Some crime writing is all about crime-solving. The book is essentially a puzzle the reader tries to put together by means of properly arranging and understanding a set of clues the writer has provided for the reader’s entertainment. The atmosphere of these books is often quite light. It is not for nothing, that we learn a lot about cats and geraniums.
But there is another type of crime writing that is less interested in who dun it than in why it was done. These books confront the darkness that resides at the heart of human life. Dark impulses. Dark motives. Dark actions. Dark consequences.
In pursuing this darkness, I’ve found it useful to employ a few dark devices. One is music. When I am writing “darkly,” I write to dark music. Mostly from motion picture soundtracks. I think of a scene I am about to write, and I play the music that best orchestrates that scene while I write it. Far from distracting me from the writing, it adds mood and texture and even a sense of the choreography of the scene. In theater this creative element is called “blocking” but it works for novelists as well.
I have used dark places in a similar way. Not as settings where scenes might take place, but as a way of entering a dark frame of mind. I have never set a scene at Oradour-sur-Glane, where German soldiers massacred an entire French village in 1945. But while writing, I have often remembered its haunted streets. Crime writing is about injustice, so where better to travel that a site of some terrible injustice. Auschwitz, for example, or Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. To visit such places is to see injustice in its vast historical sweep, and this, to my mind, is good training.
But there are also places of actual criminal renown. One day I drove deep into eastern France in order to visit Machecoul. It is now a ruin, but it was once a great castle. Its owner was Gilles de Rais, the first recorded serial killer. Gilles was the richest nobleman in Brittany. He was master not only of Machecoul, but other chateaux, notably the one at Tiffauges, which is now sometimes called “Bluebeard’s Castle,” and is used as a medieval backdrop and movie set.
At the dreaded Machecoul, Gilles presided over a horrifying criminal enterprise of surpassing cruelty. His victims were children whom he assaulted, tortured and murdered in great numbers, perhaps as many as three hundred. The killings continued for nearly a decade, from 1431 to 1440. It was at Machecoul that Gilles was finally arrested, then transported to Nantes for trial. He was executed there in October of 1441. He was thirty-five years old.
Unlike Tiffauges, which has been tarted up for tourists, Machecoul has been left to rot and molder. It is a creepy, creepy place, and of all the dark places I have visited, it is the one that most left with me a disturbing sense of the truly psychotic. It is weedy, swampy, fetid. When I think of a criminal location, one that has all the elements of darkness in an oddly concentrated form – murder, pain, fear, injustice, even a final retribution – it is always Machecoul that comes to mind. It has sunk into my memory not simply by the way it looked, but by the way it felt. There was a heaviness in the air, the sense of a soul weighed down by horror.
I have come to think that crime writing requires no less empathy than any other kind of literature. One must feel both the sorrow of the victim and the compulsion of the victimizer. At Machecoul, I felt both of these to a remarkable degree, and it has informed the moral atmosphere of my work every since.
Tragic Shores by Thomas H. Cook is published 6th April (Quercus, £20.00)