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Murder, mayhem and chocolate digestives

The French term folie a deux was used originally to describe two people who shared a common psychosis. It literally means ‘the madness of two.’ Individuals who have this condition somehow manage to pass on their delusions to a third party, and the two go on to act out the symptoms in tandem. More recently, the term has been used in certain murder cases where two individuals have goaded each other into crimes they may not have committed alone.

From a writer’s perspective this is incredibly fertile material. You only have to take two people of a similar mindset, put them into stressful situations, and see how they react. But the trick is in making these fundamentally flawed characters human – at least enough to warrant the reader investing time in them and staying with them until the end of the book.

One such device is the unreliable narrator. Often used in first-person narratives, the reader is introduced to an outwardly convincing protagonist who proves to be less and less reliable as the plot goes on. If handled well, this approach can be highly effective, creating a sinister and memorable villain. Suppose you have a couple whose motivations are unclear. The unreliable narrator seems innocent at first, perhaps even a victim of some kind, therefore gaining the reader’s sympathy. Then, a sudden revelation, the realisation you’ve been duped.

Murder mystery has provided writers with endless subject-matter. You don’t have to look far to find inspiration – the local paper, books, news reports. Its fictionalised form provides a safety net; distanced from the realities, the reader or viewer is safe to enjoy the drama from the comfort of his or her armchair. Detective fiction has become more and more popular for a similar reason. Reprehensible as the criminal may be, the reader knows that the dogged cop will triumph in the end, and the villain will pay for his heinousness.

Some writers prefer to explore the criminal mind exclusively. Patricia Highsmith built a whole career out of low-life characters who cheated and murdered their way across the globe, with scarcely a moral imperative in sight. Graham Greene, known more for his themes of Catholic guilt and repression, created some memorable villains – notably the psychopathic Pinky in Brighton Rock.

But how does immersion in such dark material impact the writer’s sensibilities? Is it possible to be corrupted somehow by the seductive nature of crime? Happily, this doesn’t seem to be the case. There is, in fact, a cathartic aspect to all that fictional mayhem. And it helps, of course, to have a spiritually uplifting hobby to take your mind off things when you’ve put down your pen. Yoga and tai chi are marvellous ways to restore your mental equilibrium.  Failing that, you can always pour yourself a stiff gin and tonic to chase any lingering shadows away – if you’re that way inclined, of course …

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