Perception is an extraordinary thing. All too often we see what we think we’re going to see, then hear and taste and feel what our eyes have told us we’re going to experience. This is a phenomenon that has been used brilliantly by the chef Heston Blumenthal, when he subverted diners’ expectations with twin sorbets, one beetroot coloured and one orange. The beetroot-coloured one was made of blood orange juice and tasted of citrus; the orange-coloured one was made from golden beetroots and tasted accordingly. Diners have been intrigued, amused, enchanted, and cross, according to their various dispositions.
Writers have a harder job than chefs because the reading experience is so much longer and more demanding than eating. Tasting a sorbet is the matter of a moment, and the brain’s response is virtually immediate. A reader needs to plunge into a novel, offer his or her own emotions to mix with those of writer and characters, and take several hours before emerging with – all writers hope – pleasure, pity, excitement and some kind of unexpected discovery. Any reader has to trust the writer in order to give up so much of his/her own time and self without any guarantee of reward.
This is why so many men decline to buy books with ‘Love’ in the title, or glossy pink on the covers. And why the name of the author is so important. Myself, I wouldn’t pick up any book labelled He Did Her Wrong by Gloria Romantique, The Ripper’s Victim by Matt Wallow, or even Behind the Lines with the SAS by Jack Dead. I don’t enjoy novels about silly women yearning for contemptuous men, the evisceration of female bodies, or shooty-bang war stories. In every case, I could be missing out: the novels in question could be just my bag, convincing explorations of human motivation and experience that would move, excite, inform and grip me, engaging my every brain cell, and so taking me out of real life for the length of the book – more or less my idea of heaven. But with so many other, more likely-looking, novels available, why would I risk it?
Thoughts like these exercised me throughout the writing of No Escape, which is about a man diagnosed with Dangerous Severe Personality Disorder, in prison the Isle of Wight for the spree shooting of an innocently picnicking family. People with DSPD are described on the Ministry of Justice website as ‘some of the most difficult and dangerous in society’, and I first became interested in the disorder when I read years ago of government plans to imprison such people even if they had not committed any offence whatsoever, in order to protect the public from their terrible and unpredictable violence.
Public protection is enormously important, of course, but so is the protection of people given labels like these. No one knows what causes it, and treatments are still experimental. There is no blood test for DSPD, no X-ray that can see it, no scan. So far, the only way of diagnosing the disorder is to measure the invididual’s behavioural traits against a checklist. So many ticks and you have it. That’s that. And once you are labelled, your ideas, behaviour, speech and oddities of character will be assessed against the diagnosis. Anyone encountering you in the knowledge of your disorder will see what he expects to see. Unlike the expectations aroused by Heston Blumenthal’s sorbets, these will be very hard to shift. And sometimes, when they have at last been shifted and the labelled person has been set free, it turns out that he is just as dangerous as the first diagnosers believed.
For a crime writer like me, necessarily obsessed with looking for the truth hidden in all the lies, this was irresistable. I knew I had to write about it. To do so in the way I wanted, I’d have to have a sleuth with the knowledge and time to explore the minds of everyone involved. This couldn’t be a cop. I knew that from the start. Pressures of targets, senior officers, public protection and so on would get in the way. I needed a forensic psychologist. And because I’m so interested in the impact violence has on women and the way they deal with it, I decided my psychologist had to be female. She also had to have knowledge of the Isle of Wight, where the shooting happened, and be reasonably close to it geographically, so she is an academic forensic psychologist in Southampton (where, incidentally, the university does not actually have a forensic psychology department and so I could not be stepping on any real toes), specialising in DSPD.
Police officers are necessarily involved – the days of crime fiction dealing only with amateur sleuths are long gone – and so is the family of Spike Falconer, my convicted killer, because it is within families that killers are made.
No Escape gave me a lot as I was writing it. I hope it will give readers even more.
No Escape is published by Simon & Schuster