Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Crimefest Panel Report - Born To Be Bad

Following yesterday's general report from CrimeFest, I'm going to post a few specific panel reports. But, before I get to those, happy birthday to Badsville. This blog is 2 years old today, started after a conversation with the lovely Declan Burke at Crimefest 2 years ago.

And now, a panel report.

Born To Be Bad - The Nature of Evil. Panellists were Peter James, Steven Saylor, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Andrew Taylor, moderated by Steve Mosby. First of all, Steve Mosby is an excellent moderator. He asked some really thoughtful, insightful questions and got a lot out of all the panellists.

I didn't realise, but Peter James started out writing supernatural thrillers. The first thing he did was to mention Steve's burglary, two days before (another thing which makes Steve a great moderator - he lost all his panel notes in the burglary and still managed to do a brilliant job). Peter James said that he has always been interested in whether there's such a thing as evil. He once spent a day at Broadmoor (as a visitor, rather than an inmate) and said that it seemed as though everyone fitted into two categories - schizophrenic and treatable, or sociopath/psychopath and wired differently. With the latter category, it depends on your parents and upbringing as to whether you turn out to be a political leader or a murderous serial killer (editor's note - sometimes, the two are interchangeable).

Steve said to Steven Saylor that there's a verb in Japanese (Tsujigiri) which means "to try out one's sword on a chance wayfarer" and asked whether that viewpoint affected what he writes, given the historical setting. Steven Saylor said that young Spartans were allowed to go out and kill helot people for sport. He said that a lot of historical novels glamourise people like Julius Caesar etc, but, in reality "great people of history are like the larger carnivora - best viewed through stout bars." He noted that Nero had really just wanted to be an actor and added "If only they'd had 'Rome's Got Talent'." He also said that, worryingly, he'd had 2 e-mails from readers who were moved by his apparently 'sympathetic portrayal of Nero". "I hope not." he said.

Steve asked Andrew Taylor whether he felt there were answers to present situations to be found in the past. Andrew said that, when you write novels set in the past, you realise that people felt very differently about good and evil and right and wrong back then. During the investigations into the murders by Fred and Rosemary West (which were local to him) he noted the black humour that came out (including a joke about an estate agent selling the house in Cromwell Street "two up, seven down", even though the feeling that swept the neighbourhood was an almost atavistic fear. He said that the Roth Trilogy has a central theme of evil and good, right and wrong, lawful and unlawful, and that crime writers can find a lot of interesting stuff in the gaps. He also asked how it was that people who worked in the concentration camps could be so nice at home.

Peter James goes out on patrol with the police and that he is most interested in murder as it is the one irreversible crime. He noted that he didn't think that all murder was evil (which caused a bit of a stramash during audience questions!). He said that he thought people like Fred West and the BTK killer were evil. Steve said that Ted Bundy had once said "What's a few less people on the face of the planet?"

Steve asked Yrsa whether she had ever based her books on any real life cases, to which she answered that, generally, that would make unreadable fiction. Murders in Iceland are domestic, mundane and bland in Iceland. She said that Iceland had only ever had one serial killer and he had only killed two people. She then went on to explain about the case, which sounded pretty horrible - an 11 year old boy who drowned two other boys. He was a sociopath who had been abused by his stepfather. She also referred back to the point made about the nature of evil then and now - commenting on what Steven Saylor had said about Ancient Rome. She noted that back then, the government would think nothing of putting people in an arena and then setting fire to it (hmmmmm, remind me not to go to the Olympics next year), whereas today that would be unimaginable. Steven Saylor then made the very good point that we would be more than happy to go and see a film about it, though. It was agreed that evil is a very uncomfortable subject on all sorts of levels.

Steve then asked Andrew Taylor whether crime fiction was a bit conservative - ie whether we like everything to be tied up neatly at the end. Andrew said that with crime fiction you take the most awful thing that can happen to someone. 9 times out of 10 it is resolved at the end. Peter James said that one of the reasons people read crime fiction is for the puzzle. However, there are more reasons and that crime fiction is the biggest selling genre in the English speaking world. He said we are genetically programmed to survive.

The topic was then thrown open to the audience for questions. Natasha Cooper asked about Peter James' comment that there is murder that is evil and murder that is not, and that his comment was like Kenneth Clarke's comment about rape. Peter James said it was different because the clear-up rate for murder is 92% and the clear-up rate for rape is 2%. Also, the chance of being raped by a stranger is very slim, while the chance of being raped by someone you know is very high but the effect is identical on every victim. He said that what he meant with his comment on murder is that there is a difference between a serial killer and the man that kills his wife in a drunken rage - ie that the difference is in the intent.

Another question from the audience was whether the panel were ever worried that the books they write stimulate people to commit murder. Steven Saylor said that he gets a free pass on this one as he writes historical fiction. Yrsa said that she didn't worry about it at all, since Icelandic criminals are stupid. "Murderers don't go looking for stuff like that." Andrew Taylor agreed, saying "If you're going to be a killer, you're going to do it without any help from me." He said that to read a book requires very different skills from those you need to psych yourself up for a killing. Peter James mentioned that the killers of Jamie Bulger got the idea from the film Chuckie. However, he added that crime fiction and increased forensic awareness was more likely to give villains ideas about how not to get arrested - although they were more than likely to wear a SOCO suit and gloves and then throw the gloves in the nearest bin.

Peter James said that the darker the character of a fictional villain, the more readers love the character. Steve Mosby made a very interesting comment that, while this applied to murderers, it didn't apply to all crimes, noting that there were no books with rapists or paedophiles as protagonists (an excellent and very chilling point - especially when you consider the popularity of a character like Dexter).

A further questioner asked whether the panel thought evil could be the gradual nibbling away of good. Andrew Taylor said that a lot of crime is banal and Peter James said that after a lot of murders you often see press interviews that say "He was so nice, I never would have guessed."

The panel were then asked to what level of evil they would go. Andrew Taylor very honestly said that if he'd been in the SS he thought he would have been socialised into evil. Yrsa said that to be evil, she thought that you have to have the capacity for hate.

Phew - I think that's enough today. It took me longer to write that, than it took to listen to the panel :o) I made notes at three other panels so will write them up over the next couple of days. I attended other panels but didn't take notes.


  1. good work, Donna. Almost as good as being there.

  2. Patti - au contraire - I just take copious notes :o)

    Michael - next year, you will be!