Blackwell’s hosted a joint event with two crime writers this week. Helen Fields’ first novel Perfect Remains was published recently and Paul Finch has just launched a second crime series focusing on PC Lucy Clayburn, which begins with Strangers. The sixth book in his DS Heckenburg series comes out in April this year. They are both excellent writers and engaging speakers, no doubt about it, but it was the similarities in their lives before they became crime writers that made this pairing so interesting. Finch began his working life in the police force before moving into journalism, script writing and ultimately crime fiction. Fields spent 13 years in a different sector of law enforcement working as a barrister before she too moved into script writing and producing. She took a break from running a film production company with her husband in order to jump into crime fiction. The similarity in their backgrounds is offset by the difference in their appearances. Finch is every inch the burly former officer. Fields in contrast is petite and exquisitely neat.
Both Fields and Finch draw inspiration from the characters they met during their years in law enforcement and the stories they heard. Finch’s latest book, Strangers, features PC Lucy Clayburn going under cover as a prostitute, one of the most horrendously dangerous jobs a female police officer can be asked to do. In writing it he asked the advice of someone he knew who had done exactly that job on several occasions. While he won’t elaborate on the details he makes it clear that she had some truly insane stories to tell.
His day-to-day life as an officer also had an impact. Work in the police force often involved a great deal of camaraderie and banter, sometimes as a way to cope with their experiences and the inbuilt stress of the job. Finch tries to recreate as much of that environment as possible in his work. Fields agrees but laughs that she set her book in Scotland because she couldn’t imagine any other force that would take the mickey to the level she wanted directed towards an incoming French officer.
Fields experiences colour her writing in a slight different manner. As a barrister she was often privy to the details of the inner thoughts of killers. Some of these personalities stuck with her, especially the ones who wanted to invite her into their reality and have her understand. They would explain what they had been thinking and what they were sure their victims had been thinking. She found it chilling that while they occupied the same physical world it was clear that their reality was radically different. Worse they often seemed completely normal on the surface. She talks of working for a pensions company when she was younger. The temp who had been there for two weeks seemed perfectly nice and normal. Then a colleague was offering to share her Polo’s and when she leant across the desk to ask if he’d like one, he responded by breaking her nose. In his mind she had been implying that his breath needed freshening and that the only reasonable response to this insult was violence. Fields emphasises the horror of realising that the monsters we have nightmares about rarely look like monsters. They look like the guy who sits across from you in the office or the woman buying a coffee in the line in front of you.
As much as their former professions have helped inform their writing, they were also left bearing scars. Finch admits that he still gets nightmares about some experiences, and there are some places he wouldn’t go in his writing. Fields may not have been out arresting criminals and dealing with the original crime scenes but she worked on a lot of awful cases and had to watch horrendous videos. As a female barrister she was often assigned to the cases involving sex crimes and found that after her second child there were some she could no longer take on. However Finch emphasises that writing is a great gift. Though, as Fields points out, the increasing accuracy and development of forensics makes it increasingly difficult to create stories that can’t be solved instantly.
Finch and Fields take slight different approaches to the genre. Finch often creates villains that have been likened to those of the Bond or Batman franchises. His upcoming book Ashes To Ashes features a professional torturer and someone who kills with a flamethrower. He explains that this is because most of the criminals he knew were just ‘miserable losers’. They led sad lives that were not what he wanted to write about and so he created outlandish, entertaining villains.
Fields comments that his villains make hers sound quite tame but her approach sounds all the more chilling. Perfect Remains follows the police, as most crime novels do, but also tells the story from the killer’s point of view. She spends time exploring and portraying his psyche and the rationale he creates for his actions. The experiences of his victims are also explored. It’s one thing to read a crime novel where you are aware of the details of what happened to the body in the morgue. It’s quite another to read the victims experiencing those details, and that pushes Perfect Remains into the harder hitting end of crime fiction.