Have I lost my love of writing? (part 1)

The earliest ambition I recall having was to become a Beatle.

I must have been five or younger, and for some reason was obsessed with the Beatles. I don’t know why I wanted to be one of them, but the ambition was short-lived.

the_lookerA few years later my interests had moved on and I loved writing plays. They were mostly re-writings of stories I’d seen on the TV (a Jesse James film, Land of the Giants, The Champions). I also tried to adapt a story from an Archie comic book.

For a short time I had a teacher who allowed my little plays to be acted out in front of the class, using some classmates as actors.

Around that time I had decided I wanted to be a scriptwriter when I grew up, even though I didn’t know where or how such a career could be achieved. At that age those kind of details weren’t even thought of.

Moving on to High School, my favourite school assignments were related to written story telling: short stories, “radio” plays, poetry and even short video pieces – using pre-cassette video technology. Again my output was often derivative, influenced by The Goons, Morecambe and Wise, James Bond books…  But by then reality had amended my employment expectations, and making a living from writing wasn’t seen as a possibility.

My family was very traditional working class, not used to pursuing ambition.

Not used to thinking in terms of careers or career paths.

After school you got a job to pay your way in life. A job was a means to a liveable income enabling the purchase of a home and the support of a family.

Nobody in my wider family had been to university. As far as I’m aware no one in my wider family had ever considered university. We weren’t that kind of people. Those options had never been available to us.

The majority of the men in my family were (or had been) miners working in harsh, dangerous conditions. A good job was anything that avoided that path – like working in an office.

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The bank where I got my first full time job

I found work in a bank, starting as an office junior, and since then all of my fulltime jobs have been office-bound, administration clerical positions.

A few times I tried to escape from the routine and tedium but somehow always found myself back where I started – back to where I am today, office bound, working for a large company doing mundane work.

Whenever I thought about escaping to pursue other possibilities, that very early writing ambition seemed to offer possibilities.
In the early 1990s I decided to do something about it. I resigned from my job and enrolled at University, studying creative writing and English literature.

Vanished by Irene Hannon

vanished.jpgI came across this book while browsing in my “local” Christian bookshop in Canberra.

The author has written many books, most of them seem to be romance novels, but several lean more to mystery and crime, or as the author describes them “romantic suspense”.

The latter titles belong to a few different series of stories such as “Heroes of Quantico”, “Guardians of Justice”, “Men of Valor”, Code of Honor” and “Private Justice”.

Vanished is the first of the “Private Justice” series.

I’ll confess that the other series titles don’t really appeal to me.

“Private Justice” seemed to have a more down to earth sound to it than the almost super hero sounding labels of the others.

Vanished launches straight into the action, with reporter Moira Harrison suffering a car accident during a late night storm. She crashes after trying to avoid a woman who appeared on the road in front of her.
A man seems to come to her aid, promising to call emergency services and to attend to the possibly injured woman somewhere out on the road. The reporter passes out, and when she regains consciousness it is clear that the apparent good Samaritan didn’t fulfil his promise.

No one believes her story about the woman she is sure she ran into, or the man who failed to help.

How does she find the truth and bring it to light?
She enlists the help of private investigator Cal Burke, a former homicide detective. Not surprisingly, considering the “romantic suspense” genre, a growing attraction between the two develops.

While the writing style and the authorial voice didn’t personally appeal, the story itself was compelling enough to help me enjoy the book.

Not surprisingly, considering this is a book by a Christian writer, sold in a Christian bookshop, belief in God plays a significant part in the lives of the major characters. Each of them has their own faith struggles and the ways they resolve those struggles is not always beneficial to them or those around them. It becomes clear that religious belief, and even devotion, can be a destructive force if its foundations are faulty, but can be a vital help when based on something legitimate.

One interesting dilemma I found within the story was the extent to which characters could justify their actions by appealing to a sense of greater good, or the pursuit of justice. The bending of truth is portrayed as an acceptable necessity in the case of the “good guys”, because their actions are in the name of pursuing justice. But in reality I have a problem accepting their end justifies the means outlook is any more acceptable than the same kind of mindset applied to the “villain” of the story.

 

More about the author and her books here:

Irene Hannon Official site

Body Snatchers

I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me it won’t, anyway. Because I can’t say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended; and I’ve been right in the thick of it.

 

The 1970s film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was my introduction to the Body Snatcher stories.

Alien plant spores drift to earth and start to replicate, and replace, the (mostly human) life it encounters. Everything about the resulting “people” remains the same, apart from a lack of genuine emotion. The memories are retained, as are all physical features, so the invaders are unnoticed until it’s too late.

After seeing the 70s film, I found there had been an earlier version released around 20 years previously. The older version had been slightly sanitised, originally having a much darker conclusion. The changes made gave it a more hopeful conclusion, but in my opinion weakened the film. The 70s film addressed that weakness, and even contained a scene referencing the original conclusion of the earlier film.
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(B & W still from 1950’s film. Colour still from 1970s)

I know of two other variations of the story on film to date.

