Today we’re kicking off a new series on the blog entitled ‘Don’t Quit the Day Job’.
Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we’ll talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.
Today I have the pleasure of hosting Neil White on the blog. Neil read at Noir at the Bar in Harrogate this year and it was a delight working with him. He’s taken the time to speak to me about a life of crime – thanks for sharing your story with us, Neil!
Readers of crime fiction follow the genre for the excitement, the intrigue, the thrills. How does that match with life in the world of real crime?
I’ve been a criminal solicitor for more than twenty years, working as both a defence lawyer and a prosecutor, and I’d love to tell you of things I’ve done that will show how spine-tingling it can be. The race to get to witnesses in time, bringing them to court under the protection of blankets, always acting under the threat of violent repercussions, exposed to gangland threats and psychopathic murderers.
Of course, it would be exciting if that reflected real life, but it doesn’t.
That isn’t to say that working in criminal law doesn’t come with its occasional moments of intrigue and excitement, but the reality is that most of any lawyer’s immersion into crime is long stretches of tedium interspersed with moments of amusement.
As I write this, I am sitting in a Magistrates Court, water dripping through the ceiling, part of the public gallery sealed off by builder’s tape, awaiting a verdict on a trial involving a spat at a party. There is some anticipation, but not at any level that could be called exciting. It will never be an inspiration for a bestselling novel, but it’s what constitutes the day-to-day life of most criminal lawyers.
In writing crime fiction, as a criminal lawyer, I want to be realistic, but does realistic mean “as real life”? For the most part, being a lawyer helps when writing crime, but there is also the temptation to include too much of the mundane. What I have to tell myself is that the character has many such dull days, with routine and tedium, but the story I am telling is the one exciting case they get a year. Every lawyer gets them. The dinner party story, or one of those war stories bandied around when passing time in the courtroom, lawyers reminiscing as an excuse for not talking to their client pacing outside.
As a prosecutor, the excitement would come from a murder, when a suspect was in custody and the police needed a decision to be made before there was a risk of the custody clock running out. Whichever lawyer gets the job can often be down to a mixture of enthusiasm and availability. Becoming involved in a murder case during the arrest phase isn’t something that clocks off at five o’clock, and sometimes I just had something else planned.
For my part, I tended to get landed with the complex fraud cases, usually out of curiosity. I’d be wandering through the office and see a couple of boxes of files being booked in by one of the people whose job it is to book these things in and I’d stop by, enquire as to the contents, out of nothing more than an inquisitive mind. I knew that every prosecutor in the room had taken a sudden interest in their fingernails, knowing what was coming, but I couldn’t stop myself.
I’d respond with a “that sounds interesting”, because I’m curious like that, and because I’m polite, and then listen to the collective sigh of relief as it was announced that the case had become mine. A reward for my interest. I never learned.
Does it make it easier to write crime fiction being a lawyer? Perhaps. A little bit.
I think it helps with the ability to look at things coldly and objectively, to take a step outside of the emotional attachment. It helps too to be comfortable with the subject matter. I’m used to looking at forensic statements and dealing with police procedures and the rules of evidence. If I need to research something, I can perhaps get to the end point much quicker.
Apart from those things, however, I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of difference, and in some ways can be a hindrance, because the desire to be accurate can override the need to be interesting. Sometimes, I find myself looking at a story as a lawyer, not a writer, and you read my books to hear a writer write, not a lawyer speak.
One thing writing about crime does do, however, is that it reminds me why I chose it as a career. At its best, the courtroom is high drama. It’s conflict and dispute, about dark deeds hidden or uncovered, often a glimpse into how others people live their lives. It is that reality, the human side of crime, which drives my love of the subject. I love crime. I love it that much I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t qualified as a lawyer, I’d have chosen criminality as a career.
Some may say that the dividing line between a lawyer and a crook is a pretty thin one anyway. I could not possibly comment.