Thursday, March 18, 2010

George Pelecanos got it right when he said ...

There is no solving murders, you know. Not unless the dead are going to rise up out of the earth. Once somebody is killed, it's forever for their loved ones and their family and the community.

George Pelecanos

That quote, from an interview with George Pelecanos, forms the epigraph to The Old School. Though it may seem redundant to talk about grief in a crime novel, it is surprising that in fiction that deals almost exclusively with sudden and violent death, grief is an emotion that is often conspicuously lacking. Psychologists and health carers use terms such as “complicated grief” and “spoiled memory syndrome” to describe the complexity and severity of the impact of murder on the friends and families of victims.

Yet within crime fiction all too often the focus is primarily on the processes and procedures, the puzzle aspect, of an investigation into the violent termination of human life. We rarely see the consequences of violent death on those most affected by it: the family and friends of the victim.

These characters are sometimes sighted in brief sad scenes when they are informed of the murder. These are often just set pieces to allow the detective to display their compassion and empathy or conversely to stress how damaged and hardened they have become due to the horror of their job. Any real sense of the family’s grief and the on-going impact of violent death tend to be relegated off-stage. The grieving relative sometimes reappears at the successful conclusion of an investigation, in order to show their gratitude to the protagonist for providing them with justice, revenge or ‘closure’ and provide a poignant moment of closure. However, if family and friends of the deceased appear as suspects then any grief they display is harshly interrogated as a falsity.

But the grief that follows a ‘real-life’ murder is intense and real death ruptures the lives of those left behind. There are some writers who explore this dark territory. It is a constant theme in the novels of George Pelecanos, and one which he brought to the acclaimed TV series, The Wire.

Dennis Lehane’s, Mystic River is an elegiac meditation on the grief and destruction wrought on families and communities by two crimes decades apart.

Emotionally wounded and grieving characters abound in Ian Rankin’s, The Naming of the Dead; a daughter grieves for her murdered mother, a family for a raped daughter, a sister for a battered sister and a mass gathering of people who witness the shattering of their optimism as the G8 protests are swamped by a terrorist bombing.

In The Broken Shore Peter Temple’s protagonist, Joe Cashin, is also a grieving and guilt ridden character, carrying the responsibility for the death of a young colleague and family guilt relating to his Aboriginal cousins.

Each character in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost is in a state of grief, for the loss of love and the loss of lovers. In Sri Lanka Ondaatje suggests that love is being murdered by war. Ananda has taken refuge in alcohol to blot out the pain of his “disappeared” wife, while the brothers Sarath and Gamini are estranged from each other, immersed in work and wrestling with the grief and guilt about their love for the same woman, now dead by suicide.

To each one of these books, George Pelecanos’ words could apply.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A sense of Place

Great sense of place ........ that's become an expected element of crime fiction. Rebus is Edinburgh, VI Warsahwski is Chicago, George Pelecanos dissects Washington.

In The Old School, I was equally determined that Sydney would be more than just a backdrop to a story. I wanted it to be central, an important character, an old, old player, ever present, holding the secrets and the clues. Here's a glimpse of just a few of the places that inspired some of the events.

I stumbled across this wall carving in the cafe on the country platforms at Central only a couple of years ago. It has been there at lot longer than that, but on the few occasions I'd been in there I'd never raised my eyes to the walls behind me. It encapsulates so much about Sydney's past, and about the way we have told that past to ourselves.

Central Railway Station cafe, Sydney

The scene on the left is dated 1787, and the "noble savage" iconography is pretty clear; a simple happy life, but tough, the bare essentials, even just the struggle to make fire occupies two men. The next scene is dated a year later. 1788, and there is no trace of those original inhabitants. They simply disappear, swept away by the progress of the next scene. Interestingly there is no sign that these industrious, hearty and healthy looking men, bringing ashore barrels (of rum?) from the ship riding at anchor in the harbour behind them, are actually convicts, transported for life. No sign of a chain, or a lash, or scurvy, or despair at being transported to the modern day equivalent of the moon.

There are still a few places around Sydney Harbour that allow us to glimpse how Sydney once appeared. These are the places Ned Kelly goes running, passing the middens and rock carvings of the first inhabitants of this beautiful place.

Sand and stone on Berry Island, Sydney

A view of Berry Island from Greenwich

Beach on Berry Island, Sydney