This is our truth, tell us yours
The second episode in my list of books I wish I had written is a twist in the tale; it’s the first book I tried to write but never finished.
It was a time in my life when I read more than I ever had before or since.
Amongst the eight to ten books a week I was reading were cime novels; not just the classics, but modern new writing, like John Harvey, early Ian Rankin and the excellent Virago crime series that gave space to Gill Slovo and Val McDermid.
Amongst the classics were Chandler and Hammett. The cosies weren’t spared either; I started reading Christie as a teenager and kept up the habit until the tweeness became overpowering. I acquired a keen eye for the genre specific unique selling points; this series of procedurals were about a dog handler in the mounties; these about a blind lawyer who gets involved in improbable cases.
Lurking in the background of course were Ted Lewis and the heir to his British noir title Mark Timlin.I knew what I liked, and it was inevitable once I discovered writing that I would try my hand at a genre novel.
The first rule of the highbrow crime novel is, of course, to establish your authorial credentials with a quote in the title. John Donne provided mine, with a quote from Elegy XX and the hint at the novel’s plot in the succceeding lines.
The plot? Well, the truth is I wanted to write a gay crime novel less cliched than The Gloryhole Murders by Tony Fennelly. I wanted the hero to have the essential loneliness of crime novel leads, and something of the substance of a John Harvey character. And Iwanted him to be gay in a way that was more suburban than the gayness that was queer life in a big city in 1991.
Twenty chapters in I realised the novel’s weakness. I expected the audience to shy away from it. I knew Andrew Vachss was walking in similar territory, unflinchingly writing about child abuse and the institutions that enable it, but I wanted to tell a different story about where people go after those moments. As a society we weren’t yet sure whether we believed the stories young men told about institutionalized abuse and the official eyes that were averted when the powerful and the corrupt went out to play. I was also one of those who felt those experiences, those stories,were unreal. Was the man who said he could get boys put in childrens homes if they didn’t suck him off inthe park toilets really a policeman?
Maybe I wasn’t ready to tell that story, and maybe I was trying to exorcise ghosts. I couldn’t bring myself to share the manuscript, incomplete as it was, and, as these things do, it withered. Every revision found more faults, and made no progress. The cottaging scene with its air of risk and danger, not because of the plot, but because that’s how cottaging is, the scene where the hero and his at risk lover fuck in front of the fire -I just couldn’t expose it to the world and say this is mine. Just as the lover who learned to be compliant and obedient in a childrens home was my peer and my equal, so I wondered if I was stealing their late night biographical details to show off to the world.
I put genre fiction aside.Life intruded. At another level I knew that the story had withered because it battled with the essential, the central reformist belief at the heart of modern crime fiction, that good people make a difference. To engage with society, to have a life worth living, you have to believe they do, but I wasn’t enough of a believer to put aside the Ted Lewis inspired ending, that left the hero dead on a beach, and his lover, the victim who would never be believed, with nothing more than a Metro ticket back to Newcastle.