Jonathan Hayes on blood and guts
The presentation actually went well. I talked about the previous week, during which I'd handled a single-engine plane crash, examined the carcass of a ritually sacrificed animal, evaluated a fatal cocaine psychosis, dealt with the outbreak of a minor gang war and recovered an ancient skeleton used in some pretty idiotic minor cult practices. When I finished speaking, the audience had just two questions: The first was the traditional How much money do you make?, but the second was the question many people really want to ask me, but only adolescents do (well, adolescents and cops): Doc, what's the most disgusting thing you've ever seen?
Over the years, I've grown fond of that question, its disarming directness, its amusingly optimistic (and soon to be dashed) anticipation of tales of gore. I've heard it so often that I decided that in every novel I write, someone will ask that question of my hero, an itinerant forensic pathologist named Jenner.
So, when I wrote Precious Blood (Harper Collins), the first Jenner book, I tossed in a quick placeholder of a response, intending to craft a snappier comeback in the second draft:Anderson nodded slowly, and looked ahead. He started tapping the dashboard rhythmically.
"I bet you see a lot of weird shit."
Jenner shrugged, keeping his eyes on the road.
"What’s the most messed-up thing you’ve ever seen?"
Jenner looked at him briefly. "A David Hasselhof music video – apparently he’s huge in Germany."
Anderson snorted. "No! I meant at your work! I once saw this movie where…" and he launched into an impenetrable description of a slasher film.
After I submitted the first draft, however, the book rights sold promptly in Germany; I became suddenly convinced that killing the Hasselhof joke would jinx the book. Superstitiously, I kept the line, feeble as it may be.
It would be disingenuous for me to pretend I don't understand why people find my work fascinating – hell, I find it fascinating, and I've been investigating violent and suspicious deaths for almost 20 years now. Death is something that has increasingly become hidden in our culture, been tucked away behind the curtain. It remains, not to be too awesomely cheesy (or literal), the ultimate mystery.
And of course, in crime fiction, death provides the highest stakes possible. For the hundred and seventy years of mystery writing (accepting Poe's 1841 The Murders in the Rue Morgue as the first detective novel), the unraveling of death has been the engine driving most mysteries. As a Briton, my own introduction to the genre came from Conan-Doyle and Christie; while I still find Holmes stories infinitely compelling, the Cozy, the genre for which Christie has become the de facto figurehead, really rather pains me.
The thing is this: while cozies often start off with a murder – Sir Algernon found dead behind the aspidistra in the solarium, a ruby-encrusted dacoit dagger sticking out of his chest – murder in a cozy is as sanitized as an individually-wrapped Twinkie. And it's not that I want murders to be dirty and messy, it's just that, in the real world, they kind of are…
Real murder is a messy thing, both physically and emotionally. Cozies leapfrog over this, reducing killing to a rather arid intellectual crossword puzzle. It may well be that the Hayes brain is too feeble for all that clue-juggling – was Lady Dorothy Montfort really visiting distressed gentlefolk when Simon de Blythe was being bludgeoned with the ferret trap? What turns out to be the key clue is almost randomly trivial – if Old Tom the poacher dropped off a fine brace of grouse at the vicarage, what happened to the partridge? I can't make myself pay enough attention to catch the clue, and at the end of the book, when the murderer is revealed, I just don't care (except in the case of Christie's extraordinary The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; those who've read it will know what I'm talking about). At the end of the day, cozies don't connect with me at an emotional level. They just don't feel real.
It works both ways – I suspect my style of writing, my subject matter, won't appeal to many cozy fans. Precious Blood and its upcoming sequel A Hard Death are set in an authentic and sometimes brutal world; if you're a crime scene investigator or a forensic odontologist, for example, you'll recognize the process of examining a crime scene, the urgent challenges, frustrations and satisfactions of crawling around a blood-spattered room trying to figure it all out. My murder scenes have blood, horror and anguish, all antithetical to the spirit of the cozy.
They are not, however, descriptions of my own cases; as a forensic pathologist, one advantage writing fiction offers is that it lets me talk about the things I see and do, but without breaking any confidences. I try to let the reader slip behind the yellow crime scene tape, let them see what it feels like to do this work – the sights, the smells, the sounds. I make the forensics a little mythic, the colors a little richer, the circumstances a little more bizarre. That approach forces me to ground the stories even more firmly in science and reality – a fictional character will "pop" even more when she or he appears against a very real, recognizable backdrop.
I'm in no way a reality fascist. We're telling stories here, working with the reader's imagination; if you want to learn about blood spatter, you should buy a textbook. It's an open secret that death investigation is often dull, hours of drudgery, dead-end leads and late nights pounding away at endless reports. Some of my forensic colleagues criticize CSI for being "unrealistic", but I love the way CSI makes forensics look, all hot and cool and sexy. The show captures the intellectual exhilaration of forensics, if not the procedure and actual pace.
While I frequently defend CSI as "forensic science fiction rather than forensic science", the forensics of Precious Blood are authentic. My violence is accurate, my crime scenes are accurate. While the body in a cozy is promptly forgotten after a quick look, the forensic pathologist spends hours with the body, trying to glean every critical clue. Precious Blood is explicit, but it is not gratuitous. I used CSI as a guide for suitability, assuming that what would be acceptable for a mainstream primetime TV audience would be acceptable to a thriller reader. Of course, suitability is fairly subjective - I was delighted when the USA Today critic tossed the words "nail-biting masterpiece" into her review, then mortified when she suggested that at points it was as harrowing as a slasher movie (full disclosure: I am too much of a wuss to watch slasher films).
Anyway, for a harrowing start to your Thursday, come to our 8:30AM panel, when I'll be debating the whole CSI vs. reality question with a fistful of talented writers with criminal investigation backgrounds – John French (BPD crime scene supervisor), Lee Lofland (ex-cop), Cody McFadyen, Sheila Rose (forensic handwriting analyst) and Brenda Robertson Stewart (forensic reconstruction artist). On Saturday (note: date corrected from earlier version) at 11:30AM, Mark Billingham, Michelle Gagnon and Alan Jacobson, Brian Lindenmuth and I will be discussing serial killers. We'll take questions after the presentations; I'll be disappointed if one question in particular is not asked…