The Body in the Library: Writing a Crime Novel for a PhD

Jo Powell

Tell someone you are working on a PhD thesis in creative writing and reactions are likely to fall into two broad camps. The writers (or at least those not working or researching in academia) will ask why do you have to do a PhD - why not just write your novel? Academics from other disciplines may view you with suspicion, as if you are somehow trying to smuggle your 'bit of a story' through the viva. So, why do a PhD instead of just writing a novel? Is the question as Humpty Dumpty said, which is to be master? It was only as I neared completion of my own thesis that I felt able to answer these questions.

For a creative writing PhD all you have to do is make an original contribution to knowledge, show advanced analytical understanding of your own creative output … oh yes, and write a novel, script, selection of stories or poetry collection of a publishable standard. Easy? Having written a purely academic thesis in law I can bear witness to the fact that the creative thesis was a much more challenging route. This paper is a personal reflection on my own journey through the PhD process which will hopefully raises some questions and areas for debate.

I began the journey because I was determined to write a crime novel. I was also interested in postgraduate research into creative writing and hoped that working towards an academic qualification, with regular supervision meetings would help with the creative process, giving it shape and form. This expectation proved valid as regular supervisions and deadlines were invaluable. My motivation for embarking on a PhD evolved into an interest in experimenting with the conventions of crime fiction to produce a novel in which I could play with the codes of the genre and push at its boundaries. I also wanted to examine how the generic conventions could be used to explore cultural constructions of the female body. This involved examining the writing of published contemporary female crime authors as well as reflecting on my own work. My project has been one of research, writing and reflection focused around the metaphor of fragmentation - both of the female body and of the boundaries of crime fiction writing.
The final novel is intertextual in which the writing and the narrative itself is a form of research, as opposed to the conventional academic essay or thesis. Towards the end of the thesis I realised that something very interesting and for me quite exciting had happened. I had somehow unconsciously been pulling out a third strand of the thesis which bridged both the critical essay and the fiction and by some organic process, my reflections on my research for the critical paper had been mirrored in the novel. The critical analysis developed from my own writing experience as well as through reading and research. Each fed into the other.

My thesis consists of two parts, each separate but linked by common themes and influences. The main part of the project is The Drop Room, a contemporary crime novel, which explores the manner in which fictions and narratives shape lives and govern behaviour and how they connect with the body – a theme that crosses over into the discourse of women crime writers and the relationship of their work with the body in the critical analysis. The novel's plot is premised on a serial killer with a dissociative personality. The investigating duo consists of a crime journalist and a profiler. The choice of a female pairing of investigators addresses a lacuna in the genre, while the emphasis on the personal in the lives of the women protagonists follows a strong trend in contemporary women’s crime fiction. The background to the antagonist’s misogyny is explored, partly by first person narrative which allows a narrowing of the gap between writer and reader. As a hybrid of the sub-genres of psychological thriller, serial-killer narrative and female PI novels, The Drop Room explores the concept of the monstrous as abject and its causation as well as its effect.

The second part of the project - the critical analysis - focuses on the representation of the body by contemporary Anglo-American women crime writers. I argue that the engagement of these writers with the female body and their refusal to follow the logic of the traditionally masculinised genre differentiates their work from that of their male counterparts and from earlier writers of both genders. The disintegration of the body in crime fiction and the fragmented corpse is a metaphor for the vulnerable female detective as well as the victim and also for the disintegration and deconstruction of the ‘detective’ by women crime writers, who in re-gendering the crime novel, explore and recover female subjectivity in their writing on the body.

The choice of a pair of female investigators was based on a desire to experiment with character and genre after rejecting the male/female dyad or the lone female detective. I also rejected the trope of the hard-boiled female investigator who uses her body as a weapon, choosing instead women who utilise intellect and intelligence and their ability to 'read' the antagonist and other people they come into contact with. I wanted my surrogate detectives to use more subtle strengths in my portrayal of the defensive and resistant body. Thus, I developed characters who are resistant to violence and the larger social dynamic around violence against women, rather than writing a female version of the hard-boiled masculine sub-genre with the cliché of the tough woman detective. The protagonists in my novel resist not only male violence but also the stereotypical use of male violence. At the same time I rejected the figure of the purely rational, reasoning detective and the 'cult of solitude' of the private eye which often accompanies the aggressive body, giving my investigators' emotional lives and problems with work, lovers and family. When the female investigator is portrayed in her everyday environment of work, friends, relationships and community she is also portrayed as vulnerable because of them - capable of fragmenting. I tried to avoid the codes of the tough or maverick detective, instead continuing the practice in contemporary women's crime fiction of reconceptualising the female body rather than the male. Similarly, the structuring of knowledge of the female characters in my novel differs from the mode of detecting associated with masculine reason, law, science and materiality. Instead the detecting pair use their own epistemology which includes intuition and a willingness to look for the untold story, rather than conform to the police findings and conclusions, and they become personally involved in the narrative rather than remaining aloof like the classic male detective.

