As a life-long reader of crime fiction and suspense, I’m always intrigued by people who don’t like the genre. Too scary, too dark, too depressing… they’re all reasons I understand, even if I don’t relate to them, but a recent comment from a friend demanded further investigation.
‘I can’t bear psychological thrillers or crime fiction. Everyone’s always so neurotic.’
Granted, if real life featured as many real-life alcoholic detectives grieving for dead wives as novels do, the police force would be even more dysfunctional than it already is, but my friend’s beef wasn’t only with the coppers.
‘Every victim has OCD, or depression, or agoraphobia – it’s unrealistic and tedious.’
Hear that sound? It’s my head hitting the desk. Repeatedly. It seems even fictional characters get victim-blamed.
Characters with mental health issues
After some extremely unscientific research (me, looking at my bookshelves) I have to concede a small point. Characters with mental health problems feature in many, if not most, of the crime and thriller novels I’ve read lately. In Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game, it’s just thirteen pages before the first mention. New mum Isa is on a train with her daughter; her head playing images of disasters that could befall her baby. ‘This is the person I’ve become since having her,’ she says. ‘All my fears… have settled to roost on Freya.’ Fellow crime author Peter Swanson introduces the subject even earlier, on the very first page of Her Every Fear. ‘It was not her first panic attack, not even of that particular day.’
Today’s fictional victims have agoraphobia (Saving Sophie, by Sam Carrington), OCD (Into the Darkest Corner, by Elizabeth Haynes), fugues (I Found You, by Lisa Jewell), schizophrenia (The Taken, by Casey Kelleher) and all manner of issues linked to anxiety, depression, grief and trauma. The central character in my next book, Let Me Lie, is struggling with the fall-out of grief so profound she is convinced she can feel the presence of her dead mother; something her therapist husband dismisses as ‘post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences.’ Detectives in fiction fare no better. Fergus McNeill’s DI Harland (Eye Contact) struggles with anger-issues and depression, and the female detective in Katerina Diamond’s The Teacher is undergoing therapy to address anxiety issues.
The reality of mental health issues
The Mental Health Foundation estimates that one in six people will have experienced a mental health problem in the last week, while ten per cent of people in England will experience depression in their lifetime. Psychological ill health affects all demographics, so surely it’s perfectly natural to find it in fiction?
‘Add to that a job that revolves around violence,’ Marnie Riches (author of Born Bad) explains, referring in particular to mental health in crime fiction, ‘and you have the perfect ingredients for anxiety, OCD, depression or substance abuse.’ After spending more than a decade in the police, I would agree. Few of the people I encountered – on either side of the law – were untouched by mental instability.
Mental health in crime fiction: a plot device?
Some authors admit that adding a condition such as agoraphobia or anxiety can be helpful to the plot. C L Taylor’s four psychological thrillers (The Accident, The Lie, The Missing, The Escape) all feature women with mental health issues, including PTSD and dissociative amnesia. ‘Mental illness gives my characters an additional obstacle when it comes to achieving their goal,’ she explains. ‘Not least because their friends and family struggle to distinguish what is a genuine concern and what’s a symptom of their illness.’ (The familiar ‘unreliable narrator’; as seen in the alcoholic protagonist from Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train). But Taylor (who has a degree in psychology) denies including such issues purely for plot or entertainment. ‘They arise from thinking about the characters and how their past shaped the person they are now.’
And therein lies the most important point, and the reason we see mental health in crime fiction explored to such an extent. Whilst some conditions are with us from birth, still more occur as a result of our upbringing, or traumatic events in our lives. Abuse, grief, and physical illness are among the many contributory factors for mental illness, and a skilled writer will use this trajectory to create a well-rounded, credible character. Sophie Kent, the journalist in Corrie Jackson’s The Perfect Victim, suffers from depression and insomnia as a result of her younger brother’s death, which lead her to make some ill-judged decisions. ‘Having experienced panic attacks and crippling insomnia in my twenties,’ Jackson says, ‘I found it cathartic. I wanted to show how people push through and get on with life despite their “neurosis”.’
What do readers think?
Given the likelihood of any of us experiencing some form of mental ill-health, the ability of these fictional characters to fight back should be inspiring. Howard Linskey, whose detective suffers from bouts of depression, was surprised to find a lack of sympathy from many readers. ‘He needs to sort himself out… I wish he’d get a grip, and so on,’ Linskey recalls, from the reviews for No Name Lane, the first in his series. ‘I wonder whether the same people might have a pull-yourself-together-man attitude in real life.’ Given that almost ninety percent of people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives, I suspect the answer is yes.
Crime fiction has always held a mirror to society, and I am proud to write within a genre that explores issues such as mental health. Perhaps thrillers don’t thrill you; maybe crime doesn’t pay out for you. That’s fine, there are plenty more genres to enjoy. If you don’t like reading about characters with mental illnesses, that’s your prerogative, too. But mental illness exists, both in real life and in fiction. Claiming it’s unrealistic? That’s just mad.