noir milieu. Feckless ‘on-off fathers who wouldn’t take responsibility for their children.’)
In many ways this mapping of tensions between the individual and a paranoid society reminds one of certain polemical works of fiction by Heinrich Böll, his Brechtian-styled political critiques of governmental dogma and the herd mentality of state functionaries . . . in this instance, a paranoid bureaucracy of exhausted, overworked and often demoralised social workers, a breeding ground, as frequent headlines tell us, for errors to multiply. Certainly James’s austere but muscular prose recalls the calculated intention of Böll’s devastatingly incisive reporting style.
James’s striving for objectivity, with multiple viewpoints, deconstructing events with documentary footage, as it were, brings these societal tensions to life with a naturalism that mirrors the inconclusiveness and mysteriousness of quotidian existence and the violent psychical forces that can be unexpectedly unleashed at an underclass’s Ground Zero.
Lessons will be learnt?Mercifully, we do not hear the emollient cliché in this novel so often broadcast after tragedies of the gravity explored in James’s fiction; she, as a social realist disdaining sententiousness, leaves it unsaid. (‘It is better to say not enough than to say too much.’ Chekhov.) In real life, after such failures of the Social Services documented in Fair of Face, we are told that ‘lessons will be learnt’, but James’s ‘mealy-mouthed do-gooder’, in his defence, has this to say:
‘That’s the problem, isn’t it? Every one of the people you mention was responsible for her physical or mental safety, or her day-to-day care, or some other fragment of her life, but no-one wanted to take on board what she had become.’
In other words, too much altruism makes do-gooders blind. It’s smother love. The Nanny State, in smothering, inadvertently kills.
Predictive plotting.Astonishingly, the events of James’s novel all too faithfully mirror certain notorious crimes recorded in the British tabloids (Sussex 1985 and Lincolnshire 2016) in so far as her narrative exhibits a very strange aspect indeed . . . the unexplained manifestation of predictive plotting. How is it, readers are going to ask, how is it that the grim epicentre of James’s crime novel – Spalding in South Lincs – was anticipated as the crime scene for a callow nihilistic murder in 2016 of a mother and child while they slept? Given that the gestation of a complex novel of some 300 pages, one would think, can be no less than eighteen months, never mind its production to publication (October 2017), how were the fictive crimes of Fair of Face foreseen, when the double murderers dubbed the ‘Twilight Killers’ killed in actuality in a remarkably similar manner in Spalding in April 2016?
They say that you can make your own luck, but – the question remains – can a place make a crime? If this is the case, I would not want to be a denizen of Spalding with Christina James as my bard. Like Chekhov’s world, one enters a dimension of no neat answers.
See also, ‘I am a Serial Killer Diarist’ . . . Unremarked Clues to Two Notorious Crime Sprees (John George Haigh and Colin Ireland) . . .
Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence,
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)