Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The "Crime Fiction Penal Code"...

One of the appealing things about crime fiction is that there are many different kinds of well-written crime fiction novels. That means that there are many options for crime fiction fans. It also means that crime fiction authors don’t have to follow a “formula” In order to write a high-quality novel. That variety adds interest and life to the genre. That doesn’t mean, though, that “anything goes” when it comes to crime fiction. There are some important codes, if you will, that well-written crime fiction follows; we don’t always notice when that code’s followed, but we often notice when it isn’t. In that way, it’s very much like most penal codes. Respecting the “crime fiction code” leads to interesting, engaging novels with solid mysteries. Violating it can lead to a book that falls flat and loses readers. Of course, crime fiction fans don’t always agree on what should be in that code, but most agree that there is one. Here then, are some entries in the “Crime Fiction Penal Code.”

Speed Limit Violations

The pacing of a crime fiction novel is important. If a novel moves too quickly, readers can be left confused. Too slow a pace can be tedious. Of course, some kinds of crime fiction novels lend themselves to a faster pace, and some to a slower pace; the real key is a good “fit” between story and pace; that’s the way to avoid the “speed limit” violation. Spy thrillers, for instance, work best with a fast pace. That’s part of the appeal of writers such as John le CarrĂ©. In The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, for instance, we meet Alec Leamas, a member of British Intelligence who’s stationed in East Berlin during the Cold War. In fact, he supervises the other British Intelligence agents also stationed there. Leams has gotten more than weary of the “spy game.” It becomes obvious that he’s not devoted to his job any more when several of the agents he supervises are killed on his watch. When Leamas’ best agent, Karl Riemeck, is killed, Leamas tries to retire. But then, he’s called back to London. There, George Smiley and some of Leamas’ other supervisors ask him to take on one last assignment – killing Hans Dieter Mundt, who engineered the murders of Leamas’ agents. Leamas reluctantly agrees, and is soon plunged into a very deadly “chess game,” in which almost everyone is deceptive and in which even Leamas doesn’t know what his real purpose is.

Some kinds of crime fiction, though, work better with a slower pace. For example, Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels tend to move at a slower, more even pace. Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who runs the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, takes cases, investigates them, finds answers, and solves mysteries. In that sense, there are certainly plenty of events in the stories. Yet the novels move at a leisurely pace. That’s entirely appropriate, though, for this kind of novel, and there are many crime fiction fans who enjoy such a pace. The real question isn’t whether or not a novel has a very fast pace or a slower pace. Rather, it’s whether a novel has the right pace for its type.


A well-written crime fiction novel avoids the “littering” offense by giving the reader just enough detail and description. Too many details “litter” the book and make it tiresome. Not enough description and the book becomes “flat.” Of course, what “counts” as enough detail varies by sub-genre. For instance, historical mysteries sometimes benefit from solid description, since readers may not be familiar with the time period. That’s part of the appeal of Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Incidentally, that novel’s my “Europe” contribution to the 2010 Global Reading Challenge
community meme being very skillfully led by Dorte at Dj’s Krimiblog. In that novel, which takes place in 17th Century Scotland, Alexander Seaton, a disgraced aspirant to the ministry, has been relegated to the position of undermaster in a grammar school in the Scottish town of Banff. Early one morning, Seaton awakens to the terrible news that the body of Patrick Davidson, the local apothecary’s apprentice, has been found in his classroom. At first, everyone thinks that Seaton’s good friend, Charles Thom, committed the crime; he was Davidson’s rival for the affections of Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter. Thom begs Seaton to help clear his name, and Seaton agrees. Before long, though, it’s clear that there was more to Davidson’s death than a rivalry over a woman. As Seaton investigates, he finds himself caught up in the political and religious fears, prejudices and movements of the time. MacLean gives very helpful background information (including a glossary of Scottish terms) that helps the reader understand the plot. For this kind of novel, those details of time and place are very important.

In other kinds of crime fiction, there’s less need for a lot of detail, so that adding in too much ends up “littering” the novel. In those cases, it’s best to tell the story without adding in too much extra information. For example, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies gives the reader a sense of the American South, where the novel takes place, without overburdening the novel with detail. In the small town of Bradley, North Carolina, no-one is particularly upset when Parke Stockard, a recently-arrived realtor/land developer, is found dead in the local church. She’s malicious, scheming and generally heartily disliked. Retired teacher Myrtle Clover decides to find out who killed Parke, if only to prove to her son, the local police chief, that she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture.” As Myrtle investigates the murder, we meet several quirky small-town characters, and find out, bit by bit, about Parke Stockard and her history. We meet the suspects and we find the clues; along the way, we also get a real sense of place. And yet, the novel isn’t filled with minutiae. Craig gives information through dialogue and through the events that happen, rather than through a lot of description.

