Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Rules of the Road" for Crime Fiction

One of the most interesting things about crime fiction, and probably a reason that crime fiction has so many fans, is the rich variety in the genre. I won’t list examples from each kind of crime fiction, but there really are a surprising number of sub-genres. There are thrillers, spy stories, cozies, psychological novels, police procedurals, historical mysteries, “nightmare” novels, and “private eye” novels. And those are just a few of the sub-genres. There are also quite a number of crime fiction novels that almost defy categorization. For instance, are Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby novels cozies or police procedurals? Or both? Are Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels thrillers? “Hardboiled” novels? Police procedurals? There are arguments for all of those.

Despite all of this variety, though, there are some underlying commonalities that crime fiction novels have, and there are, arguably, some basic elements that make up a well-written crime fiction novel. The rules, if we can call them that, aren’t as hard-and-fast as, say the rules for certain kinds of poetry, but they nonetheless seem to be there. When writers of other genres choose to write crime fiction, or when aspiring writers choose crime fiction, we can argue that they need to learn those elements as well as the basic elements that make up any quality writing (character, sense of time and place, and so on). Thanks to Maxine at Petrona for inspiring me to think about the “rules of the road” for crime fiction, and the elements that hold the genre together.

1. There is a crime at the center of the plot.

This element seems almost too obvious to mention. However, mystery fans take it seriously. Crime fiction readers want crime fiction plots that focus on a crime. Does the crime have to be murder? Not always. For instance, Agatha Christie wrote some compelling short stories in which there is no murder. One of them, from the Murder in the Mews collection is The Incredible Theft. In that story, Lord Charles Mayfield is hosting a house party that consists of himself, his secretary, Carlisle, Retired Air Marshal Sir George Carrington and his wife, Lady Julia, their son Reggie Carrington, and a mysterious American, Mrs. Vanderlyn. Mayfield and Carrington have planned to consult about a new air bomber, the plans of which are being kept secret, since they’d be quite valuable to England’s enemies. After dinner, the two men prepare to work on the plans, only to find that they are stolen. Sir George calls in Hercule Poirot, who sets to work finding out who had access to the plans, and who would have the motive to steal them.

There are many other stories, too, in which the crime at hand isn’t a murder. For instance, many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are about thefts, disappearances and mysterious happenings, rather than murders. Still, as Agatha Christie's Captain Hastings says to Poirot in The ABC Murders, the “ideal” crime, if there is such a thing, is murder. What’s interesting about crime fiction is that the murder doesn’t have to take any particular form. High-quality crime fiction includes poisoning, drowning, shooting, bludgeoning, and many other methods of killing. There can be one murder, or many murders, and the victim can be just about anyone. However, in high quality murder mysteries, that crime is the center of the story.

This point is important, because in a well-written crime fiction novel, everything else (characters, setting, plot points) serves to focus on the mystery at hand. For example, in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy are investigating the death of financial consultant Dennis Brinkley. In that novel, there are several sub-plots involving Brinkley’s clients, a friend, and a business partner. All of them are compelling, and add richness and depth to the novel. Yet every sub-plot is connected in some way to the main focus – the murder and its investigation.

2. There’s an investigation.

Again, this seems like an obvious point, but it’s nonetheless important. In some way, a well-written crime novel focuses the reader on the search for the truth about the mystery. Most of the time, the investigation comes in the form of a sleuth. One of the beauties of crime fiction is that, of course, just about anyone can be a sleuth. There are police sleuths such as Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Reg Wexford; there are amateur sleuths such as Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover. There are also private investigator sleuths such as Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. There are even “crossover” sleuths such as my own Joel Williams, who used to be a police detective but is now a professor. Those are just a few examples; there are many more.

Even when there’s no particular sleuth at the center of the investigation, that search for answers is the focus of a well-written crime novel.

In lots of cases, that search involves clues. Some of the clues are real, and some are “red herrings,” but in either case, they are part of the investigation. One of the true joys of reading crime fiction (for lots of readers, anyway) is finding those clues and outguessing the author (and the sleuth). So well-written crime fiction allows the reader to do just that.

3 There is suspense.

One of the hallmarks and distinguishing characteristics of crime fiction is suspense. Mystery fans don’t want to be able to predict from the beginning what’s going to happen in a novel. Again, though, there are many ways in which that suspense can be built. Sometimes, as in Carol O’Connell’s Shell Game, the suspense comes from the “cat-and-mouse” game that’s played between the killer and the sleuth. We know who the killer is from the beginning, and the suspense comes as the sleuth gets closer to the truth, and possibly in more and more danger. Thrillers such as Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series use this strategy quite a lot to build suspense, and it can be very successful.

In other crime fiction, though, the suspense builds slowly, but steadily, eerily and successfully. That’s the case in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel, ten guests are invited to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. At dinner the first night, the guests are shocked when each one is accused of having taken at least one life. Little by little, everyone realizes that the invitations were “bait.” Now, all of the guests are trapped on the island and as they begin to die one by one, the suspense builds as the survivors try to figure out who the murderer among them is.

