Craig Robertson on his disturbing novel… Random has been tagged as a “serial killer thriller” and while I’m not overly keen on labels, it would be hard to argue with that one. It is told in the first person from the point of view of the killer and the reader therefore spends the entire bumpy ride in the murderer’s mind.
Inevitably perhaps, everything is not quite as random as it seems and there turns out to be a measure of method in his madness. It is, obviously enough, not a whodunit but the mystery is in why he dunit and how it can be resolved.
It is set in contemporary Glasgow which is a great place to randomly kill people – not that I’d ever recommend such a thing. It’s a fabulously gritty city in which to set crime novels and lends itself all too easily to the violence that inevitably comes with serial killing.
A few people have taken exception to some of the scenes in Random, causing a new round of the old debate about the merits of violence in crime fiction. My defence, if one is needed, is that we live in a violent society and if that can’t be reflected in a crime novel then where can it be?
It is, quite literally, the life blood of crime fiction whether it be a graphically butchered torso or the unseen hand of a dagger in the library. A crime without violence is like sex without an orgasm – it may satisfy the dictionary definition but little else.
The real debate, of course, is about the extent of the violence and, to my mind, crime fiction is a church broad enough to suit all tastes. For example, my own crime writing inspirations would include James Ellroy but also Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series. One as explicitly violent as the other is slickly comic. Similarly, I’m as likely to be reading Alan Guthrie as Louise Welsh, Mark Billingham as Elmore Leonard. There’s plenty of room for all on the bookshelf.
I guess my own books are towards one end of the bloodshed shelf but I’d maintain that none of the violence in them is gratuitous. That being said, I know that it is still too much for some.
My first ever review was by a blogger who said that despite reading “many tales of blood-thirsty, psychotic serial killers”, Random was the first book that left her “feeling actually physically sick and made me look away from the page”. On one hand, I thought she was being a tad excessive but on the other, I took it as something of a compliment.
I’d be very disappointed though if it was thought that graphic violence was all that Random had to offer. I like to think that there’s a bit of intelligence in there too and a storyline that stands up to inspection. If any novel relies on violence alone then it’s probably not going to fare too well.
While Random is admittedly not for the squeamish, neither is it some sort of mindless gore fest. I wouldn’t particularly want to read a book if it was nothing more than a relentless succession of butchery never mind write it.
So why then did I insist on the bloodletting, you ask? Because the story demanded it – and because it’s fun! I can’t deny the pleasure in devising ever-more terrible ways of bumping off my characters or of torturing my protagonist. And, judging by the sales of crime novels with more than their fair share of violence, there is certainly and thankfully a market for it.
People like being frightened – in fact it’s recommended. It’s regularly said that you should do one thing every day that scares you, right? But the simple truth is that most of us are too scared to do it. I think that’s what they call irony. Instead we cheat a little by reading about things that scare us. It doesn’t matter much whether it’s in St Mary’s Mead or downtown Los Angeles, whether it’s in the billiard room with a piece of lead piping or decapitation by samurai sword. The important thing is the vicarious thrill and that’s what readers love.
I suppose that begs the question as to whether my writing is done for me or for those potential readers – and the truth is I’m not entirely sure. I couldn’t honestly say where one starts and the other ends but would imagine that, for most writers, the answer is somewhere in the middle. For my money, it would be self-indulgent to entirely ignore what readers might want and I can’t afford that luxury. I write crime fiction because I love crime fiction but I am sure that, whether consciously or not, there is at least part of it done with an eye to how readers will view it.
That doesn’t mean going as far as to pander to readers though; in fact sometimes it is the opposite. In writing both Random and my second book (as I write this it doesn’t quite have a title yet – its working tag is Snapshot) I’d have to admit to taking a perverse pleasure in deliberately trying to play with reader’s minds by messing with their ideas of what is right and wrong. It’s not necessarily about giving them what they want, it’s about bearing them in mind.
The follow-up to Random actually isn’t quite as violent as its predecessor. This isn’t because I have had a conversion on the road to some genteel English country village but rather simply because the plot demands it that way. The body count remains high and the blood still flows but the graphic quotient is considerably lower. Mind you, my main character does have an obsession with the visceral that will tick a few boxes.
The book is another Glasgow-based thriller and the main character is a police photographer named Tony Winter. His thrill is to photograph the city’s darkest side, seeing a strange sort of beauty where everyone else sees mayhem.
When a small-time crook is found stabbed, no-one pays it much attention, however when senior figures in Glasgow’s drugs trade are shot by a lone sniper then everyone sits up and pays attention. Winter is itching to photograph the fall-out from the killings and when a schoolboy is beaten up in the street, Tony uncovers a strange link to the shootings. It means he gets much more involved in the case than he would like. It’s out in hardback and trade paperback in June.
Random is published in paperback by Simon & Schuster on February 17.