Driving Under the Influence

Related to “littering” is the offense of allowing something other than the crime(s) and investigation at the heart of the novel to have too much influence. For example, a cime fiction novel can be much enhanced by sub-plots, if they’re related to the main plot. Elizabeth George does this quite well as we learn about her main sleuths, Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers. There are often sub-plots in George’s novels that tell us more about those characters and that make them more real. The key, though, is that those sub-plots are related to the main story in some way. So the reader doesn’t feel pulled in too many directions by too many storylines. Michael Connelly does this well, too; when he includes sub-plots involving his sleuth, Harry Bosch, they’re related to the main plot. When sub-plots and stories-across-stories become overpowering and aren’t related to the main point of the novel, the novel can fall apart.

That’s also true of novels that include too many characters and events. In some crime fiction novels (such as Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series), there are certainly many different characters, and readers follow several investigations and events. However, they’re all tied together, as it were, by common threads. Those threads relate the different characters and events, so that the plot’s not overly influenced by too many distracters. That’s the key to avoiding the “driving under the influence” offense.

Expired License or Registration

One of the potential pitfalls, especially for crime fiction authors who write series, is that the books can become formulaic after time, with “expired” plots. Admittedly, it’s not easy to avoid this offense and offer readers fresh plots and characters after a number of books. In fact, that’s something I’m trying to work out as I create my own Joel Williams series. That’s especially true once readers have become loyal to main characters, as they have to Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, for instance. So there’s a real pressure to keep working with a cast of characters and types of plot that have won readers (and, pragmatically speaking, that have sold books).

At the same time, it’s important to give readers something new, even in a series. Some authors, like Alexander McCall Smith, do that by sharing characters’ growth and development over time. In his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, we see several developments in the main characters’ lives; for instance, we see how Precious Ramotswe gets engaged to and then marries Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and later acquires two foster children. We see how Grace Makutsi develops from simply being a secretary to becoming a very able detective, business manager and entrepreneur.

We see a similar kind of character development in Martin Edwards' Lake District series. In those novels, we see how DCI Hannah Scarlett "grows into" her role as the leader of the Cold Case Review team that she heads. We see how Oxford historian Daniel Kind also grows and matures, both personally and professionally. Edwards also offers fresh plots and interesting characters that keep the series strong.

Other authors keep their novels fresh by using a variety of different kinds of plots and plot twists. Agatha Christie was a genius at this. Together, her most famous sleuths, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, appeared in 45 novels. Yet, while there are certainly some similarities among the novels, Christie offered new characters, new kinds of plots, and new settings in her stories, so that each one is unique. Some are arguably stronger than others, but each of them has an interesting new twist, surprise, or point of view that keeps the reader interested. In some novels, for instance, Poirot (or Miss Marple) travels, so there’s an interesting setting. In others, the point of view changes. In still others, there’s an unusual character or plot twist. It’s that willingness to try different things that’s arguably kept Chrstie’s work fresh through the years.

What’s your view? What would you add to the “Crime Fiction Penal Code?”

In a late addition to this post....

Mr. Confessions of a Mystery Novelist has suggested this addition to the "Crime Fiction Penal Code:"


Crime fiction fans like to savor books. So if an author releases books too close together, it's hard for the author's fans to keep up. It certainly makes it challenging to remember the characters, plots, etc.. Of course, authors and publishers realize that more releases mean more sales. But sometimes, releasing books too close together can backfire if the books aren't of high quality. There are some authors (Michael Connelly is one) who are able to keep up the pace, and whose books are consistently well-written. But that's more the exception than the rule.

I see the wisdom of this addition...


  1. I love this post! It was slightly humorous but very informative. I'm so glad I stumbled upon your blog here! I normally write fantasy but I have been sitting on an idea for a mystery/romance and thought I should read a few mystery writers to find the scoop!

    I don't have anything to add really besides "Murder". I hate to admit that I have read a few novels where all of the things you mention combine and murder the readers senses.

  2. What about Running Stop Signs? This would be a series that has come to an end but the author continues with several more books that really aren't as well written as the previous in the series. They don't seem to have the same fire and drive and the earlier ones almost as if they author has tired of the series but continues anyway. There is a series that I love but the last two books in the series (which fall under the tailgate code) lacked so much I wonder if there was a ghost writer helping out. They had none of the spark and drive the first ones did.

