Trigger warning: this blog includes references to violent crimes, both real and imagined.
Writing is my third career but, when I think about it, I have always been tumbling along this trajectory. The books I read as a child were predominantly mysteries: Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, The Famous Five, anything by Anthony Horowitz. At eleven, I devoured the worlds of Eric Van Lustbader, books I wouldn’t dare let my own children read now. Then in high school, The Collector was placed in my tremoring hands. This novel inspired my eternal love for the unreliable narrator. I was horrified I could ever side with a killer, no matter how small my sympathies. But thinking back over these macabre reading habits, was this fascination with violence and its repercussions such a terrible thing? After all, imagining humans at both their worst (and best) has taught me the failures of the enlightenment project. And who doesn’t enjoy solving a good puzzle? This is why crime fiction is so popular. It’s what I love most about reading and writing it: working out whodunnit and why.
As a new writer, I thought literary fiction would become my genre. After reading the classics at uni, my ego certainly wanted to pull me that way. But in the 90s, as the Claremont Serial Killer took victim after victim, my preoccupations skewed in a different direction. I was forced to organise marches through Claremont and challenge the police campaign instructing women to ‘Listen to Your Head’ (as if Sarah Spiers, Jane Rimmer and Ciara Glennon were somehow responsible for their own brutal abductions and deaths). While reading Conrad and Austin and Dostoevsky, I worried about employing my sister at the Reclaim the Night dance in Claremont. It was, after all, the killer’s hunting ground and she was exactly his type.
The Claremont Serial Killer was my Ted Bundy. Those years were, for me, the West Australian equivalent of New York’s Summer of Sam, or the five-years inflicted upon Yorkshire by Peter Sutcliffe. I despised that one man held power over our fears and believe my obsession with crime fiction came from wanting to stem this. Not that it always has.
During this time, I began searching for explanations of violence, because if I could understand a killer’s modus operandi, maybe I could avoid them. By understanding motives, maybe I could devise ways to stop these crimes before individuals trod this path. For many, this was (and still is) their feminist imperative. I turned to practical ways of mapping survival techniques: what different victims did to let them escape; the mistakes killers made which led to their capture. I used both true crime and fiction, examining tropes, asking if these themselves were part of the problem. Everywhere I looked, I found women who hadn’t listened to their heads. But even the so-called intelligent women were no match for some killers, not unless aided by an ultra-smart detective who could get inside that ingenious killer’s head. Experts like Helen Hudson in Copycat were vulnerable. None of this brought me comfort. Maybe this is why, in my own manuscripts, I empower my victims in some small way to give them the final word.
One evening in the 90s, as I was knee-deep in representations of some of the world’s most notorious serial killers, I saw something outside my window. On closer inspection it was a light. Correction: a lit-up appendage; someone illuminating themselves as they masturbated by my back sliding door. Recognising this as a precursor to greater sexual crimes, I ran to the phone. There was no dial tone (this was pre-mobiles). Shouting to our neighbours from the top floor attracted the police, even if they weren’t entertained by my witty gestured description as to the length of the perp. I burst into even more hysterics when asked if he looked familiar. Not long after this we moved.
Decades later, my fear has subsided. Statistically, I’ve already placed myself in the greatest danger possible by entering a relationship. (There are swathes of domestic noir exploring the reality of this fear.) As a mother, I am besieged by a constant search for understanding how victims, or their families, come out the other side of the unimaginable. I wonder why few parents seek revenge for crimes committed against their children. Perhaps fiction is a way writers and readers make perpetrators pay. Is there not satisfaction in an ending where the criminal gets what they deserve? Although, if I’m honest, I respect stories where what is reflected is much more like it seems in real life.
Last year, I attended Harrogate’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in the UK and listened to Gerard Brennan speak. He is the first writer I know of to complete a PhD in crime fiction. He spoke about the subgenre of radical crime fiction and how he’s writing it (his context is Northern Ireland). Having devoured Val McDermid’s books in my twenties and lapped up what she did for the genre, I wonder if this is where my writing is heading next. I admire Emily McGuire’s refusal to describe the violence that occurred to her victim in An Isolated Incident (although this is not my calling at this point), and even possibly the establishment of the Staunch Prize for thrillers that do not feature violence against women. But I need more time to think on this because, on the surface, this seems yet another way to silence women and their fears. Given it is violence against women and children that concerns me most, I doubt I’ll ever be eligible to enter. But I do want to push crime fiction further. Continue striving for greatness like the late Peter Temple, and maybe with my third manuscript I can attempt something truly radical. But this will never be at the expense of story. If crime fiction is to remain interesting to me, the strength of the story must win out.
Jem Tyley-Miller is an emerging crime writer from regional Victoria whose stories have been shortlisted for many awards including last year’s Margaret River Short Story Prize. Jem is a 2018 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow, and her work has been published in Meanjin, Overland and We’ll Stand in that Place and Other Stories. She works in film and TV to fund her writing and co-organises the Peter Carey Short Story Award in her spare time.