Thursday, November 12, 2009

What's Your Style?

In well-written crime fiction, just as in real life, murders take place within a context of time, place, culture, and so on. One way in which crime fiction authors shape that context and share it with readers is through their writing styles. When the writing style is a good “fit” for the kind of murder mystery the author’s writing, the story hangs together and is a lot more believable. Mystery lovers notice writing style, too. In fact, sometimes, an evocative or lyrical writing style can make up for other elements in a story that aren’t as strong (Thanks to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading for making me think of this).

Some murder mysteries are what one might call “quiet murders.” They aren’t spy thrillers and they don’t involve crazed serial killers, mobsters or escaped convicts. Rather, they’re what one might call “private” murders, where the killer and the victim have had a (sometimes close, even intimate) relationship. Well-written “quiet murders” have an accompanying “quiet” style that in itself can build tension. For example, Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden is the story of the death of Warren Howe, a landscaper whom everyone thinks was killed by his wife, Tina. She has an alibi, though, and no charges can be brought against her. Years later, the case is reopened by DCI Hannah Scarlett and her cold case team and, in a different way, by Oxford historian Daniel Kind. Here’s a sample from that novel:

Half a mile from The Heights, Kirsty stopped at a passing place when she saw the van coming towards her. As it drew near, she recognized it as belonging to Peter Flint. Oh, God, there was no escaping him at present. She lowered her head, keeping her eye on the foot pedals, but predictable to a fault, he didn’t drive on past. He stopped when his car was level with hers and wound down his window.
“Off to work?”
Silly question. She was tempted to say so, just to wipe the cheerful beam off his face. Their relationship was fraught, but she knew he was making an effort and she always found it difficult to be rude.
“That’s right.”
“I’ve just been talking to Bel. She wants help with that little garden at the back of the restaurant. Moles have been playing havoc with the lawn and she’d like the border replanting.”

Other mysteries are “down and dirty.” In those mysteries, the murder often has to do with drug dealing, mob activity or some other “raw” kind of crime. In well-written novels of this kind, the writing style evokes that “down and dirty” aspect of the mystery. For instance, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter. Her job is to find people who’ve fled the law and bring them back to stand trial. Many of the people she chases are unsavory characters, and many of the places she goes in her investigations are not nice places to be. The setting for most of these novels is working-class Trenton, New Jersey. Evanovich’s writing style evokes this. In Three to Get Deadly, for example, Plum is asked to bring in a beloved candy store owner who fled to escape a charge of carrying a concealed weapon. Here’s a sample from the book of the kind of gritty writing style that fits this kind of mystery so well:

I paid my toll and inched forward, sucking in a stew of diesel exhaust and other secret ingredients that caught me in the back of the throat. I adjusted to the pollution and felt just fine when I got to Mo’s sister’s house on Crane Street. Adaptation is one of the great advantages to being born and bred in Jersey. We’re simply not bested by bad air and tainted water….You want to send someone into a fallout zone? Get him from Jersey. He’ll be fine.

Sometimes, the context for a mystery novel is a particular place – often (though not always) an exotic place. When that place is important to the mystery, the writing style evokes it, too, in a well-written story. For example, Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is set in and around Gabarone, Botswana, in Africa. The unique setting and context is reflected in Smith’s writing style. As an example, in The Full Cupboard of Life, Mma Precious Ramotswe has been hired to choose the best among four suitors for Mma Holonga, a wealthy owner of several hair-braiding salons. At the same time, her fiancĂ©, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, has been persuaded to jump from a parachute in a fundraiser for the local orphanage, and is trying to find a polite way to get out of that obligation. Here’s a sample from that book that shows the way Smith’s style matches the context for this series:

Mma Ramotswe went to her cousin’s house and sat on the stool in the lelapa, the small, carefully swept yard which forms the immediate cartilage of the traditional Botswana house. Mma Ramotswe was always pleased to see her cousin, as these visits gave her the opportunity to catch up on village news. This was information one would never see in any newspaper, yet it was every bit as interesting – more so, in many respects – than the great events of the world which the newspapers reported.

Another example of a murder story that depends on a particular place for meaning is Howard Rigsby’s Dead Man’s Story, a short story that first appeared in 1938 in Argosy magazine. The story is told from the point of view of Joe Root, a Florida everglades game warden who comes upon a group of poachers. When they threaten him, Root refuses to back down and he’s killed. All the same, Root has an interesting way of bringing the killers to justice. The back country setting is critical to this story, and Rigsby’s style evokes that. Here’s a sample:

For sixty year I lived over on the west coast and war a game warden for twenty of ‘em and I know every swampy piece and piney stretch and bayou from Port St. Joe to Pensacola. I can tell you to the minute when the young quail’ll hatch out and lookin’ at a deer track I can tell you where he’s goin’ and what he’s thinkin’. I fought and et and hunted bear and panther and wild boar and they has fought me and some tried eatin’ me.

Some crime fiction is what one might call “folksy.” Some “cozy” mysteries fit into this category (although others don’t). These mysteries take place in small towns, very often, and are centered around strange events or a mysterious death. Well-written ones are suspenseful, too, and keep the reader interested on the basis of the plot. But “folksy” mysteries can be just as enjoyable for the atmosphere and quirky characters as for anything else. Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series fall into this category. Some of them revolve around taut plots and interesting characters, and all of them feature the small-town atmosphere that’s reflected in Braun’s folksy writing style. Here’s a taste of it from The Cat Who Said Cheese, in which Jim Qwilleran, Braun’s sleuth, investigates the appearance of a mysterious woman in town, and a frightening bombing at the local hotel in which the stranger is staying.

He [Qwilleran] walked first to Lois’ Luncheonette for a piece of apple pie. The proprietor – a buxom, bossy woman with a host of devoted customers – was taking a mid-afternoon break and chattering to coffee-drinking loiterers. She talked about her son Lenny, who worked the evening shift on the desk at the local hotel…she talked about his girlfriend…who…also worked part-time at the hotel. Students, she said, were glad to work short hours even though the skinflint who owned the hotel paid minimum wage without benefits.

What’s perhaps most interesting is when writers change style as they evolve. That’s what happened to Agatha Christie. As she continued writing, her style became more relaxed, almost intimate. This development was a very appropriate fit for the kinds of mysteries she often wrote. One could argue that Christie’s writing changed as the times in which she lived changed. Here are two examples to show what I mean. The first one’s from 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which Poirot makes his first appearance. In that novel, Poirot investigates the murder of Emily Inglethorp, mistress of Styles Court and Poirot’s benefactor.

I received a letter from Evelyn Howard a couple of days after her departure, telling me she was working as a nurse in Middlingham…and begging me to let her know if Mrs. Inlgthorp should show any wish to be reconciled. The only fly in the ointment of my peaceful days was Mrs. Cavendish’s extraordinary, and, for my part, unaccountable preference for the society of Dr. Baurstein.

Thirty-five years later, Christie wrote Hickory Dickory Death (AKA Hickory Dickory Dock). In that novel, Poirot investigates the murder of a young woman at a hostel for students. Here’s a sample of the style of that novel that shows how much more relaxed Christie’s style had become:

Mrs. Hubbard went on down the stairs. She turned into the students’ common room on the ground floor. There were four people in the room. Valerie Hobhouse prone on a sofa with her narrow, elegant feet stuck up over the arm of it; Nigel Chapman, sitting at a table with a heavy book open in front of him; Patricia Lane leaning against a mantelpiece and a girl in a mackintosh who had just come in and who was pulling off a wooly cap as Mrs. Hubbard entered.

Of course, there are lots of other writing styles that I haven’t detailed. For instance, authors such as Ellis Peters and Deanna Raybourn have used their styles to evoke particular historical periods. A writing style that’s well matched to the context of a mystery can be so subtle we almost don’t notice it. But a good match adds much to a good crime fiction novel.
What’s your favorite writing style?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very interesting and thought-provoking blog. It made me think about the kinds of books I like to read. (I'm a reviewer.) I especially liked the examples from real books that you used to illustrate your points. Nicely done, Margot.

  3. Jackie - Thanks for visiting! I appreciate your comments. Thanks, too, for the kind words. It's really interesting, isn't it, to think about the sorts of writing styles that appeal to us as readers. Very often, we're drawn to one or another particular style, but just as often, I think, we're drawn to really close fits between style and the story of mystery that's at the core of the plot.

  4. My style had changed over time and still is. I once like whodunnits, but now I find them too limited. I once like police procedurals but the detective solving the cases, all seemed like the same guy after a while: moody, bad marriage, loner. Noir is often too dark for me. The only thing to do is go for the best writers wherever they live.

  5. Patti - You've got a good point. Talented writing isn't confined to one kind of mystery subgenre (or for that matter, one literary genre). Whether the style is "quiet," gritty, "folksy" or something else, the most important aspect of it is that it's best if it matches the storyline. Fortunately, there are many well-written books with a variety of styles, so there's plenty of variety : ).

  6. Such a fantastic post... thanks! I'm a crime writer, and yes, I do notice styles. But now, I'm gonna go back an re-read some of Christie's stuff with a more critical eye (its been a long time).


  7. I like 'quiet mysteries' where the tension grows as the characters' masks fall further and further away. Give me 'why' over car chases and rampaging serial killers any day. I like to read (occasionally) books that are more action-based than what I write, but I find they are one-read wonders. The quiet books I will read over and over again.


    P.S. Once again, Margot, the breadth of your knowledge leaves me weak with wonder. Wow.

  8. Jm - Thanks for the kind words : ). I think we crime fiction writers pay attention to style, because we're sensitive to the elements of the crime novel. I know, for instance, that I always learn from reading others' writing. I notice what other writers do, and sometimes, I incorporate it. And Agatha Christie is my favorite role model : ).

    Elspeth - I *love* that expression - "one-read wonders!" I'm going to thieve it : ). I actually experience the same thing that you do as far as my reading tastes go. I sometimes read more action-packed mysteries, and while I'm reading them, I can't put them down. But it's the more quiet mysteries (Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Martin Edwards, and "cozy" writers like Elizabeth Craig) that I keep on my shelves and re-read, or have permanently checked out from the library.

  9. Margot--I usually go back to traditional and cozy mysteries the most, but different moods have me picking up different subgenres. Police procedurals are a real favorite of mine and sometimes I'll pick up a noir or a thriller, too. It's great to have so many types of books to choose from!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  10. Elizabeth - You are so right. One of the beauties of today's mystery and crime fiction is that there are so many subgenres. No matter what writing style one prefers, it's likely that there's an author who writes that way. That same variety lets us sample different styles, too.

  11. Too many good styles to choose from. I think I agree with Patti and enjoy books--of any style--written by excellent writers.

  12. Alan - I agree completely! It's so nice to have well-written books in any syle. That gives readers a lot to choose from, and allows writers lots of latitude when they're choosing their styles.

  13. Something that interests me as both writer and reader is that, whilst most series require a fairly consistent style, with different types of story, or different series, even a single writer can produce fascinating work in a wide range of different styles.

  14. Martin - That's a very well-taken point! One can see real differences between Ruth Rendell's style when she's writing under her own name, and her style as Barbara Vine. There are also a lot of differences between Rita Mae Brown's style in her "cozy" Mrs. Murphy stories, and the style she uses in her other fiction such as Rubyfruit Jungle.. To me, writers who do that really show strong ability to match writing style to the context - an admirable quality.

  15. I don't know Rita Mae Brown's work, but you're absolutely right about Rendell/Vine - in fact, it's a perfect example, because the books under both names are, in their different ways, so consistently excellent.

  16. I love a very varied diet!
    And just like I enjoy reading Ruth Rendell, moving on to Martin Edwards and picking Sue Grafton next, I enjoy writing in different styles. Today I wrote the first draft of four short pieces; two humorous ones, a parody, and one which is more serious and seen from a child´s point of view. It is so satisfying when you find the right word and the right tone.

  17. Dorte - I like to read different styles, too : )You are so right about writing, too! It's interesting to try different styles. I think that's a great way, too, to find one's own "fit." I'm really interested in your stories, too, if you care to share them. Your blue vase one was terrific!