It’s also the case in Martin Edwards’ Lake District Series, which features DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind. In those novels, the suspense comes as the sleuths slowly uncover past secrets, hidden relationships and untold motives. Bit by bit, we learn more about the victim and the other characters, and that new information is what builds the suspense.

Sometimes, the suspense in a crime novel comes from the “ticking clock” strategy, where there’s a race against time to solve a mystery. For instance, in Michael Palmer’s The Second Opinion, Dr. Thea Sperelakis returns to her home in Boston after her father is gravely injured when he’s hit by a car. Thea begins to suspect that he was deliberately struck, and takes a job at the world-famous clinic where her father worked in order to find out who wanted her father dead and why. Two of Thea’s siblings want their father’s life support cut off, though, and as it is, he’s so gravely injured that he might die in any case. So Thea has to “race against the clock” to find out the truth behind his injuries while she still can.

In whichever way the author chooses to build it, suspense is arguably an essential for a well-written crime fiction novel.

4. The story makes sense.

Very often, fans of mystery novels read crime fiction in order to escape from everyday life. So it’s not essential, for instance, that a crime fiction novel look exactly like “everyone’s life.” That’s part of the appeal of spy novels like Robert Ludlum’s, private investigator series like Mickey Spillane’s or “adventure” series like Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novels.That said, though, it’s crucial that the parts of a mystery novel hold together.

For example, if there’s a murder (and there often is), the motive has to make sense. Even when the motive for murder is unusual, it’s got to make sense. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), beloved clergyman Stephen Babbington is poisoned at a cocktail party to which Hercule Poirot is invited. Poirot investigates that murder (and two others that occur in the novel), and finds that the motive for Babbington’s death is unusual, but it makes sense. It’s perfectly logical under the circumstances.

Well-written crime fiction novels also make sense in that the events happen naturally, and not by too many contrived coincidences. For instance, it’s natural and makes sense that two people who live in the same apartment building might see each other by coincidence. If a plot point hinges on the characters seeing each other, that’s logical because they live in the same building. Too many coincidences, though, make a story too unbelievable.

The characters’ involvement (including that of the sleuth) and actions in well-written crime fiction make sense as well. We could argue that that’s true of any well-written fiction, but it’s especially important in crime fiction, where involvement and actions are often important clues.

Finally, whatever surprises and revelations the author has in store are also believable. For instance, the end of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd received heavy criticism at the time the book was published. Christie was accused of not “playing fair” with readers. Yet, although that plot takes a very famous and surprising twist at the end, it makes sense. All the signs are there. It all fits together.

What do you think? Are there “rules of the road” for well-written crime fiction? What are they?

On Another Note…..

The wonders of modern technology are allowing me to appear in two places at once today (Thursday, 12 February). I’ve been honored as a guest blogger on Elizabeth Spann Craig’s wonderful blog, Mystery Writing is Murder. Please visit me there, where I’ll be talking about the research I did for my newly-released B-Very Flat, and the lessons I learned from it.


  1. Four excellent rules, Margot. I especially like number 4. That's where some crime novels fall a little short, in my eyes.

  2. Alan - Thanks : ). I agree about novels making sense, too. To me, a novel should first and foremost hold together as a story. If it doesn't make sense, it doesn't matter how interesting the mystery is, it doesn't work...

  3. Check, check, check and check. Oh good, yup I have a mystery novel.


  4. Ann - LOL!! That is *richness!* I know exactly how you feel, too : )

  5. For me the suspense - the page turning aspect of a book - is what keeps me enthralled. Great blog as usual, Margot!

  6. Bobbi - Thanks : ). You're right; suspense is one of the central aspects of a really high-quality crime fiction. The reader shouldn't know what's coming next, and yet, it all needs to make sense at the end. That's suspense : ).

  7. Good blog, Margot. In addition to the above, good dialogue also plays a key role in the making of a well-written crime novel.

    The author of A Crime To Be Rich, The Mind of a Genius and Too Young To Die.

  8. David - Thank you : ). You're absolutely right that well-written dialogue is essential to a compelling crime novel. Very often, dialogue gives the reader clues, so if it's not done well, not only do the characters "fall flat," but also, the reader may miss important information.

  9. The investigation is fun for me...I like trying to solve the crimes alongside the sleuth!

    Thanks so much for coming to my blog today, too! You're everywhere--east coast, west coast--amazing! :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  10. I love a true mystery, where I'm not privy to the POV of the bad guy. Good post.

  11. Elizabeth - Oh, I agree completely! Trying to figure out the clues and what they mean is one of the best parts of a mystery for me : ). I like that part of writing them, too.

    Technology is pretty amazing, isn't it? It lets people really be in two places at the same time : ). I'm having fun "setting up camp" in your "living room," too : ).

    Terry - Thanks : ) You've got a good point, too. It can be really engaging and keep the reader turning pages when we don't know what the villain is thinking or is going to do next.

