Beyond Psychopaths: Mental Health in Crime Fiction

Rosie Claverton at Crime Fiction FestivalCardiff celebrated its first ever crime fiction festival last week, and one of the most interesting events explored the portrayal of mental illness within the genre. Local crime writer Rosie Claverton also happens to be a junior psychiatrist, and it was fascinating to hear her in discussion with Matt Johnson, a former police officer who also writes crime fiction, and has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, turning to writing as a form of therapy.   

They both advocated the importance of being realistic when producing crime novels featuring characters with a mental health condition, as so many people interpret these things as factual, unaware that they can be misleading. Psychopathy and schizophrenia are often associated with violent crime, but Claverton explained that someone with a mental health condition is far more likely to be the victim than the perpetrator of crime, adding that the vast majority of perpetrators are perfectly sane.

This is important because if someone is diagnosed with a condition such as schizophrenia, they will have a pre-formed idea of what that means, including false stereotypes and connotations drawn from reading novels and watching TV, and this makes it much harder for people to come to terms with a diagnosis and find effective treatment.

Crime writers Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson discussing mental health

Crime writers Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson discussing mental health

They discussed the fact that crime writers can be lazy in creating a protagonist with a mental health condition, assuming that this negates any need for them to explore their character’s motivations. But this leads to unrealistic plots.

On the other hand, there are often crime stories centred around a detective with a mental health condition, such as TV dramas Wolf and Perception, which Johnson described as misleading in a different way, because they glamorise mental illnesses such as OCD and Schizophrenia by giving their characters superhuman abilities.

Responsibility, Research and Realism

Applying this to his own work, Johnson spoke about how much more realistic it was for him to write about post-traumatic stress disorder through a trilogy, beginning with the trauma in book one (Wicked Game), the beginnings of PTSD in book two (Deadly Game), and his character’s need for treatment in book three (End Game).

Johnson and Claverton agreed on the vital importance of research, and Johnson described how he arranged for a friend who is a professional hostage negotiator to role play a scene with him, in order to generate more accurate dialogue for the novel.

Claverton acted on this sense of responsibility when she decided it wasn’t honest to make significant changes to her fourth book, in response to her publisher’s demands to make it ‘less depressing’. She ended up with a smaller publisher, where they allowed her to stay true to the reality of her character’s story. Her protagonist ends up in a mental health unit, receiving treatment for agoraphobia.

Writing as Therapy

Matt Johnson describes himself as an ‘accidental author’. He ended up writing as part of his treatment for PTSD, when he became overwhelmed by emotion, so that it was difficult to speak about his experiences. At first the writing was painful, but over time it has become cathartic, allowing him to deal with the trauma.

Judith Barrow discussing publication and editing with Caroline Oakley and Thorne Moore

Judith Barrow discussing publication and editing with Caroline Oakley and Thorne Moore

Editing and Publishing: Cut, Slash and Perfect

Another interesting event featured authors Thorne Moore and Judith Barrow, alongside their publisher Caroline Oakley, from the Wales-based women’s publisher Honno. They revealed the complexities behind publishing and discussed some of the advantages and disadvantages of sending your work to a small independent publisher. Caroline Oakley encouraged aspiring authors to research potential agents and publishers as much as possible, and the authors discussed the benefits of professional editing.

crime fiction festival - Kate HamerCrime in the Fairytale with Kate Hamer

Kate Hamer spoke about the brutality and violence that can be found in fairy-tales, which are often full of rape, murder, abductions and revenge. Her three novels are all loosely themed around fairy-tales, which she described as ‘warning tales’ in which the protagonist must show cunning and bravery to survive. The Girl in the Red Coat clearly references Little Red Riding Hood, whilst her second novel The Doll Funeral is set in a forest, a typical fairy-tale setting, with wicked step parents and a character who is effectively exiled to live in the forest, reminiscent of Snow White. She is currently still working on her third novel, which bears some resemblance to the story of Rapunzel. She recommended a book by Jack Zipes, describing the development of Little Red Riding Hood, and exploring its multiple versions and re-tellings.

And that was just a small taster of all that was on offer as part of Crime and Coffee – organised by Cardiff Library Service in conjunction with Crime Cymru – a celebration of all things crime fiction. Look out for their Open Space events which run throughout the year, and perhaps there will be another Crime and Coffee festival in 2019…