Believable Creativity

Netflix and all those other outlets encourage binge-watching of television series, we know. The plus is that you can track momentum and development, the negative is that there is no time left for writing. Among other things, though, this watching raises questions about all the rules of writing to be found in all those manuals about writing fiction and writing for TV and film. Rules are there to be followed or broken as the creative process desires, of course, but watching series like this highlights both good and bad.

River is one of those English programs that shows creativity at its best.  Stellan Skarsgard plays a detective whose “hearing voices” condition is aggravated by the shooting of his partner played by Nicola Walker, who these days is in just about everything. That leads to some strange behaviours on his part as he unravels her complex life that was ended courtesy of an unlikely source.

The show is a tightly run six part affair, well paced, neatly written, well cast, off beat but strangely believable. It was written by Abi Morgan whose earlier work includes The Hour, another neat series set in a British television newsroom in the 50s, and whose latest showing is the film, Suffragette that has gained some mixed reviews.

There is a chemistry that makes things like River work, but it does start with the writing and Morgan exercised a tight rein over it, with great results. That allows a great cast and a great production team full scope to produce a winner.

The Fall is something else altogether.  It stars Gillian Anderson of X Files fame, and works to her English-American background, probably in order to give the series a more international profile. It has so far gone through two seasons with a third and final due mid-2016.

Anderson plays an English senior detective brought into Northern Ireland to deal with a murder case where the victim was the estranged wife of the “connected” son of a local “player”. Anderson’s character soon determines that this is part of a serial killing spree, and the chase is on. Along the way there are interpersonal issues that have her selecting members of her team (of both varieties) for casual sex; excursions into domestic violence; the inevitable sectarian and political struggles; crooked cops and corrupt politicians; and the suppressed nature of Belfast life.

It is slow in an attempt to be atmospheric, and Anderson’s ice cold, efficient character frequently strays into melodrama, it must be said – the strong jaw sometimes looks more like lock jaw. Some of the best moments in the series, it must be said, come from Stuart Graham who plays a senior detective brought into “shadow” if not watch Anderson.

The series was written by Allan Cubitt who has a pedigree going back to Prime Suspect, and there is an obvious attempt here to play off long running shows like The Killing and its knock-offs like The Bridge. It has won awards, including for writing, but for me it is way too slow and raises serious issues of credibility. Anderson stalks around abandoned buildings and the countryside in high heels and designer clothes, for example, and there are big moments of doubt as to whether things would really have happened, like police officers going into dangerous sites unaccompanied.

That immediately raises the question of why something so unlikely as River works and, for me, The Fall does not. It goes to believability, I think, and that is a combination of writing and acting with a clear interaction between the two. Skarsgard and Walker make the unlikely seem possible, Anderson and Jamie Dornan do not.

Much the same principle applies to crime writing, in all likelihood, and might explain why a few books I have started reading lately have been problematic. Part of it is repetition – many UK books now reference child abuse and illegal immigration automatically. That is part of the “crime as social commentary” move that is in general a good thing, but it places a premium on the writer’s skill. Ian Rankin makes it work in his latest, some others do not.

That was why I read Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings that won the recent Booker Prize. At heart it is a crime novel, based in the chaos of Kingston, Jamaica from the 1960s to the 1980s when economic collapse, political violence and the rising drug trade all intersected to make suburban slums like Trench Town among the worst in the world.

James’ writes the book in several “voices”, and cuts between the patois of the slums and the white American world and a lot in between. It is a “literary” rather than a “crime” novel per se, though, and at times I wish there had been a tougher edit. That said, it is a brilliant piece of writing and for me, having spent a little time in Kingston in the 80s (and it remains one of the scariest places I have been), it is believable.

That is a good reminder as I return to two non-fiction books I am trying to complete, and think about writing the fourth in the Le Fanu crime fiction series.

Alert: A Straits Settlement is Le Fanu number 3 and will be released May 19th, including to bookshops in the UK.

Much of this reflection has been the result of the latest round of lecturing on the high seas, this time for a month aboard the ms Rotterdam of the Holland America Line, sailing from Piraeus in Greece through to Singapore. Once again, that demonstrated that there is a lot of unbelievability in the actual world.

One highlight for me, for example, was visiting the Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi. These birds are magnificent, and pampered. Many spend the malting season in the hospital, at considerable cost. Most have passports so that they can travel with their owners during the hunting season, and many travel alongside their owners on commercial airline flights. That simply underlines the centrality of falconry in the local culture, and seems scarcely believable to the outside world.


That was matched by the opulence of the new mosque in Abu Dhabi. It cost north of $US1.5 billion but, to me, lacks both a soul and the essential humility of Islam. Then there is Dubai and Dubai Mall with its ice rink that featured ice hockey while we were there, along with the massive aquarium that hosts sharks and rays and much more.

It just goes to show: there is much in the world already that we struggle to “believe”, and that should make us think much more when writing a creative or imaginary one.



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