15 keys to One Green Bottle. N° 6: The detective plaque.
A novel has to be plausible. Not close to the real world, but plausible in the world of the novel. So in Harry Potter’s world, things are done one way; in James Bond’s, another. Broomsticks and Aston Martins don’t mix.
On the face of it, detective stories are closer to reality. Inspector Rebus doesn’t use magic or come face to face with Blofeld. But in fact, of course, they’re a long way from reality, as pointed out by (real) chief constable, Nick Gargan: “You see a Rebus or Morse at the scene, recovering forensic exhibits, interviewing the suspect, comforting the family, arguing with the chief constable about resources. What can be a team of 20, 30 or 40 people is concentrated in the person of this one senior investigator.” Ian Rankin is quite comfortable with that. As he says, a realistic portrayal of police procedure would result in “the most boring book in the world.”
So here’s a little quiz about private detectives in France.
Naturally, when I created Magali Rousseau, I wanted her to be plausible. But when I first posted One Green Bottle on Book Country, one reviewer stopped reading when she got to the following passage (adapted):
A few days later, something indeed turned up: a plastic bag on the doorstep containing a bronze plaque. She’s crazy, Magali thought, as she read the note from Sophie: Wishing you all success in your new career.
They’d talked about ways of making a living, from bus driver to beautician, and seeing the plaque, Magali laughed out loud and put it in the garage. Later that day, though, she thought that since, after all, Sophie had gone to the trouble of making it, the least she could do was go along with the joke. She found a wooden plank which she sanded and varnished, nailed the plaque onto it, and fixed it by means of a chain round the stone pillar at the entrance to the drive. It looked so good that she almost believed it herself.
She was polishing the piano a couple of weeks later when the doorbell rang and a woman was there on the steps asking to speak to her. She was about Magali’s age, but slim and well dressed, and Magali, in comparison, felt dowdy and shapeless.
‘I happened to notice your sign,’ said the woman. Her eyes had the haunted look of someone worn down by anxiety or stress. ‘I’d like you to help me if you can.’
‘Aren’t you a private detective?’
‘Oh… I’m sorry, yes, of course.’ She’d totally forgotten. ‘I didn’t really… I wasn’t…’ She wanted to say the plaque was there for a laugh, but the woman didn’t look as if she’d think it was funny.
‘In which case,’ said the woman, ‘I’d like you to find the person who murdered my son.’
Implausible, said the reviewer. Stretches credibility too far. Oh, well. Can’t please everyone, I suppose. And the thing is, if she’d read a bit further, she’d have come to this:
Sophie had been stretching it when she said there were no regulations. Magali had looked it up – in fact, she’d been downright wrong. Yes, there was a time when anyone could do it, as long as they had no criminal record, declared on their honour that they were law-abiding and upright, and waded through the paperwork imposed on the self-employed. But in 2005 a decree came out saying you had to be qualified, you had to take a course. To be a private detective, you had to have the certificate to prove it. And you weren’t a detective anyway. You were a ‘Research Agent’.
The decree was signed by six different ministers including the Minister of the Interior at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy. Magali had not the slightest respect for the man who went on to become the President of France, but even so, it felt odd, and a little disturbing, to contravene so brazenly a document to which he had put his signature. Especially when the reason behind it was precisely to prevent people like her from doing what she was doing.
So while she investigates the murder, she also signs up on a course to become qualified, which led one reviewer to say that it’s a story about an ordinary woman becoming a detective. Plausible? It was actually a fantasy of mine, years ago. If I ever lose my job, I thought, I’ll just put up a plaque. It would have been quite legal at the time. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s actually happened. I recently read about an ambulance driver who didn’t have a driver’s licence, so to me it’s entirely plausible. Where I did stray from the real world, though, was in having Magali do the course by distance learning. So if you got question 5 right, you can take me to task on the plausibility issue. On the other hand, I couldn’t have her sitting in a classroom all day – as Ian Rankin says, reality is just too boring.