I’m not new to writing, but I am very new to being published, and what I’ve learned is that to be a marketable author one’s books need a genre. My books have been genre-defined as Crime Fiction, something I wasn’t too pleased about initially. I tended to think that crime fiction had to involve a policeman solving a series of murders; preferably murders that were carried out in highly-ingenious and ever more gory ways. Apparently not. Crime fiction, I soon discovered, is a pigeon with a very wide orifice; the second best-selling genre, after romantic fiction, encompassing many different sub-sets into which all sorts of stories can find a niche – even mine.
So what is it that interests people about crime? If it were just the criminal acts themselves, there are plenty of newspapers and news programmes spewing stories of real crimes every day, many of which are actually stranger than fiction. I know this because when I submitted ‘Relatively Guilty’, the first book in the Best Defence Series, to Harper Collins, out of the three storylines the two they said were unbelievable were the ones based on actual cases I’d been involved in. The third plot, a complete fabrication, was surprisingly deemed perfectly credible.
I think that the main reason people read crime fiction is similar to why romantic novels are so popular. Romantic fiction feeds the reader’s desire for the emotion of love. Crime fiction, does not, as I once thought, feed the reader’s desire for sadism, – although the blood, guts and torture side of things appeals to many – no, what draws people to crime fiction is, I believe, the deep sense of justice which we all share and which, sadly, real life crime seldom satisfies. For, in the same way that real life love can be disappointing – or so I’m told, I personally wouldn’t know having been married to the woman of my dreams for thirty years – so too does real life crime, leaving too many unsolved cases, wrongful convictions and unduly lenient sentences.
Like the unconditional love for our parents, justice, a sense of what is right or wrong, is something we develop instinctively from a very young age. Don’t believe me? Next time you find a broken ornament around the house, blame the nearest child and see what reaction you get. I know whereof I speak, having four children, few unglued ornaments and even fewer witnesses to the breakages.
Crime fiction feeds on that desire we have to see wrongs righted, truth uncovered. A villain getting his or her comeuppance or the solving of what was a seemingly impenetrable mystery is what the crime fiction reader is after. Things that in real life, like true love, don’t happen nearly enough.
That’s why, in the Best Defence Series, having identified this emotional draw to justice, I like to explore, in as light-hearted way as possible – what exactly is justice? Top answer: it’s what the law says it is, isn’t it? Well…
There is an anecdote attributed to the famous lawyer, Oliver Wendell Holmes jnr, Professor of law at Harvard and a U.S. Supreme Court judge who, when being asked for justice by a young lawyer, is said to have replied. “Young man, let me remind you that this is a court of law and not a court of justice.”
And it’s the same in all countries and communities around the world. They might be called justice systems; they are in actual fact legal systems. Unfortunately, some of those legal systems are in Saudi Arabia and North Korea or practised by ISIS and other terrorist organisations. Let’s not forget Nazi Germany had a legal system. A system of laws that quite legally sent millions of people to the gas chambers.
And the notion of justice is not only complicated by the laws imposed by totalitarian states or religious extremists. Even in our hard-won Parliamentary democracy, as the law changes, so too is justice expected to be dragged along behind it.
Back to crime fiction, take for example Philip Marlowe, he who in my opinion is crime fiction’s finest protagonist (or at least jointly so with Horace Rumpole). There is a chapter in ‘The Big Sleep’, where Marlowe, drink-drives, doesn’t wear a seatbelt, continuously smokes in public places, makes casually racist remarks, slaps a hysterical female (or dame) and shoots someone with the handgun he always has about his person. To a UK readership in the 21st Century, he’s a one-man crime wave, breaking laws like a fat man breaking wind, wreaking havoc as he sets about catching a villain who sells the sort of soft-porn the general public is almost immune to today.
Another example of this, while we’re on the subject of soft-porn and naked women in particular, is Samantha Fox who first appeared appeared topless on page 3 of the Sun newspaper at the age of sixteen. Since a change in the law in 2003, a person who bought such a newspaper today would be guilty of possessing child-pornography, fined or jailed and placed on the sex register, since a child is now defined as a person under the age of eighteen.
From my many years in the criminal courts I know that as times change, laws change and crimes change. The question I’m intrigued by, and I hope readers will be too, is: Should justice change too?
It’s a question I often ask in my books and let the reader decide, by presenting an obviously unjust situation and asking if it is morally acceptable for the hero, Robbie Munro, a defence lawyer, to break the law, or even bend it a little, in order to achieve his own, usually idiosyncratic, idea of justice?
What do you think?
The Best Defence Series: it’s justice… it just might not be legal.
William H.S. McIntyre is a partner in Scotland’s oldest law firm Russel + Aitken, specialising in criminal defence. William has been instructed in many interesting and high-profile cases over the years and now turns fact into fiction with his string of legal thrillers, The Best Defence Series, featuring defence lawyer, Robbie Munro William is married with four sons.
Present Tense is publshed by Sandstone