Learning from Unsafe Acts

Some friends have written blogs consisting of interviews with characters from their books. It’s creative, imaginative, entertaining and an excellent way to extend the fiction’s ‘reality’ and draw readers into its world. With the latest Jack Carston book now being available for a free download on the 19th and 20th of this month and the need to say something about it, I wondered whether to follow that route, too. The problem is, I don’t think he’d let me, so instead, this is about the book itself.

It’s called Unsafe Acts which, as well as being a term often seen in safety brochures and videos, applies to the other layers in the story. There’s the possibility of sabotage on an offshore platform, the ugliness and dangers of prostitution and the depressing reality of queer-bashing and the law’s ambivalence towards punishing it. On top of that, the actions of one of Carston’s incompetent officers threaten to mess up the investigation, while Carston’s own acts over the years have irritated his superiors so much that they’ve decided to charge him with indiscipline – all of that right in the middle of a double murder case

I think we always learn something from our own books. The very fact of researching subjects opens them up in sometimes surprising ways. In this case, I think the book made me aware of several distinct things.

The first and maybe most important was that, despite the progress that’s been made and the apparent ‘tolerance’ of civil partnerships between homosexual men and women (apart, of course, from those with a direct line to God who know for a fact that He ‘hates fags’), anti-gay prejudice persists – not only in unreconstructed males and certain bishops and cardinals, but in some surprising institutions. The law, for example, is supposed to be impartial and yet statistics seem to bear out that, for anyone accused of assaulting a gay person, self-defence is a viable plea. All you have to say is that you were propositioned and the likelihood is that that will earn you a degree of ‘sympathy’ and a lesser sentence or acquittal.

Many years ago, I wrote a radio play which was broadcast in the UK and Australia. Two of the characters happened to be lesbians but I’d structured the play around a pretentious idea of exploring themes of expansion and contraction. As a result, I forced my characters to use my words rather then giving them the usual (and essential) freedom to be themselves. The result was that one critic began his review ‘This is a tiresome play about tiresome people’ – and he was right. So did that mean I should be embarrassed about it? Well, yes, but…

In the summer vacation about two years later, I was sitting in my room at the university when there was a knock at the door and in came a female student who’d graduated the previous month. She’d been in lectures of mine but not in tutorials so I knew who she was but knew nothing much about her, so I was surprised to see her.

She’d come to tell me that a mutual friend had lent her a recording of the play. She  said she’d liked it but wished she’d known I ‘understood’ the problems faced by homosexuals while she was still a student. Because she was gay and she had no-one she could talk to. We had quite a long chat and, at one point, she said that she’d been miserable throughout her years as a student because, among other things, she couldn’t just walk through the campus hand in hand with her girl-friend, a simple fact that carried so much heartache. And I remembered it when I was writing Unsafe Acts and felt angry and baffled that those negative old attitudes still hadn’t completely disappeared.

But this blog’s already too long so the other things I learned from the book will have to wait for next time. I’ll just say that, despite appearances, I don’t write conventional crime novels. And, on that bombshell … well, just download the book on the 19th-20th. It’s free.


Jack Carston and Me

A recent interview with a good friend, the highly talented and perceptive journalist Sara Bain, forced me to think about my relationship with the main character in my contemporary crime novels, DCI Jack Carston. I’ve known him for about 20 years now and I think he’s getting ready to retire. He first came into my head in the early 90s and now, 5 books later, the compromises he’s had to make are beginning to get to him.

He started because the UK publisher, Piatkus, liked a stand alone thriller my agent had sent them but wanted a police procedural instead, so I set about writing Material Evidence. The ending/solution was based on an actual case I read about in a book on forensic medicine, but the interest came from Carston and the team I found around him. I say ‘I found’ and that seems to be how it was. They all emerged, with their tics, foibles, ways of speaking and relationships ready formed.

Carston himself is curious about things, a creative thinker; he’s interested in people but routines bore and frustrate him. His opinion of some of his superiors is relatively low but his wife, Kath, makes sure that his self-esteem doesn’t get so high as to make him obnoxious. In fact, the love and humour in their marriage is one of the strongest themes running through the books.

Why did he choose to join the police? Well, he’s always wondering what makes people (including himself) tick and likes solving puzzles. At first he joined because he was idealistic and wanted to be on the side of the good guys – but the job has made him more aware that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are relative terms, especially when it comes to people’s motives for what they do. His high success rate derives from the fact that he’s not only fascinated by people, he cares about them, too. He’s not obviously ‘flawed’, has no particular rituals, doesn’t drive a flash car, and his only addiction is his wife. He has a temper, is sometimes childish, doesn’t tolerate fools, despises people who don’t respect the rights of others and is driven mainly by compassion.

I’ve followed him through five books so far and, without any conscious plan on my part, he’s definitely evolved – and in a specific direction. The job has taken him more deeply into the psyches of other people (and his own) and, if he had any moral certainties to start with, he certainly doesn’t now. When I first wrote about him, he solved the case by using the testimony of the various suspects to get into the mind of the victim. The picture he saw there was pretty bleak. But the way he did it – using the physical evidence, but building a picture of who the dead woman was – told me I was dealing with someone who trusted his insights into behaviours. In the next book, things were clearer because there was a definite ‘baddie’. Even then, though, the murders and the motives were surprising and not at all clear cut.

It was The Darkness that signalled the real change. He found himself sympathising with someone who was living a normal life helping others but who was also guilty of very serious crimes. It had quite an impact on him and when, in book four, his investigations brought him in contact with highly intelligent people in a university and hospital, the pettiness, self-importance and corrupt nature of some of the people there put another dent in his certainties.

And in the latest book, Unsafe Acts, at the same time as he’s trying to solve two murders and unravel a plot to sabotage an offshore platform, a vindictive superior officer decides he’s had enough of Carston’s unconventional approaches and he faces a charge of indiscipline. It makes him wonder whether he should actually leave the force.

I’m not yet sure of the answer to that, but I will be when I start book six, which might well be the last in the series..