As I was saying, we learn from our books, and Unsafe Acts gave me the chance to remind myself of how unsexy and ugly prostitution is at its lowest levels. One of the characters (who, I hope, is sympathetic) is forced into it to pay the bills. She’s not one of the truly hopeless cases whose dependence on drugs strips them of their humanity and allows others to treat them as objects with no worth, but she has to put up with some pretty unpleasant clients who pay pennies for her services.
But it recalled the things I’d learned when I was writing The Darkness (the third of the Carston mysteries). There, one of the central characters was a woman who’d been abused but learned to turn it to her advantage and became an escort. In other words, she was further up the scale and didn’t have to service her customers in cars or against walls. The research for that involved contacting actual escorts online (I know, I know – insert your own comments here) and I got some very generous and enlightening replies. They came from intelligent, articulate women, some of them married, who answered my questions honestly and sometimes at great length. These were women aware of their attractiveness and skills and ready to provide services far beyond the basic sexual satisfactions. I’m not suggesting it’s a positive career choice but they were conducting a supply and demand business with the common sense and efficiency of any respectable service company and the overwhelming impression was that they and their clients operated in a context of mutual respect.
The final thing wasn’t really something I learned because I already knew it. It arose from my recognition that Unsafe Acts is the first of my seven crime novels (the historical The Figurehead and the spoof The Sparrow Conundrum are both crime-based, too) which has a real culprit – someone who commits deliberate, premeditated murder. There are baddies in all the others but the deaths and motives are all … well, let’s say different.
Apart from that, there’s the fact that I always add something at the end to say that, yes OK, the crime’s been solved, the puzzle’s been explained, but other things are still going on, usually nasty things. Because life isn’t neat and tidy, we don’t live self-contained adventures or events with natural conclusions to which we can confidently attach ‘THE END’. There’s always something else going on, more events brewing, problems arising and so on. Reality isn’t completeness and satisfaction; it’s continuation and change.
At the end of each of the Carston books there’s a sort of coda, just a page or two. It comes after Carston has made his final revelations, the crime’s been solved, the loose ends have been tied up. But then the coda gives the reader a little nudge and says ‘life’s not like that’. Having said that, you won’t find one in the Bloody Books edition of Material Evidence (the paperback version available in the USA). I mentioned that to a friend who lives in New York. He emailed me to say he’d enjoyed reading it and I told him about the coda and said that I’d left it out on the advice of the commissioning editor. He asked to read it, I sent it to him and he replied, ‘Your editor is an idiot, she knows nothing about crime writing’. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the editor did actually know exactly what she was talking about. Her name is Val McDermid.