Must Try Harder …

by Zoë Sharp

Coincidences happen every day. They’re a fact of life. And while there are a few of us who still firmly believe that instances of déjà vu are nothing more than a glitch in the matrix, they happen, too, often in a way that’s really quite corny. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that real life is a lot more badly written than an average novel.

Can you imagine sitting down with your agent or editor, and explaining to them the idea for your next book. A courtroom drama that unfolds after a beautiful eighteen-year-old model is found murdered just yards from her front door after a night out with friends. She’s been stabbed seven times and brutally raped. The police question her boyfriend, but his DNA doesn’t match that found on the body and the case goes cold. Then, nine months later, a man is arrested after a scuffle in a pub. His DNA is taken as a matter of routine and fed into the system. Twelve days later the police arrest him for the young model’s death and he goes to trial. In court, his defence is that he found the teenager lying on the ground and assumed she was passed out drunk so he, "took advantage of the situation", not realising she was dead until afterwards. Yes, you tell your agent, this is going to be his defence, under oath, in a court of law.

Or, what about a serial killer? There are a lot of them in fiction, it seems – far more than in real life. So, you decide to write a serial killer book. Your killer is going to murder five prostitutes in a single mid-sized English town over a forty day period. One other woman is going to have a lucky escape when the killer is interrupted. But rather than have him totally baffling police with the total lack of clues, forensic scientists are going to lift a full DNA profile from three of the bodies, which he carelessly dumps on dry land rather than in water. Not only that, but they’re also going to match 177 clothing or textile fibres from the killer’s home to his victims.

The killer’s car is going to be seen kerb crawling the local red light districts, and blood is found in the back of it. Oh, and by the way, the police will already have his DNA on file after a minor robbery he committed five years previously. His defence in court? Our old friend coincidence. Yes, he did indeed frequent the red light districts, and by amazing chance did indeed have sex with all the girls in question, on the very day they disappeared, but everything else was one big fat coincidence. Or fifty of them, I believe it was, during one period of cross-examination by the prosecution.

So, no criminal masterminds at work here, then.

Tragically, both these cases are real life. Mark Dixie has just been sentenced to life for the rape and murder of Sally Anne Bowman in Croydon, South London. Steve Wright has just had a similar sentence passed for the murders of Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls, and Paula Clennell, all working in Ipswich, Suffolk. Both these men may well be very sad, twisted – even downright evil – individuals, but what makes them all the more pathetic is that it almost seems like they couldn’t be bothered to put any effort into planning their crimes.

In books, serial killers connect with their victim in some way – even if it’s only inside their sick little minds. They stalk their victims, photograph them, create little shrines to them for the detective to uncover – usually illuminated by a single swinging lightbulb. As writers we simply can’t rely on the same level of random chance, coincidence and happenstance that seems to occur time and again in real life. We have to make our villains more – I hate to say it – larger than life.

More human, even.

Some writers complain that occasionally they’ve taken an aspect of real life and inserted it into a novel, only for that to be the part that readers pick out as being the most unbelievable bit. I know if I presented either of those two scenarios to my agent, she’d point out the plot-holes and bat them right back at me. Must try harder.

So, my question is this. Are there times when you experience something, or see it on the news and say to yourself, "If I’d written that in a book, nobody would believe it …", and how much coincidence and happenstance will or won’t you accept – both as a reader and a writer – in fiction?

This week’s Word of the Week really ought to be mesmoronic, as mentioned in my comment to Louise’s blog, but we made that one up so it doesn’t really count. Instead, it’s actually outfangthief, which is the right of judging and fining thieves pursued and brought back from outside one’s own jurisdiction.

For those of you who live in the US and can pick up XM 155 satellite radio, you might be interested to know that I’m on over the course of this weekend. I was interviewed by Kim Alexander, host of Fiction Nation. The times you can listen in on Take Five XM 155 are:

Friday 3/7 11:30pm

Saturday 3/8 6pm

Sunday 3/9 10am

Sunday 3/10 8pm

Monday 3/11 midnight

And on Sonic Theater XM 163

Thursday 3/13 3:30 pm

All times are EAST

15 thoughts on “Must Try Harder …

  1. Rae

    Yes, I absolutely experience those “stranger than fiction” moments. It’s usually something that causes me to wonder “can anyone actually be that stupid?”

