I’ve always been an enthusiastic reader, and one of my literary treats has always been pacey, gripping crime thrillers. There are good ones and not so good ones, and at the moment there seem to be a few writers in the UK producing some very entertaining reads (Simon Kernick, Mark Billingham, Christopher Brookmyre to name a few). All the ingredients are there – believable characters that develop with the plot, frenetic pacing, twists and turns, and plenty of people in terrible peril while I’m sitting safe on the train.
What’s spoiling a lot of these books for me is the traditional big twist at the end. Often by the time I’m into the last quarter of the story, half of my mind is trying to work out what the twist is going to be regardless of whether there needs to be one or not – often the story is gripping enough as it is, and the ending is going to be perfectly satisfying without a conjuring trick in the last few pages, but it seems to be compulsory in the mass-consumption end of the market.
I’ve read quite a few thrillers recently where the twist at the end has been a paedophile ring. This usually comes in as the climax of the novel, just before the baddies become dead or are led away muttering about ‘meddling kids’, and we find out that it’s been a confederacy of nonces all along, usually involving one of the principle characters. Often the revelation comes as a sudden reveal – there’s been no hint of beastery up until now, when a character opens the packet of documents that’s caused so many deaths, or finds the crucial witness. In this moment you’ve got an instant reason for all the excitement, and an explanation for irrational behaviour on behalf of the baddies. When it’s done like this it feels to me a bit like cheating.
I can see why a paedophile ring makes such a tempting deus ex machina. Like the serial killer in fiction, it’s a monster that doesn’t really need any explanation. You can dress Hannibal Lector up in a bit of Readers’ Digest psychology, but it doesn’t really matter – he’s Grendel in Beowulf, or a witch in Salem: motivation isn’t important, he kills people just because he’s a bit of a sod. Paedophiles and paedophile rings in crime fiction offer a similar device – it’s a way of putting someone beyond the pale without having to delve into their motivation too deeply. They do terrible things, and will do further terrible things to keep anyone from finding out about the original terrible thing. The paedophile has become a strangely British boilerplate baddie, as a full-on serial killer is a bit…well, a bit full-on for most thrillers on this side of the Atlantic.
This phenomenon has become so common that I’ve started to examine all of the characters as soon as they’re introduced now for signs of badness. Do they slam down a laptop lid with suspicious haste when our hero enters the room? Do they rub their palms up and down their thighs when buying a carton of Innocent Smoothies from the newsagent? Hopefully the fad will pass. But then I started to think…what if it had caught on earlier, in a big way? What sort of an artistic landscape would we be strolling in then? I’d like to suggest a few possible scenarios to you. You knew I was going to, didn’t you?
Nonces of the Lost Ark
Indiana Jones races around the world on the trail of a mysterious artefact with untold power, battling creepy Nazis to get there first. When the fabled Ark of the Raincoat is found and opened in some Levantine wadi, it’s found to be Hitler’s stash of indecent images. In this version, the melty-face Nazi’s face melts out of shame, not from holy fire.
The da Kiddie Code
Revamped Dan Brown bestseller in which a dashing Harvard symbologist fights off sinister pigmentally-challenged monks and follows an unlikely crumb-trail of puzzles that leads him a secret that Rome has been hiding for centuries: the Vatican’s canon of all the ‘iffy’ clergy of the last millennium. Or maybe he could be a dashing Harvard symbioticist, who forms mutually dependent relationships with everyone he meets.
In this new version of Stephen King’s classic of pop Americana, a vintage car takes the soul of a spotty teenager and drives around killing anyone who gets in its way. In the final scene the car is sent to a crusher and we find that the evil heart within it was actually the previous owner’s collection of badness that he’d left in the boot.
That’s enough of those. If you’ve got any more, you know where to send em.
This post was brought to you with the help of Elvis Costello, Still Little Fingers, The Damned, Dr Dre, Big Black and Alabama 3. I’m going to start a Monkey Wine Club from now on, so here’s tonight’s tipple:
Frontera Merlot, 2009 (Chile). Price: About £4 (Wife of Monkey got it from Tesco and can’t quite remember). Quite bland on the nose but a tasty cherry and black pepper that makes it pretty gluggable. Berries to finish. Score: 6/10. Not bad, but not particularly memorable.