It’s no secret that crime fiction authors learn from one another, and are inspired by each other. In fact, some of the most common questions that authors are asked have to do with other authors whose work has inspired them. Crime fiction novels have plenty of references, too, to other crime fiction novels. We see that, for instance, in Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s Anasazi series, which takes place in the Sonora Desert of New Mexico. In The Visitant, the first novel in that series, archeologist William “Dusty” Stewart and forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole investigate a set of ancient remains. There doesn’t seem to be a normal explanation for the way the remains were buried and the place they were found, and it appears that the victims died violently. So the two sleuths and their team examine the evidence, some of which suggests witchcraft. Cole, who’s not familiar with the American Southwest, hasn’t heard of the kind of witchcraft that may be involved, so Stewart says,
“Don’t you read Tony Hillerman? You know, Jim Chee and Leaphorn.”
As it turns out, Cole hasn’t read Hillerman, so Stewart and one of the other team members explain the local beliefs about witchcraft that might have led to these killings. In the end, the deaths prove to have quite a different cause.
There are several references to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in Agatha Christie’s novels. Hercule Poirot mentions more than once that, unlike Holmes, he does not look for physical evidence such as cigarette butts and shoe prints. Rather, he uses “the little grey cells” of his mind. There’s an interesting reference to Holmes in Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), in which Poirot agrees to find out what’s behind a mysterious series of thefts at a hostel for students. He’s debating whether to take the case when he murmurs something about
“…the parsley sinking into the butter on a hot day.”
That’s a reference to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, in which Holmes solves a case of some unusual vandalism.
I’ve learned a lot from crime fiction authors, myself, so today, I thought I’d share some of the important lessons I’ve been learning about crime fiction from a few of those who write it.
Start with an absorbing plot and strong characters.
At the core of every well-written crime fiction novel is an engaging plot and well-drawn characters. I’ve learned this lesson from Martin Edwards, whose Lake District series features fascinating and complex characters, as well as engaging plots with some surprising twists. This series features Oxford historian Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett, who first work together in The Coffin Trail, in which they investigate the “cold case” deaths of Gabrielle Anders and Barrie Gilpin in the village of Brackdale. Years ago, Anders was found brutally murdered; shortly afterwards, Gilpin died, too, in a tragic fall. Everyone assumed that Gilpin was responsible. Scarlett, who worked that case with her former partner Ben Kind (Daniel Kind’s father) was never convinced of Gilpin’s guilt. Neither was Kind, who actually knew Gilpin. So when Scarlett is named to lead a Cold Case Review team, the case gets re-opened. In the end, Scarlett and Kind find out that all is not as it seems in Brackdale, and that the two deaths are related to several local, long-hidden secrets. The Coffin Trail and the other books in this series make use of believable characters and well-crafted plots. As the series moves on, those characters develop over time, too, so that they stay strong and well-drawn. This, so I’ve learned, is crucial to a solid mystery.
Show, Don’t Tell.
This is a lesson that I’ve learned from Elizabeth Spann Craig. She’s the author of a mystery series featuring retired school teacher Myrtle Clover. She’s also the author of a new series, the Memphis Barbecue series, scheduled to launch in July (2010) with the release of Delicious and Suspicious. Craig’s Myrtle Clover stories take place in and near the small town of Bradley, North Carolina, where Myrtle Clover lives and where her son, Red, is the local police chief. In A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box, Myrtle Clover investigates the murder of her hairdresser, Tami Smith. And, in Pretty is as Pretty Dies, she finds out who murdered real estate developer Parke Stockard. Rather than using a lot of narrative to describe the characters and the setting, Craig shows the reader. For instance, in Pretty is as Pretty Dies, Myrtle is furious with her son for signing her up to join the United Methodist Women’s group. Here’s how Craig describes how angry Myrtle is on her trip to her first meeting with the women:
“She [Myrtle] was already stomping her way to church for the United Methodist Women’s duties he’d gotten her into. Myrtle’s cane thumped emphatically on the pavement in front of her, the robustness of the sound giving her a sense of satisfaction.”
One of the criticisms of some longer murder mysteries is that there’s too much narrative and too many details; I’m sure we could all think of examples. Craig has avoided this trap by strong visual imagery and effective dialogue to show the reader what’s going on. There are other authors, too, of course, who’ve mastered the art of “showing, not telling.” Those authors keep the reader turning pages in part because they don’t use a lot of prose to send a message. They let the imagery, character descriptions and dialogue speak for themselves.
Don’t set off the “hooey alarm.”
My thanks to Alan Orloff for this lesson. In order for a story to be engrossing, it’s got to make sense. That is, there have to be believable motives for a murder, and the events of the story have to be logical, and have to fall out naturally. Orloff achieves this in his newly-released Diamonds for the Dead, in which Josh Handleman travels from San Francisco back to Virginia when his elderly father, Abe, suddenly dies from a fall down the stairs of the family home. At first, his death is said to be an accident. Then, Abe Handleman’s best friend, Lev Yurishenko, tells Josh that his father was murdered. Lev has a suspect in mind, too – Abe’s boarder, Yassian. At first, Josh doesn’t believe Lev, but soon enough, he learns some surprising things about his father. One of them is that Abe Handleman collected diamonds, and was far wealthier than anyone suspected. Another is that the diamonds are now missing. Josh decides to search for the diamonds and find out the truth about his father’s death. I confess, I haven’t finished this novel yet (I’m getting there : ) ), but what I’ve read rings true. It’s authentic.
For instance, there’s not a trumped-up reason that Handleman visits the family home; it’s perfectly natural for an adult child to return to a family home for his father’s funeral. Also, the Handleman family has a Russian Jewish background. So, the fact that Abe Handleman’s best friend is a Russian immigrant makes sense. It’s a believable part of the plot. So is Yurishenko’s mistrust of Yassian. There are other aspects of the plot that also make sense and don’t stretch the limits of credibility. Also, Orloff’s plot doesn’t make use of a lot of coincidences that may move the plot along, but don’t serve to make it more believable.
In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder), Poirot says,
“I am always prepared to admit one coincidence.”
That’s a good rule to follow to avoid the “hooey alarm.”
Don’t Forget to Laugh.
Murder is tragic, and crime fiction often focuses on the sadness that accompanies it. That’s as it should be. However, there’s no reason that a crime fiction novel needs to be relentlessly dark. Of course, some very talented authors prefer writing dark stories, and there are crime fiction fans who prefer that kind of story. On the other hand, a touch of lightness can be refreshing, and humor can be very engaging. I’m learning this important lesson from a few authors, chief among them Elspeth Antonelli, Marshall Karp and Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen.
Elspeth’s informative and funny blog gives us all an honest look at writing. Here is an example of how funny it can be. Elspeth, I look forward to your novel being released! Marshall Karp’s series featuring L.A.P.D. detectives Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs is full of humor, albeit dark humor at times. In The Rabbit Factory, for instance, they’re investigating the murder of Eddie Elkins, an actor who wears the costume of Rambunctious Rabbit, the mascot of Familyland, a popular amusement park. One day, Eddie is strangled to death, and the detectives begin to look into his background. They’re shocked to find out that Eddie Elkins is the alias adopted by Edward Ellison, a convicted child molester. As they investigate, Lomax and Biggs find out that there was more to Ellison’s death than just revenge for a horrendous crime. Instead, his death is just the first in a series of deaths intended to ruin the network responsible for creating Familyland. Although some of the themes in the novel are dark, Karp writes with a lot of humor, too. For instance, here’s the scene in which Biggs picks Lomax up for the drive to Familyland to begin their investigation:
“I [Lomax] got into the Lexus ES250, which I love to remind Terry is actually a Toyota Camry with a wood-paneled dash and a few other non-essentials to jack up the price. ‘Good morning, Detective,’ I said. ‘Are you looking for the guy who slapped the Lexus logo on the front of your Camry?’”
Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen keeps an informative, thoughtful and very often funny crime fiction blog, Dj’s Krimiblog, in which she sometimes shares her excellent flash fiction. To give you a taste of her humor, here’s the end of a Christmas story that she wrote, in which we learn quite a lot about St. Nicholas:
“After a perfunctory investigation Constable Archibald Prewitt gave up solving the murder of St Nicholas. He did the next-best thing by selling the whole story to BBC, CNN and the Danish prime minister who was grateful that now the press would run off to Longburied Parsley instead of harping on his none-too successful climate conference.”
I’m grateful to have learned as much as I have from all of the terrific crime fiction writers I’m privileged to know. If you write crime fiction, what lessons have you learned? If you’re a crime fiction fan, do you have any suggestions for lessons that writers should learn?