    And I love outfangthief…..

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    Oh, lord, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen in criminal court who’d never be believed if they were characters in a novel. Like the guy who broke into a house, grabbed a whole bunch of clothes and stereo equipment and piled the by the door preparatory to loading them into his pickup.

    Then, unfortunately, for him, he found the liquor cabinet.

    Several hours, and two bottles of Dom later, the owner found him passed out on the floor by the couch.

    Then there was the other criminal mastermind who showed up for his preliminary hearing wearing the shoes he’d stolen from the victim, who identified said shoes from the witness stand. With considerable indignation, I might add.

    Or the guy…well, you get the point.

  3. j.t. ellison

    Z, too right! I open my third book with an actual crime scene, a real case that happened in North Carolina. One of my independent readers protested vociferously. She said I’d alienate every woman who read the book, that it was just too horrible to imagine.

    When I told her it was a real crime scene, from a real case, she understood why I did it. And for the record, there’s nothing gruesome or over the top about the murder scene, it’s just a young mother who’s killed in her house and her child is there. But it struck such an incredibly strong chord in my reader that I did change a couple of things so it wouldn’t be deemed abusive. Yes, I capitulated. It’s amazing how real life is always much worse that our imagination.

    And so glad to hear that the Steve Wright was charged. Such a lame-ass excuse he had!

  4. JDRhoades

    Good friend of mine defended that one. It was rough. Lot of prosecutorial misconduct there, and even several appeals courts said so.

    But they could never explain the ring.

  5. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Rae – sorry to come late to this. Been out all day chasing round the country. Yes, can’t remember where we came across outfangthief. I sometimes think I’d love to write the kind of books where I could use a word like that 😉

  6. Zoe Sharp

    Dusty – I can imagine that you’ve seen and heard it all. A local one-man-crimewave in the town where my sister-in-law used to live decided, having been caught every other time he tried a bit of burglary, that this time he would foil the police by wearing gloves. Unfortunately, the only ones he could find were those fingerless ones you use for cycling …

    They caught him.

  7. Zoe Sharp

    JT – I’ve been following the story of the former care home in the Channel Islands where I think now 160 people who were there as children have come forward to report the most horrendous cases of abuse, usually carried out in two hidden basement rooms. They uncovered some chilling writing on the wall of one. It simply said, “I’ve been bad for years and years.”

    Inventing something like that in a work of fiction is one thing, but knowing it’s for real just rips your heart out.

  8. Zoe Sharp

    Oh, and JT – not only was Steve Wright sent down for the prostitute murders, but I understand the police are now interviewing him about the disappearance of the real estate agent, Suzy Lamplugh in the late 80s, after it was revealed that the two knew each other when they worked on the QE2. His arrogance at the trial was just astounding.

  9. norby

    When I was younger my dad’s sister and her husband were robbed by a family that had a history of that sort of crime.

    Years later, my mom’s brother-in-law, who had been adopted when he was five, tracked down his paternal birth family. His cousins are the family that robbed my dad’s family.

    Needless to say, we live in a small area.

  10. Zoe Sharp

    Norby – wow, I can imagine family gathering are very interesting for you …

    It always seems to me that crimes committed between family members are some of the worst.

  11. Zoe Sharp

    JD – another time, the same one-man-crimewave kid who got caught for the fingerless gloves was passed by a guy who lived in the same village as he walked across a field near his home. The kid had something obviously clanking under his jacket. When the guy got home a few minutes later, he found his neighbour had been burgled of some family silver. He put two and two together without a great deal of effort and rang the police. The patrol car was waiting outside the kid’s house by the time he got home …

    As with all things, some people just have more persistence than talent.


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