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.