Young reporter Sam Carpenter fakes mental illness so that he can go undercover into a psychiatric hospital and investigate a suspicious death there – this is how my Kindle book, the crime fiction story, From Enclosing Jaws, begins.
Over the years I’ve seen journalists, psychiatric hospitals, psychiatrists, and research scientists from many different aspects and in various roles, but when I began this book I did wonder if it would ever be finished: it seemed so impossibly difficult. Quite apart from anything else, I had to avoid accidentally using the names of real doctors or other real people who might be mistakenly identified as characters (googling came in useful here, together with setting the story in a fictional place); also, the subject is vast and historic, and how d’you write a crime story about the human mind and its treatment, that is fictional, yet feels essentially true?
But I had the ending, and intended it to be on the Tale of Two Cities model. I just started thinking and writing.
After some research, partly serendipitous, what evolved was a book totally different from that envisaged. It seemed to take on a life of its own. None of the characters was remotely like anyone I’d ever known, and when I got to the planned ending it had to be changed.
Probably no author is quite sure what they’ve written until people read it and tell them. Certainly that’s the case here. Somehow I seem to have put just about everything I know about anything into the story, and wonder if any morsels remain unsaid for the next.
If the book has any message, and I don’t know that it has, then it is to throw a glimmer of light into the dark corners of mental illness and the feelings that some of its sufferers, and doctors and journalists, may experience, and to be at the same time enjoyable and interesting. If it does any of these, then that’s happiness.
Since writing the book I have discovered that there really was an investigative reporter who pretended to be mad in pursuit of a newspaper story. According to The Great Reporters (David Randall, Pluto Press, 2005) a young woman with the pen name ‘Nellie Bly’ went undercover in the 1880s for the New York World in order to expose conditions in an asylum. There has also been the real scientific project that in the story supposedly persuades Sam to undertake his assignment; and I understand that occasionally ‘mystery shoppers’ do enter psychiatric hospitals in some countries.
From Enclosing Jaws, Kindle edition, is available to download from Amazon for £2.01. A free three-chapter preview can be downloaded direct to your PC by clicking on the ikon of the cover page.
Margaret Carlton also co-authored the non-fiction print book, The History of Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge.