THE HALO EFFECT - When real life makes crime fiction seem more like the truth
There’s a technique which some fiction writers use called the “halo effect”. It’s used in many genres of fiction, but it’s especially useful in crime fiction. The idea is that when you’re writing something that’s inherently improbable – many whodunit plots are – you can make the fiction seems more likely by surrounding it with real facts. Sometimes you do it, by mixing fictional characters with real people, past or present. Past, usually, as present can throw up some legal difficulties!
(Incidentally, I should point out before we go further that psychologists have a different way of using the term halo effect to we mere writers. So, lets’ not squabble, but just use it in our own ways.)
I’ve used the halo effect in a couple of my previous books. In Front Page Murder, Colin Crampton finds himself making a frantic telephone call to the then UK Home Secretary Henry Brooke to delay a hanging. Brook was described in his day as “the most hated man in Britain” but in the book Colin’s eloquence persuades him to call off the hanging.
In The Tango School Mystery, Colin and his Australian girlfriend Shirley Goldsmith, have a meeting with Winston Churchill in his retirement home in Hyde Park Gate, London. Churchill is often rolled out by authors for a halo effect mainly because he’s famous even 50 years after he died. But that means you have to be extra careful about how you portray him. Get something wrong, and you’ll have people writing – or, more likely, e-mailing – to point out the error of your ways. I was pleased that the way I’d portrayed Churchill met with some modest praise.
Anyway, the reason I mention the halo effect is because I’ve used it more extensively than before in my latest book, The Comedy Club Mystery. As a result, I think I’ve learnt one or two points about how to use the halo effect well, and one or two pitfalls to avoid.
In The Comedy Club Mystery, the main halo effect character is Max Miller, the mid-twentieth century comedian who during the 1940s and 1950s was, for a time, the highest paid entertainer in Britain. He proved a natural for one of my Brighton-based Crampton of the Chronicle tales, because he was born in the town and is commemorated with a lively statue in the Royal Pavilion Gardens.
Writing the book helped me understand one of the strengths of the halo effect which I’d not appreciated before. You get the most from it when you make real incidents from your halo character’s life bolster the fictional plot. So, it’s not just enough to have your real person lurking in the pages. You want things that have happened in their life to resonate with the plot.
In the case of Max Miller, I’ve used several features of his life – his famous Blue Book of saucy jokes which he used to brandish during his act, his compassion for the blind, founded on his own brief blindness, and the rumours that he stashed thousands from this huge show business earnings in safety deposit boxes that remained undiscovered after his death in 1963.
But there are pitfalls also. One is that when you use a character from the past, he may not be so well known today. That means you have to provide readers with enough information about them to ensure they understand what they were really like. In Max’s case, that involved recalling some of the jokes in his act – including the filthy one he told on the radio which had him banned for a time by the BBC.
In the end, I think the halo effect is one of those techniques which is designed to make reading a book more enjoyable. And that is what every writer wants.
Peter Bartram is the author of more than 30 books including the Crampton of the Chronicle series of comic crime mysteries which have more than 600 five-star reviews. The latest book in the series is The Comedy Club Mystery. www.colincrampton.com