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..
Aw Bill, you forgot to mention my wonderful personality and beautiful smile! Hope Carston stays in the force. A copper with a conscience is a rarity. Besides, everyone would miss him.
I need to save some adjectives and attributes, Sara, for possible future references to you. But if Carston decides to leave, I won’t be able to stop him.
Bill, you sound as though, like all the best writers, your character has developed a personality – and mind – of his own and actually wrote the book himself. I bet you’ll miss him if he does decide to retire.
Well, as you know, Fiona, that’s how it happens. As for missing him, even if he does pack it all in, he’ll still be lurking about in my skull. I don’t think series characters ever leave you. I’m struggling to get into a sequel to The Figurehead at the moment but the characters are impatient to get on with their plans and don’t want me to spend time setting a context and telling readers who they are and what they did in the first book.