Today’s guest post comes from Garry Rodgers. If you’d like to be a guest poster on the blog, please contact me.
Articles written by guest posters are all their own words. I don’t edit, censor or change anything.
Garry Rodgers is a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective, forensic coroner, and served as a sniper on British SAS trained Emergency Response Teams.
Garry also is an Amazon Top 10 BestSelling crime-writer and host of the popular blog www.DyingWords.net.
Follow him on Twitter @GarryRodgers1
I’ve investigated a lot of real murders over my years as a homicide cop and forensic coroner. Most of these were ‘smoking-guns’ which required no great feat of detective skill to solve. In fact, most were blatantly obvious as to ‘whodunnit’ and they’re hard to remember as there wasn’t much of a story to them.
Given the immense popularity of crime-fiction books and the crime-fiction CSI-type TV shows, there’s obviously a huge market out there which demands deadly stories. That requires a continual feed of fresh and creative content. So where do most of these most-watched and bought stories come from?
I’d say partly from real-life events and partly from pure imagination which, for some writers, there’s no end to. But some of the stories are so far-fetched that it’s a stretch for writers ‘suspend disbelief’ for the audience. That’s the prime accomplishment of fiction.
Hawaii 5-O is a great example. That spectacularly successful show is in its second generation and draws a huge viewing despite being outrageously fictitious. How do they do it? They immediately set a central story question by opening each show with a bang of action. They also have larger-than-life, identifiable characters and a set storyline. So it’s a repeatable formula to which they just change villains and add occasional guest protagonists.
If Hawaii 5-O was reality, by the second season the detectives would be so burnt-out from trauma counselling, court time, and internal investigations that they’d be unable to function. Fortunately it’s fiction, so the writers keep ramping-up the drama and danger. And it works.
But what if I told you crime stories that were real? Would you buy them? Like I said, most murders are unremarkable, but every once in a while a ‘that actually, really happened’ case came along which I’ll never forget.
There were two guys, Micheal Katz and Austin Peer, who escaped from jail and went on a bank-robbery spree, ending up on the west coast of Canada. Here, they cased-out a gun store to get more firearms and ammunition. At closing time, they accosted the two shop-owners, laid them on the floor, and executed them with bullets to the back of the head. Then they loaded up fifty handguns and assault rifles, along with thousands of rounds of ammunition, and drove back to Toronto where they holed up in a sleazy hotel. Two alert police officers suspected there was something up at the room and went to check. The suspects shot the officers which escalated into the wildest shoot-out imaginable. In excess of six hundred rounds were fired before the SWAT team ran an armored personnel carrier into the room and ended it.
Would you buy into the time that I was investigating death threats where the female complainant was terrified that her ex had broken into her house and was waiting to kill her? My partner and I searched her place, found no sign of the suspect, then had her change the locks on her doors and have her new boyfriend stay over while we searched the town. Turns out the bad-guy was hiding in the attic with an axe while we were there. At 3am, while the victims were sleeping, Billy Ray Hennessey climbed down and chopped both their heads off. Talk about a horror story.
How about Wolfgang Muelfelner who got in a fight with his wife? She fell back against the fireplace, cracked her head, and died – probably of a subdural hematoma. Old Wolfie panicked and dragged her outside the farmhouse and burnt her body in a pile of brush. Neighbours called the fire department who came sirens blazing and hosed down the pyre. The warned him that if he ever burnt without a permit again, they’d ticket him. Panicking, he butchered the conflagrated corpse and roto-tilled it into the garden. Her vanishing brought on a year-long psychological cat and mouse game between the detectives and Wolfgang, till he finally broke down and confessed.
Then there’s Floyd Binginham, or ‘Bing’. He was a drunken wife-beater who so thoroughly traumatized his wife over a period of years that she finally shot him dead while he was passed out. The jury heard her tale of years of physical and emotional abuse and acquitted her. The courtroom drama in this case was purely riveting.
How about the homicide where the murder weapon was a bag of frozen pork chops? Or the two school-teachers who conspired to poison another teacher to prevent a promotion? Or the disgruntled client who shot her lawyer dead in his office. There’s a truly shocking story of what led up to that one. I could go on and on, but you get the point.
I think what really makes saleable crime-fiction is a bizarre event, true or invented, with a twisted plot and memorable characters. Fortunately, there’s no end to real-life cases where ‘truth is stranger than fiction’.
I’ve got a bit of an advantage in crime-fiction writing because I’ve been there and seen a lot. My technical knowledge is greater than most crime writers but my imagination is certainly no better. Nor are my research skills.
I’m a firm believer that you can make the wildest crime-fiction story saleable as long as you can get the reader to suspend their disbelief and keep it there throughout. You don’t have to write what you know, like a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner would. But you have to check what you write, because nothing will make a reader set it down faster than calling BS.