While the 50s film was located in small town America, and the 70s film in San Francisco, the 1993 film Body Snatchers is mostly set around a US military base, while the The Invasion from 2007 is located in Washington DC.

The more recent of the films takes greater liberties with the story, and in my opinion is much weaker for doing so – with a very disappointing conclusion that takes the attempted hopeful ending of the 50s film into deeper saccharine sweetness territory.

9780575085312.jpgThe initial inspiration behind these films is the 1955 novel Body Snatchers by Jack Finney.

Finney’s story is followed quite faithfully through the early party of the original film version.

A small town doctor is contacted by his High School love interest when a friend starts to claim that her uncle is no longer her uncle.

This claim is only the first of many, as town’s people increasingly suffer from what is assumed to be a kind of collective delusion.

That assumption is overturned when a “body” is discovered in a friend’s home – a body that seems not to be fully featured, lacking finger prints and other indications of individual physical character. Then the body starts to accumulate detail when the friend falls asleep, somehow the “body” is starting to replicate the sleeping man, with the intended outcome of replacing him.

The assumed mass delusion is found to be something much more serious, with townsfolk literally being replaced by people who are no longer themselves: an uncle who is no longer the uncle, a wife who is no longer the wife her husband had known. What was a localised, puzzling psychological mystery is found to be a potential threat to life throughout the world.

Some media commentators have projected the political angst of various eras into the book and film versions of the stories. Originally written in the early cold war years, the threat of the time was a passionless red invasion of communist infiltrators, which along with the threat of nuclear annihilation, fuelled countless monster movies.

Maybe, ironically, the perceived threat could also be reversed with the affects of McCarthyism breeding suspicion, not only of “reds under the bed”, but of those in authority with the power to determine who was “red” and who was not.

It’s a scenario that can fit any perceived threat to the familiar, where society can seem to be moving towards apparently uncaring, unfeeling change – where a person no longer feels secure to be themselves, feeling under pressure to conform to a different, newly introduced societal paradigm.

 

In “Defense” of Crime Fiction

A one time friend of mine has taken exception to my reading of crime fiction. He is a professing Christian with some extreme theological views that would be rejected by the majority of Christian believers, including myself.

But added to his “theological” issues he has been particularly insistent about the evils of crime fiction and critical of my reading of “death and murder”.
He also objected to me maintaining a “reading list”, claiming I am:

” de facto recommending appalling books to Christians and shd be stopped. [my] Books Read list is available to the public. It shdn’t be…”

Clearly he has read ever single book on my Books Read list and knows without doubt how appalling all of those books are. But as for the claim that I’m recommending any of those books to Christians… it’s very rarely that I recommend any book to anyone, Christian or otherwise.

Ironically, this man introduced me to a Christian author of crime novels, an author his wife had been reading.
I read one of that author’s books and found aspects of it more disturbing than the majority of those “death and murder” books that he condemns; with its Christian good-guys resorting to shooting their criminal opponents on several occasions (it’s American of course).

But overlooking the 100s of non-crime books on my reading list, as well as the many non-fiction titles about a variety of topics, what about the “death and murder” books he finds disturbing?

While crime books mostly have a murder (or murders) as the ignition point of their story, few of them dwell on death. The stories are about the living, those attempting to resolve the crime, or those left to make sense of the life changing loss of a loved one. They are occasionally about the perpetrator, who in most books I’ve read haven’t been evil blood-thirsty psychopaths (although there have been a couple of exceptions out of the many I’ve read). The guilty parties are often everyday people who have committed an out of character act of violence upon the victim.

Most of the authors I’ve read don’t write explicit descriptions of violence or killing, with murders mostly happening beyond the page. There have been exceptions, sometimes gratuitous exceptions, but those are the minority, and aren’t the kind of books I choose to read – although with an unfamiliar author a book has to be read before its nature is discovered.

The majority of the crime fiction I’ve chosen to read, the way I’ve narrowed the field in a very wide genre, has been because of two main factors: geographical and temporal settings. I suppose both have a relationship to nostalgia. The majority of my chosen authors set their books around Derbyshire or neighbouring counties – where I lived during my pre-teen years. Others relate to the mid-1960s – 1970s, the period of my childhood and adolescence. They often weave landscape and time-scape with vaguely familiar references to news events of their time, or to places, and types of people, I thought I’d forgotten about – stirring memories.

Despite the claims of that one time friend, the average crime novel has nowhere near the amount of death and murder as there was in so many of the accounts of WWI and WWII that I was reading a year or two ago; books he was all too happy for me to read, even encouraging me with links to associated articles.

A Map of Days, by Ransom Riggs

9780735231498.jpgThis is the fourth of Riggs’ books about Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, and the first in a new story series.

Peculiars are people with extraordinary abilities, who in other story genres would be portrayed as superheroes.