  12. It's those unanswered questions that keep us turning pages. I remember the Roger Akroyd story, and yes, AC broke the rules, but they were logical. I've heard that you need to know the rules and how to use them in order to properly break them. Christie was a genius. So glad to get to know you. I am drawn to the mystery.

  13. Mary - Thank you; it's a pleasure to "meet" you, too. You make such a well-taken point about knowing and breaking "the rules,", and I agree that Christie's genius lay in the fact that she did know what makes for a good crime fiction story, and used that knowledge to break all the rules and help shape the modern crime novel. Little wonder she's one of my heroes. The end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is just one example of the way that Christie used those important elements of a crime novel to create her own unique "recipe." That novel didn't "stay within the lines," but it all holds together and is logical. Another thing I like about it :).

  14. The last one is the big one for me; if it doesn't make sense I'm probably stopping reading. I don't care if it's off-the-wall, but the plot and the characters' actions and motivations have to be logical in their own way. I don't care if whomever was killed because they ate the last cookie, if it's established the murderer had a belief all cookies are holy.

  15. Elspeth - LOL! I like your example motive : ). Your point, too, is very well-taken. No matter how unusual the victim, murderer, crime, setting, etc., are, it all has to make sense. We have to see how the pieces fit logically together. Otherwise, the story makes no sense, doesn't "hang together" and isn't interesting.

  16. I popped over from Elizabeth's blog. This post sure packed in the information. :]

  17. Tara - Thank you so much for taking the time to check out my blog. Please feel free to stop in anytime. I'm glad you found today's post informative : ).

  18. Margot what an excellent encapsulation of what makes 'crime fiction'. It's increased my suspcision that the George Pelecanos novel I just finished (The Way Home) isn't crime fictin though. See it really doesn't have an investigation - there are crimes but we know all along who has committed them and really we know why as well - what the book is about is how the various participants and their loved ones respond. I once heard Ian McEwan in an interview and he said something along the lines of it you have a broad enough definition anything can be called crime fiction and he used his own book Atonement as an example of one in which a crime occurs that is the driving indcident behind a change to many people's lives but you wouldn't really lump it in with crime fiction. I think I'd put The Way Home in a similar category. I can't think of any other examples right now but I'm sure one will come to me at about 3AM :)

  19. Bernadette - Thank you : ). That means such a lot to me, coming from someome whom I respect as I do you. I admit that I haven't read The Way Home, but from other reviews of it, it really is one of those nebulous novels that might or might not be crime fiction. I agree that the same might be said of Atonement, too. The danger, of course, of being too rigid about one's categories is that one could be denying oneself an excellent read because it does or doen't carry the label "Crime Fiction." However, I do think it really helps people who are searching for books, and those who write them and review them, to have some sort of way to decide what sort of genre to use to categorize books. There are those "grey" areas, though, that make it very hard to decide, aren't there?

  20. Margot four great rules, but rules are there to be broken. ;0) I quite like those books where you are following the villains and see if they pull off the crime. Niccolo Ammaniti's The Crossroads features a band of misfits from the Italian underclass as they plan a ram raid on an ATM machine. Of course everything goes wrong before they even attempt the raid, and another unexpected crime occurs, and along the way we learn about their back grounds and their pathetic lives.
    Elmore Leonard's Swag is another that follows that pattern with three out of four of your rules being followed.

  21. Norman - Oh, I agree wholeheartedly!! Some very, very fine novels are based on knowing those "rules" and breaking them. Your suggestions remind me of Robert Pollock's Loophole, in which four thieves and an out-of-work architect plot to rob a bank. Like The Crossroads, most of the plot is focused on the plans for the robbery, and we don't know whether the thieves will pull it off. That's actually part of the interest in the story actually. And in Loophole, too, all kinds of mishaps happen, and the book doesn't really include an investigation. Yet, I would still argue that it's crime fiction. That's just the thing about rules, isn't it???

  22. What a great post, Margot. All your posts are such good reads, I am constantly impressed with the thought and incisive analysis, as well as the great knowledge of novels that you have. As mentioned before, I do hope you decide to make a book of all your posts, sometime.

    I think these are great definitions of a good "crime fiction" novel. I agree that Atonement would fit into these, as would other so-called non-genre novels eg The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I thought that several books in this category were chosen by The Times (Laura Wilson and Barry Forshaw) in their recent "best crime novels of the decade" feature, eg No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.

  23. Maxine - You are really dangerously good for my ego!!! : ) Thank you for such kind words; coming from someone whom I respect as I do you, that means a lot.

    You are right about The Thirteenth Tale, I think. It doesn't fit very neatly in the genre, but I believe it certainly belongs there. So does Bleak House. It is interesting, too, isn't it, that the Times also seems to think that some less-easily-categorized books fit into the crime fiction genre. There really are some terrific books that may not be textbook examples of crime fiction but fit there just the same.