Today’s guest blog is by Kevin Brooks who is best known as a young-adult writer. His novel Lucas won the North East Book Award in 2004 whilst his novel Martyn Pig won the Brandford Boase Award in 2003. He is also the author of Johnny Delgado series and the series featuring P I John Craine.
Madness is a tricky thing to write about. Madness, insanity, derangement, lunacy ... even the terminology is open to question. But whatever you call it, and however difficult it might be, it's a subject I've always found fascinating, and while many of my previous novels have touched on the nature of the broken mind, my latest book has madness at its heart.
Until the Darkness Comes is the second in a series of novels featuring the Essex private investigator John Craine. In the first book (A Dance of Ghosts, 2011), Craine's troubled past is introduced, and it soon becomes apparent that he's still struggling to come to terms with the violent death of his wife and unborn child seventeen years ago. He suffers from bouts of depression, he has continuing problems with alcohol and drug addiction, he hears his wife's voice in his head. But while these factors play a key part in A Dance of Ghosts, it's not until the second book that Craine's state of mind becomes absolutely central to the story.
The story takes place shortly after the events described in the first book, with Craine still licking his wounds and trying to recover from the physical and emotional trauma of the last few weeks. He's left town for a while, booked himself into a rundown hotel on an isolated island off the coast of Essex, hoping to get away from it all. But he can't get away from the demons that haunt him. And as the story progresses, dragging him into a world of conflict and confusion, everything becomes too much for him and he begins to lose touch with reality ... or, at least, he thinks he's losing touch with reality.
And it's that very uncertainty – how do you know if you’re going mad? – that makes writing about insanity both difficult and fascinating. As Craine himself puts it:
"But, for the most part, I did have faith in myself and what I was doing, and although I couldn't eradicate all thoughts of delusion from my mind, I could at least take some comfort from the fact that if I really was delusional, I probably wouldn't be aware of it."
The question as to whether or not a troubled mind would recognise its own madness is particularly intriguing when addressed from a first-person point of view, as the only perspective we have is that of the narrator. If the narrator is losing his mind, how can we trust what he's telling us? But, on the other hand, if the narrator tells us he's not losing his mind, how do we know that he's not just saying that because he's delusional?
Another fascinating/tricky aspect of fictional madness is the degree to which it has to be fictional. To a certain extent, all fiction is necessarily distinct from reality, otherwise it wouldn’t be fiction. In the real world, for example, neither police officers nor serial killers are geniuses, stories never end, and people don't perform somersaults in the middle of a fight. And if crime fiction was strictly true to life – with crimes being solved through a combination of painstakingly laborious paperwork and hundreds of thankless telephone calls – no one would want to read it. So no matter how realistic a story might be, we all understand and accept that it's still nevertheless a fictional construct. Of course, this doesn’t mean that works of fiction don’t have to be factually accurate, but sometimes it's necessary (for the story) to be somewhat selective with the truth. And that was the approach I took to the depiction of Craine's mental disorder in Until the Darkness Comes.
It's by no means an inaccurate portrayal – much of it is based on personal experience – and I made every effort to ensure that the feelings and symptoms I described were as accurate as possible (bearing in mind the individual nature of such feelings). But to fully capture the real reality of what it's like to lose your mind, I would have had to fill pages and pages with long descriptions of soul-destroying boredom, debilitating fatigue, inertia, despair, emotional emptiness ... and while that would have been factually accurate, it wouldn't have been much of a read.
There is an element to this type of compromise that sometimes feels slightly uncomfortable, as if you’re picking out the fascinating aspects of a topic and leaving the really difficult stuff behind. It's an odd concept to have to accept: you find the subject of madness intriguing, you're captivated by the workings of the human mind, yet at the same time you know there's nothing remotely entertaining about the reality of mental illness. But if you think about it – and you have the same sensibilities as me – it's a concept that also applies to crime fiction as a whole. We're fascinated by the subject of murder, we enjoy being immersed in a world of crime, but at the same time we know there's nothing remotely thrilling about the reality of human violence.
One of the reasons that madness becomes so central to the story in Until the Darkness Comes, and one the reasons I found it so interesting to write about, is the way in which it affects Craine's ability to function as a detective. While he's not working professionally in this book – in that he hasn't actually been hired to investigate anything – the story still revolves around his attempts to uncover the truth, and it's the rationality behind that process that begins to suffer with the gradual breakdown of Craine's ability to reason. If you can't rely on your senses, he realises, and you can't trust what your mind is telling you, how can you possibly make sense of anything? How can you get to the truth if you're unable to distinguish between reality and delusion? But the mind-altering effects of sensual derangement can also be a benefit at times, allowing Craine insights that might not otherwise come to him. For example:
"It was one of those long-forgotten memories that often only come back to you when you're intoxicated, looming up through the unguarded depths of your mindless mind, taking you by surprise. And when these lost memories do come back to you, they can sometimes seem so fresh, so vivid, so vital, that it's hard to believe that they've been hidden away in a dusty old box in the basement of your mind for so long. They're not just idle memories, they mean something."
So, yes, madness is a tricky thing to write about, and it brings with it all kinds of problems, some of which are beyond resolution. But that's how it is with writing – it's not supposed to be easy, and it's not meant to resolve every question it poses. It's fiction. It's a version of reality. But once it's read, once it becomes a story in our minds, it then becomes part of us, part of our reality, which probably makes it as real as anything else.
Or does it?
Until the Darkness Comes by Kevin Brooks is published by Arrow Books priced, £6.99.