On reinventing history for the purpose of entertainment – William Shaw
William Shaw is our Featured Author for August.
When the flamboyant Channel 4 conspiracy series Utopia wove the 1979 murder of MP Airey into its plot last month there was some outrage. Neave’s son Patrick demanded, “Who do these people think they are, reinventing history for the purpose of entertainment?”
I suppose it was a very reasonable question.
Yet, years ago, reading Jake Arnott’s extraordinary book The Long Firm I also remember feeling that thrill as the penny dropped. These are real people he’s writing about. The hapless Jack The Hat McVitie is suddenly made almost likeable. The promiscuous communist-sympathising MP Tom Driberg jumps to life on the page. And though he’s disguised as Lord Teddy Thursby, that has to be Lord Boothby, the Kray Twins-loving Tory peer.
These days crime fiction is full of the re-writing of recent pasts. The great James Ellroy is the classic serial offender basing the LA Quartet on a series of true Los Angeles crimes, weaving everyone from true life gangster Mickey Cohen to Hollywood actor Sal Mineo into the stories. Emma Donoghue’s Booker-nominated The Room was inspired by the 24-year kidnapping of Elizabeth Fritzl. And there are probably at least a dozen writers embarking on books about Jimmy Saville right now.
We all share a culture full of iconic news stories and fallen heroes. It is a great space for the imagination.
But it is a dangerous space too, for obvious reasons. When the writer of the cosy Inspector Lynley mysteries, Elizabeth George, based her 2010 book This Body of Death partly on the abduction of James Bulger, she was unprepared for the backlash from readers. “How could any author stoop so low as to use that little boy’s vile murder as a means of both entertainment and money-making?” wrote one of many who felt let down by her on amazon.co.uk.
Again, that same refrain. Who do these people think they are, reinventing history for the purpose of entertainment? Are we talking about overstepping good taste here, or about causing genuine offence?
When I was writing the notoriously corrupt drug squad officer Sergeant Nobby Pilcher, the man who arrested John Lennon and Yoko Ono for drug possession in 1968, into the first book in my Breen and Tozer trilogy, I remember thinking, do I have the right to do this? This man almost certainly has living relatives? But I chose to. In his case, nobody had died because of what he did. And at a time when the police are again being accused of corruption, I think it’s worth pointing out how far they have come since those days.
Of course there are plenty of good reasons too for stepping back from using other people’s hurts. In a discussion at the recent Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival, the American writer Laura Lippman talked about being inspired to write What The Dead Know by the real life disappearance of two teenage girls from a Washington DC shopping map. But, she stressed, after being inspired by the facts, she takes the books she writes as far away from them as she can. She doesn’t want to pick at old wounds.
I guess the real question, and the one that’s always going to be difficult to answer definitively, is how far back should you step? Because though it’s dangerous ground, “reinventing history for the purposes of entertainment” can not only make for great books, I think it’s an increasingly valuable way of looking at our collective pasts.
William Shaw is the author of several non-fiction books including Westsiders: Stories of the Boys in the Hood, about a year spent with the young men of South Central Los Angeles, and A Superhero For Hire, a compilation of columns in the Observer Magazine. A Song from Dead Lips is the first in a trilogy of crime fiction books set in London in 1968 – 1969. CRA Profile