  3. Margot, this is priceless! I am laughing so hard.:-D

  4. Mason - Oh, that is absolutely wonderful! I know exactly what you mean! I can think of some series like that, too, and you're so right about going on long after they should have stopped. I just love your contribution! Thank you!!

    Bobbi - Thanks! : ) I'm glad that you enjoyed it : )

  5. What a great post, Margot, even by your own exceptionally high standard of posts ;-) (And thanks to Mr COAMN, I wonder if he will be starting his own blog soon, or contributing more to this one)?

    I very much agree with you on the examples you provide that I have read. I think that sometimes when "literary" authors venture into "crime fiction" (often on the advice of their accountants;-) ) they fall into some of these traps. I remember reading The Name of The Rose by Umberto Eco years ago, and finding it full of bafflingly unnecessary detail, quite pretentious and patronising in fact, I thought.

    The "tailgate" comment is interesting. If you discover an author well into a series and like him or her, you can fall into a trap of buying all their previous books and reading them one after another. Not all authors pass this test as similarities and formulae become more apparent! In fact now, if I discover a new (to me) author I like, I deliberately take time over reading the "back list" so as to fully enjoy them.

    There is more to say on the "once a year" grind that many authors seem to be in - what effect that has on the quality and standard of the books, for example - but perhaps that is a topic for another post?

  6. Harley - Please forgive me for not responding to you earlier. For some unknown (and very annoying!) reason, Blogger hid your comment at first, and I'm only just now seeing it. Thanks for your kind words : ). I really like your idea of "Murder," too. There certainly are authors who bludgeon the reader with too much gore, or they do something else that just ruins the plot, or the characters and yes, I'd call that "Murder." : ). I have to say, too, that I admire folks like you who write fantasy novels. It takes real creativity to make a whole new reality for readers.

    Maxine - Thank you : ); you're really very kind. I'll have to tell Mr. COAMN what you said, too. I know he'll appreciate it. Maybe I can get him to start blogging...

    I agree completely with your point about authors in other genres who write a crime fiction novel. There's a lot of flexibility in the genre, but there are some conventions. One of them is that a good crime novel focuses on the mystery/crime at hand. When the author doesn't keep that in mind, the novel can end up being neither a good historical novel (if that's what it is) nor a good crime fiction novel. I've also read novels that are called crime fiction (apparently) because the author has included one gory scene. Gore can be a part of a crime fiction novel, but a gory scene does not a crime fiction novel make.

    It's interesting you would mention that about reading all of an author's backlist in a row. There have only been a few authors I've read where I've done that and still truly enjoyed the work. That is not an easy test to pass, as you say.

    ...and thanks for the idea on the "once a year" grind. I will definitely take that up in another post : ).

  7. I love Michael Connelly. The Poet was one of my favorite books. There was some disturbing content that I would not put in one of my books, but a masterfully crafted story just the same.

    Stephen Tremp

  8. Stephen - Connelly is a terrific writer! I'm not one, either, for putting a lot of disturbing content in what I write, but Connelly has a way of doing it that isn't gratuitous. It makes one think. That takes skill, in my opinion, and you're right; The Poet is a good example of that. In my opinion, so is The Concrete Blonde.

  9. I have to say, you write a really intersting post here. I don't want any of my writing to take on those penalties. What a wonderful post.


  10. This is wonderful, Margot - funny and informative at the same time . Bravo! You've raised some very important points about writing crime fiction; know the rules. There's nothing wrong with bending the rules - if you know what you're doing. But breaking them can lead to dire consequences. It all comes down to good plot, good mix of pace, well-developed characters. Yeah, that's a piece of cake.

    I love the addition from Mr. COAMN; this is so NOT what will ever be my problem!

  11. Ann - Thank you : )! I try to warn myself, too. Some of those traps are so easy to fall into, too. We may not mean to, but we do. That's why I don't send anything out until my beta readers "shred" it for me : ).

    Elspeth - I'll have to tell Mr. COAMN that you liked his idea; I know he'll be pleased. And it's a good reminder that quality is much more important that churning out books just to say one did!

    And thanks, too, for the other kind words - very thoughtful of you : ). As you say, knowing the rules for one's genre is really important. Once one gets familiar with them, then one can bend them, as Dame Agatha did. Until then, know them!!