Jacob Portman has recently discovered his own “peculiar” abilities and with a group of other peculiars, travelling though time and place, helped put an end to an existential threat to their kind.

He has now returned home, and is rescued from an attempt to commit him to a psych facility by the unexpected appearance of Miss Peregrine and her peculiar wards.

In this book Jacob begins to learn more about the grandfather whose death led him to find Miss Peregrine and sets out to follow in his footsteps, seeking out and rescuing isolated peculiars across America. He gradually finds himself out of his depth, potentially compromising fragile treaties between various peculiar clans.

Riggs’ first book was an attention getter from the beginning, attested by the fact that Gloria read it before I did – and she is not a keen reader, and will only stick with something if it is immediately (and continues to be) compelling from the first page or two.

In my opinion there is a significant pacing problem with this book. I know it would be a waste of time for Gloria to start it.
It has a very slow build up as it moves from the events of the past books into a new situation and new challenges. I was about three quarters into the book before I felt it picking up any momentum, and then it began to move from one breathless crisis to another.

Riggs continues a practice that was quite effective in his first book. He is a collector of old photographs, and he was able to cleverly weave some of his collection into the book, illustrating some of the peculiar characters, and at times using others to develop settings and plot points.

In the following books, and particularly in this one, I started to find the photo use becoming forced, intrusive and increasingly gratuitous.

Throughout A Map of Days I felt that I probably wouldn’t be interested enough to continue with the series after this one – the next installment is due early next year – and it was only in the last chapter or two that I started to feel interested enough to want to see what happens next. By then it became obvious I was heading for a cliffhanger ending to be resolved/continued in that next book. At this stage I’m still not sure whether I’d want to continue the journey.

No Turning Back, Joanne Lees

930696.jpgI wasn’t sure about this book.

I picked it up when I bought two others about the disappearance of Peter Falconio, but had second thoughts and put it back on the shelf.

Two weeks later and it was still there, so I decided to buy it.
I’m glad I did.

To others Falconio’s presumed murder, and the attempted abduction of Joanne Lees were merely a story to be told or a case to be solved.
To Joanne Lees it was personal experience. It was her life as she would never wish it to be.

This book gives a totally different perspective on the events surrounding Falconio’s disappearance, and what Lees experienced afterwards as she had to cope with the probable murder of her boyfriend, as well as the threat she faced from the assailant.
She then struggled to cope with media attention and the unhelpfulness of police, who seemed to have no idea of what to do with her, and apart from one or two exceptions, gave her no support as a victim.

She was also shocked to find herself under suspicion, openly in the press but more discreetly by some of the police.

I’ve read a lot of negative things about this book, but after reading it for myself I can say that the negative reaction is completely unfounded. I have to wonder what motivated those hostile reviews.

Lees’ account is a simple, unembellished telling of her experiences, from the early days of her travels with Falconio, through to the result of the court case where Bradley Murdoch was found guilty of Falconio’s murder.

Others have expressed doubts about Murdoch’s guilt, but Lees is certain that he was the one who killed her boyfriend and from whom she was able to escape beside a Northern Territory highway at night. I suppose only Murdoch can know for sure whether her memory and certainty are valid.

And Then the Darkness by Sue Williams

This is the second book I’ve read about the disappearance (and presumed murder) of English backpacker Peter Falconio.
I bought it at the same time that I picked up Dead Centre (see previous post)

darknessIt didn’t take long to know the direction this book would take. It loudly broadcast its lack of objectivity in the second chapter, saying of the man who was ultimately convicted of murdering Peter Falconio:

“Bradley John Murdoch was a mistake from the moment of conception”.

It’s a far different kind of book from the one written by Robin Bowles.

Bowles wrote from her own experience, reporting what others told her, and what she personally saw and heard. Although her own assumptions clearly colour how she recounts those experiences and her observations.

In the earlier part of her book Williams writes more in the style of a novel, from the viewpoint of an all seeing, all knowing narrator. While she most likely based her work on a lot of research, I find that kind of narrative voice can give a story a sense of authenticity and authority they possibly don’t deserve. A lot of authorial assumptions can be presented with the appearance of being fact rather than an imaginative interpretation of events and experiences.

For me, what is gained in “readability” is lost in trustworthiness, and my motivation to keep reading wasn’t there, despite the “easy-to-read” style. If I wanted crime fiction I have more than enough unread books of that genre on my shelves. I read this one hoping to get a more FACTUAL perspective.

The central event of the case, in which Falconio disappeared and Lees escaped abduction, is described partly from the point of view of the perpetrator, getting into his head. Considering the person convicted of being that perpetrator insists on his innocence, Williams clearly has not based that perpetrator’s point of view on interviews with the man who was actually there committing the crime. She has clearly made it up.

After this imagining of events, Williams does move on to reporting known events: from the police investigation through to the ultimate conviction of Bradley Murdoch. That latter part of the book seemed more objective than the earlier half, but for me the damage had already been done.