Mark Hardie: the perceptions of a blind crime writer
To me, Burned and Broken is about being blind. Or, at least, it is informed by my blindness. How could it not be?
Mark Hardie: one of the failings of crime fiction is the portrayal of mental health issues. The murderer is usually shown as cold-blooded, unfeeling – a “psychopath”. This is usually an erroneous or at best superficial treatment of the disorder. The crimes he commits are so heinous that this gives the detective license to do “whatever it takes” to bring him to book
I suppose it would make sense to give you a little bit of background. I am totally blind. I have a hereditary condition called Stickler Syndrome. This is a defect in the “collagen” gene which affects connective tissue. It has a “variable presentation”, which means that it displays as a group of symptoms which can range from mild to severe. Unfortunately I had all the symptoms and they were severe. I was born with a cleft to the soft palate of the mouth, had hyper-extensive joints (double-jointedness) when I was younger and suffered arthritis from a young age. Stickler’s, however, primarily affects the eye. Because of the shape of the eye people with the condition are prone to myopia (short-sightedness), cataracts and glaucoma. All of which I have had at one point or another, along with the abnormal growth of veins across the back of my eye; and hypotony, which was a catastrophic drop in the pressure inside my eye.
The main problem encountered with Stickler syndrome, however, is usually tearing and detachment of the retinas. I had a detachment in both retinas when I was in the last year of junior school. Surgery managed to save the sight in my left eye but not my right. Finally, I suffered a detachment in the retina of my right eye in 2002. Due to complications following surgery it was not possible to save the remaining sight in this eye.
Now that has been dealt with, I’ll try and address three of the questions writers are most frequently asked:
What themes does the book explore?
In my opinion one of the failings of crime fiction is the portrayal of mental health issues. The antagonist, the murderer, is usually shown as cold-blooded, unfeeling – a “psychopath”. This is usually an erroneous or at best superficial treatment of the disorder. The crimes he commits are so heinous that this gives the protagonist, the detective, license to do “whatever it takes” to bring him to book.
One of the themes I was keen to explore in Burned and Broken is the prevailing attitudes in some areas of modern society towards the criminal justice system and those suffering with mental health problems. The lead male character, Detective Sergeant Frank Pearson, is just a decent bloke trying to do the right thing, despite the distractions of his personal life and the pressures brought to bear by the political and operational constraints of his job. As in most real-life situations, the people he comes into contact with on a day-to-day basis are the marginalised and misunderstood. At the end of the book the reader should not, I hope, be asking “whodunnit?” because that, as it should be, is explained; but rather “why did it happen?” and maybe “who is the victim?”
Where did the idea for the book come from?
Well, you might say… it all began with a minotaur. I suppose, in common with most novelists’ debuts, Burned and Broken developed out of several writing exercises on my creative writing courses. One of which was a short story involving a spy in postwar Berlin who was tracking down extra-terrestrials masquerading as humans. The narrator was able to identify these when he lit a cigarette and the match flame was reflected in the red eye of a minotaur. It bears, I later realised, more than a passing resemblance with the concept behind Bladerunner.
Anyhow, this morphed into the scene where the young girl, Donna, is alone in the car with a predatory male character. In the course of writing this I became interested in the idea of attempting to describe a character experiencing the effects of the disintegration of their mental health.
The police procedural aspect came out of a short radio play extract we had to write. I wrote a scene involving an officer from the professional standards department interviewing a female officer. It was set in a hot and stuffy room during a torrential downpour. The idea at the time was to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere I remembered from the film Twelve Angry Men. The characters later became Neil Ferguson and Cat Russell in the book.
Why crime fiction? or probably, in my case, Did you ever think about writing about being blind?
To me, Burned and Broken is about being blind. Or, at least, it is informed by my blindness. How could it not be? The book is, essentially, made up of two distinct narratives. In the first, a detective under investigation by the professional standards department is found burned to death in his car. In the second, a vulnerable young girl, fresh out of the care system, tries to find out the truth behind the death of her best friend.
The death of the policeman is investigated by the main protagonists; the veteran Sergeant Frank Pearson and his younger partner DC Catherine “Cat” Russell. At the outset both have very different opinions of the victim. To Pearson he is too flash – a maverick – everything he is not and everything that is wrong with the job. Cat counts him as a friend and believes he has confided in her a deeply personal secret. The book explores how they “see” the dead detective and how their views change over time. This sprang from the contemplation of how we perceive other people and how this view might be affected by how much of this “view” is exposed to us at any one time.
The second narrative, dealing with the young girl who is having a mental health crisis, could probably more easily be attributed to my circumstances. In essence it is about how we “see” the world. It came from thinking about how my senses, and by extension my sense of reality, had been altered and had changed my perception of the world around me.
Burned and Broken is published by Sphere