Sunday, February 17, 2019

Who is the criminal in crime novels?

Mention the words “crime novel” and “mentally ill” in the same sentence and you are most likely to come up with an image of a psychotic killer or a hacked up victim.

The deranged family member, associate or stranger has been a great source of antagonistic criminals in any number of crime novels.  The Guardian newspaper even compiled a list of the top 10 novels about deranged killers, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they are “crime novels” as such (that is another story).

The role of mentally ill are slotted into in most crime novels came to mind when I had a privilege of attending Rotorua Noir – said to be the first New Zealand festival of crime writers. 

It was a stimulating conference, from the workshops on the first day, to the sessions throughout the second and third days and the featured activities.  It is unlikely that there has ever been such a concentrated meeting of fiction writers of a specific genre in one place at one time in New Zealand. (Feel free to correct me if I am wrong.)

We had writers who have their works regularly published by multi-national titles and those who, fed up with rejection, decided to go it alone through self-publishing, sometime relatively successfully.  That is a story for another time.

At least two of the writers on panels were former or active members of the New Zealand Police, while others had a personal or professional interest in mental health, one even growing up in the grounds of an institution where her father worked.

I was aching to ask at the end of the session involving these writers how or why mentally ill people were so often stigmatised in fiction, particularly crime fiction. 

My interest in this area of work led me to make a submission to the New Zealand Government’s inquiry into mental health in 2018.  I made the submission as a publisher but more so as somebody who has dedicated many years to helping people express their creativity through writing novels and other forms of literature.

As I told the inquiry when I appeared before it in Rotorua, this does not mean our list consists of what could be classified as mentally ill, but it means how I have seen the mental and social benefits to be had from writing creatively.  Being published is not just a bonus for writers but a goal, no matter how outwardly timid they may appear.

We now know – post-the Mental Health Inquiry and current events – if we didn’t know before, that mental illness is not a respecter of race or social status.

That is, unless you inhabit the world of the crime novel.

The role of the mentally unwell in books was highlighted at a crime fiction festival in Cardiff, Wales in 2018.  Rosie Claverton, a writer and junior psychiatrist, and fellow writer Matt Johnson, a former police officer who has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, discussed how crime writers can be lazy in creating a protagonist with a mental health condition. 

As well as leading to unrealistic plots, it seems this approach also negates any need for the writer to explore their character’s motivations. (See 1 below)

It is fair to say that the number of criminals with mental health problems is relatively high.  A study by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics found that nearly a quarter of both State prisoners and jail inmates who had a mental health problem, compared to a fifth of those without, had previously been behind bars three or more times.

However, scientific studies have found becoming mentally ill doesn’t necessarily lead to a life as a violent “crim”.

A study involving nearly 35,000 participants found that the incidence of violence was higher for people with “severe” mental illness, but only significantly so for those were also involved in substance abuse and/or dependence. 

“Because severe mental illness did not independently predict future violent behaviour (sic), these findings challenge perceptions that mental illness is a leading cause of violence in the general population,” the authors wrote. (2)

‘Harden up - it’s real life’ might be one response to these concerns.  A Sunday Times bestselling author Clare Mackintosh spent twelve years in the police force, including time on CID, and as a public order commander. (3)

She left the police in 2011 to work as a freelance journalist and social media consultant, and now writes full time. 

In a column entitled “Mental health in crime fiction: how flawed is too flawed?” she noted how victims are also being stigmatised as being mentally ill.

However, she asserts that crime fiction held a mirror to society and she was proud to write within a genre that explores issues such as mental health, adding “It you don’t like reading about characters with mental illnesses, that’s your prerogative, too.  But mental illness exists, both in real life and in fiction.”

However, as we have just had New Zealand’s most famous living “nutter” knighted as Sir Mike King, it is time for writers to also look beyond the obvious picture of the mentally ill.  They should look for wider and more imaginative plot lines for characters whose lives are simply different to the norm.

1    1. Gen Psychiatry. 2009 Feb;66(2):152-61. doi: The intricate link between violence and mental disorder: results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Elbogen EB1, Johnson SC 2009.

3    3.

Michael Smith is the publisher and director of BMS Books and imprint of Business Media Services Ltd at