LAURA WILSON Crime Writing: The Masterclass
The first in a series of eight Mslexia columns on crime fiction – the genre, the authors, the techniques.
What is a crime novel and are you writing one?
In 1929, during what has come to be known as the golden age of British crime fiction, the novelist Ronald Knox compiled a list, known as The Decalogue, of ten dos and don’ts for crime writers. Among other things, this set of commandments forbade the use of the supernatural and insisted that the detective must neither commit the crime himself nor have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right. It also forbade the inclusion of identical twins (unless flagged up at the beginning of the story), more than one secret passage, and – presumably because of contemporary reader prejudice – Chinamen. Unreliable narrators were also off-limits. In 1926, Agatha Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd caused a great furore for just this reason, when she was accused of not playing fair by breaking the contract between writer and reader.
There is, of course, no contract, except in that any reader picking up a crime novel has, quite rightly, an expectation that he or she will be informed and entertained; this level of proscription would mean that most of the top practitioners today – such as Mark Billingham, John Harvey, Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters – would be drummed out of the club. However, one of the joys of writing crime fiction today is that there are very few rules – even a dead body isn’t actually de rigueur – and no limits, except those imposed by the writer’s imagination. As crime fiction critic of The Guardian, I receive books with dystopian themes, as well as elements of horror and the supernatural – all of which is fine, provided that the internal logic is consistent.
Crime fiction, basically, is a very broad church with room for every type of mystery. Thus, a writer such as the famously grisly Mo Hayder sits on the shelves beside Suzette A. Hill, who writes charming, bucolic books (prominent in which are a cat and a dog who provide a gloss upon the proceedings), and Alexander McCall Smith, of No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency fame, nestles next to Val McDermid. There are many different categories, and plenty of books which either fall into two, or even three of them – or defy them all. Here’s a very basic rundown of the different types: >> Adventure/Thriller: Tom Clancy, Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth
>> Hardboiled/Noir: Walter Mosley, Raymond Chandler, Gerald Kersh >> Police procedural: Ed McBain, Reginald Hill, Ian Rankin >> Historical: Ariana Franklin, C. J. Sansom, Andrew Taylor >> Legal: John Grisham, Scott Turow, Natasha Cooper >> Comic/Black Humour: Carl Hiassen, Christopher Brookmyre, Ruth Dudley Edwards >> Private Eye (often, but by no means always, noir): Sue Grafton, Agatha Christie (Poirot), Sara Paretsky >> Psychological: Frances Fyfield, Margaret Murphy, Minette Walters >> Traditional/Amateur Sleuth: Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie (Miss Marple), Catriona McPherson
There’s crime in the literary canon, too: Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins; Edgar Allan Poe – who created many of the conventions of the genre; Dostoevsky (think Crime and Punishment); and contemporary writers Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis and Sarah Waters.
Before I continue, I feel I must give a word of warning. It’s important to remember that, besides being the perfect vehicle for exploring social issues (if you so wish), the modern crime novel is as rich in characterisation, setting and ideas as any other form of literature. Far from allowing your standards to slip because it is ‘genre fiction,’ you need to remember that although your work doesn’t have to charge along at top speed – indeed, some of the best crime fiction, such as the work of Stieg Larsson, is quite slow in pace – you are working in a form which requires a great deal of discipline from the writer, where every word must be made to count. Crime fiction also requires plenty of drama and a strong narrative drive.
Obviously, a crime novel needs to contain a ‘puzzle’ element, but that doesn’t mean it has to be emotionally neutral. It’s important that
the reader cares about the characters as well as being intrigued by the process whereby the crime is solved and the perpetrator discovered (but not necessarily brought to justice). The features that will place your work in the crime genre are, broadly speaking: >> A crime, obviously – usually, but not always, murder. Subjects such as fraud, theft and blackmail also provide the sort of drama and tension necessary to a crime fiction plot >> A mystery with a variety of suspects and alternative solutions >> Conflict and suspense >> A challenge to the reader, whether your book is a whodunit, a whydunit, a howdunit or a who-was-dun-in >> A resolution, bringing together the various strands of the novel and revealing the perpetrator When my first novel, A Little Death, was accepted for publication in 1999, the publishers, Orion, offered me a choice: I could either be marketed as a literary novelist or as a crime novelist. It may sound disingenuous, but, while I was writing, I had not really considered what sort of book it was. I suppose the fact that I had begun with three dead bodies in a locked house should have told me something, but I was simply writing the kind of book that I enjoyed reading, and hoping that others would enjoy it, too. I chose, of course, to be a crime writer, and, despite encountering a fair amount of ill-informed snobbery along the way, I have never regretted it. It was good luck, and not good judgement, on my part, that crime fiction is the healthiest and fastest-growing genre, as well as the most commercially viable.
Although, as I have said, there is much more crossover between different types of literature in today’s market, it’s important to remember that the labels are there for a reason. With more books than ever being published, booksellers have to know how to categorise them, otherwise it would be impossible for the customer to find anything. Remember, too, that publishers’ reps have an average of 30 seconds to sell an individual title to a bookseller, so if they can sum up your book in a few words, it makes their job a whole lot easier. This applies to customers making choices, too. Studies have shown that a browser in a bookshop will look at a book for approximately 20 seconds before returning
Be broad-minded…it is always a good idea for a potential crime novelist to read right across the genre…
G E R RY B AU E R
:P H OTO