In writing a novel where the victims are women I have recognised a duality between the female detective and female victim in which the disintegration of the body of the victim is a metaphor for the vulnerability of the female detective. I have also used this to explore and adapt the cultural construction of the female body in the development of my own characters. The female detective like the corpse is also subject to a continual process of disintegration and deconstruction.

In introducing female detectives into their work, contemporary female crime writers have challenged the inherent maleness of the genre by giving the woman a voice and an active role. I have experimented by taking this idea a step further and rejecting the lone female detective or the possibility of a male/female pairing. I have also played with the metaphor of silencing women.

I became interested in the representation of crime in fiction as the 'other' and a way of opening a narrative that the law appears to ignore. The concept of the law and judicial system as a form of theatre is one that had long fascinated me as both a criminal lawyer and as a journalist. Clearly there is more to crime than the stories told in the courts; more to the lives of criminals than is told by the legal system. In the portrayal of the killer I have tried to offer one of these hidden stories. I have also tried to show the fraying edges of the concept of justice and the inability of the good versus evil dichotomy to tell the whole story of crime. The metaphor of story is endemic in the text of the novel, as each character has their own individual story through which they negotiate their lives and relationships with others. Personal and emotional lives affect the development of the plot and characters' stories link with the events that drive the plot forward.

In my novel I have used the crime fiction genre as a vehicle to interpret the body as a cultural text - the victims who too often become 'things' in this genre are de-objectified through what we learn of them and their relationships with other characters. They do not remain objects or mere props for the narrative. However, there is an uncomfortable space to be occupied in representing a subjective victim and a fine line to be trod between this and exploitation or voyeurism. For this reason I have chosen to avoid most of the kind of anatomical or graphic physical detail evident in much of the hybrid crime/horror genre.

In my use of the serial killer narrative I wanted to experiment with portraying a killer as a vulnerable character with whom readers could sympathize and even at times empathize and to question the convention of the 'monstrous' in the crime fiction genre. The use of the fictionalized Dissociative Personality Disorder enabled me to portray a vulnerable and damaged personality alongside the voice of killer. The killer is also a masquerade - a commentary on the society that has allowed his mistreatment by failing to intervene and to cross class borders and familial boundaries. He is a monster who is made rather than born.

The metaphor of fragmentation is at the heart of the narrative, driving it and dictating its course and direction. The killer writes the narrative of crime on the bodies of his victims and the violated body is a metaphor for the fragmenting detective. All the main characters in the novel fragment emotionally and/or psychologically while the victims fragment physically in death. The investigating duo fragment both in their respective personal lives and through their involvement with the case.

The main fragmentation in the narrative is that of the killer whose mental disintegration is experienced directly via the first person narrative. He fragments by his dissociation from painful memories and from the part of himself driven to kill women. There is fragmentation too at the novel's conclusion, which does not end in a final narrative or moral resolution. This is intended to provoke thought rather than offer a tidy resolution of the triumph of good or justice and the punishment of evil. The metaphor of fragmentation also reflects the fragmenting boundaries between victim, killer and investigators - even the killer's humanity may be closer to that of the victim and investigating protagonists than the latter would like to think and this has the effect of destabilizing both the narrative and readers' preconceptions about the boundaries between good and evil. Like the corpse, the killer shifts away from the abject as the reader moves closer to his humanity.

The female bodies of the victims in my novel are removed - literally - by the act of murder, but I have attempted to return the concept of female self to the text by placing the psychological selves of my female investigators at its centre and exploring the internal as well as external effects of crime. As a result, the narrative not only explores the effects of crime on the main protagonists, but also internalises the crimes, questioning why the crimes are committed rather than simply by whom. I have become aware in my writing of this novel and in the research and reading accompanying it, that the concept of the body as a place of inviolable truth can and should be challenged.
Of course interesting as all this reflection was to me, all my agent was concerned with was whether she could sell the novel. At this point the work became a 'product' with marketability factors that I had not even started to consider. I was however relived to find that there were no real clashes of opinion between agent and supervisors and the combination of feedback from both sides helped me to tighten plot lines and develop character backgrounds. The only main change was that of one of the investigator's names.

I began by stating my original intention for embarking on a creative PhD - to experiment with the codes and conventions of the crime fiction genre. Without researching and analysing these codes and conventions and reflecting on them in my own work, I would have been unable to experiment with them as I have done. I may still have written a crime novel, but the book would have been very different. Using the metaphor of fragmentation and adapting the genre's conventions, I have been able to learn much about the genre and my own writing through this process of writing as research. This would not have been possible in a purely academic thesis. The novel is not only evidence of research and reflection, it contains that research and reflection and an integral element. of its text. This element, hard to define and categorise though it may be, is what makes the writing of a creative thesis unique.

Copyright - Jo Powell 2008



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