Challenge the Reader
I’ve learned this lesson from Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. As an example, two of Kerrie’s favorite authors are Agatha Christie and Donna Leon. Both of those authors offer the reader things to think about (and of course, they are hardly the only ones!).
Agatha Christie was known for her twists, turns and plot variety and, of course, there are dozens of examples I could give. One will have to suffice. In The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of Dr. John Christow, who’s spending the week-end with his friends, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. At first, it seems that it’s an “open-and-shut” case. After all, Christow’s wife was found standing over the body actually holding a gun. Very soon, though, it becomes clear that things are not as simple as they seem. As Inspector Grange and Hercule Poirot try to find out who killed Christow and why, Christie leads the unwary reader down all sorts of “red-herring”-strewn garden paths.
It’s not just plot twists and surprises that can challenge the reader. Authors such as Donna Leon also challenge the reader to think more deeply. For instance, in The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates the apparently accidental drowning of Ariana Rocich, a young gypsy girl. No-one seems particularly interested in finding out how and why she died; after all, she’s “only” a gypsy who, it seems, fell from a roof into a canal after she’d robbed an apartment. There’s more to her death than this, though, and Brunetti has to face his own prejudices, as well as the social and class structure of Venice, as he finds out what really happened. He also has to confront the city’s power structure. When an author makes the reader think – intellectually challenges the reader – this can make books unforgettable.
Make The Reader Care What Happens
I’ve learned this important lesson from Bernadette at Reactions to Reading. Her superb reviews show clearly that crime fiction readers want to get invested in a story. That’s a tall order, of course, and it’s hard to say exactly what makes any given reader care about a story. Of course, it starts with an interesting plot, but there’s more to it than that. Sometimes, the reader gets drawn in by sense of place and time. That’s what happens in Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch. This is the first in Cotterill’s series about Dr. Siri Paiboun, medical examiner for Laos. The series takes place in the late 1970’s, and one way in which Cotterill makes the reader care is by evoking a real sense in the novel of place and time.
Readers also get drawn in by characters. In The Coroner’s Lunch, we see that in the character of Dr. Siri. As the novel begins, Dr. Siri is seventy-two years old, and ready for retirement. He’s “volunteered” for the job of medical examiner, and is not happy about it, but he begins his work, anyway. Very soon, he’s involved in the case of the poisoning of the wife of a high-ranking official. Then, the bodies of several dead Vietnamese soldiers are found, and Dr. Siri has to find out what happened to them. Although he has very little equipment and no experience or preparation, Dr. Siri does his best to solve the cases, and we get drawn into his search for answers. He’s also got a lot of practical wisdom and a humorous outlook on his work, the sociopolitical situation and those qualities make the reader care, too.
We also find ourselves caring because Cotterill doesn’t preach. Rather, he tells a good story. We think about the excesses of power, the sad conditions under which most people lived in Laos at that time, and other realities Cotterill wants to show us without being browbeaten.
Make an Effort
This is one of the important lessons I’ve learned from Maxine at Petrona. Maxine’s excellent reviews of crime fiction are very helpful reminders that the best crime fiction comes from authors who make an effort, with every novel they write, to create interesting, memorable characters, a focused and fresh plot, and solid narrative and dialogue. That’s part of what keeps Michael Connelly’s novels so popular, despite his being as prolific as he is. It’s also part of why Ruth Rendell and Peter Temple have maintained their high quality as well.
Just as one example, Ruth Rendell has written 22 Inspector Wexford novels. Admittedly, some are generally regarded as better than others. However, it’s easy to see that Rendell takes great pains with each installment. Each novel tells a solid and absorbing (sometimes gripping) story about interesting characters. Rendell doesn’t fall back on “stock” plots, and in most of her novels, she adds twists and surprises that keep the reader guessing.
Under her Barbara Vine identity, Rendell has written 13 novels of psychological suspense and mystery that have solid paces, unexpected events and sometimes disturbing, but always absorbing plots. Again, these novels show real effort and attention to the details that make a novel memorable.
Have High Standards
Related to this is the lesson I've learned from Craig at Crime Watch. There's a large variety of crime fiction, so there is no set formula that a crime fiction novel has to take. But whichever sub-genre of crime fiction an author chooses, it's important to learn how to do that sub-genre well, so that the plot is strong, the characters engaging, and the mystery believable.There are far too many examples (some of which I've already given) of authors who exemplify these standards for me to list them all. Suffice it to say that the finest crime fiction comes from authors who set high goals for themselves (even if they don't always achieve them).
There’s No Need to be Gratuitous
This is a lesson that I’ve learned from Dorte at Dj’s Krimiblog , with whom I share a real affection for Dorothy Sayers’ work. Writers such as Sayers conveyed the suspense of a murder, its investigation and its resolution without resorting to gore, gratuitous sex or an overdose of explicit language. Of course, modern standards are different from those of Sayers’ day, but it helps to keep in mind that the key to a good mystery novel is an intriguing plot, engaging characters and a believable story.
A weak plot and “flat” characters can’t really hide underneath blood, and a strong plot and well-drawn characters don’t need a lot of blood. This doesn’t mean that crime fiction can’t include scenes of violence, for instance. After all, murder is violent. But it is important to make sure that whatever violence there is in the novel is related to the plot and moves it along.
If you want a real example of a classy and terrific story that demonstrates an absorbing plot and interesting characters, but isn’t gratuitous, check out Dorte’s contribution for the letter “X” to the alphabet in crime fiction community meme.
Teach Readers Something New
This is a lesson I’ve learned from Norman at Crime Scraps. Norman and I both enjoy historical mysteries. In fact, I learned about Shona MacLean’s Alexander Seaton novels from his posts. One thing that makes these novels appealing is the interesting information one can learn from them about Scotland and Ireland during the 17th Century. McClean also provides glossaries, maps, and other tools to help readers and to teach readers.
She’s not the only author, either, who does that. Other historical mystery authors such as Peter Tremayne and Ellis Peters have done the same thing. For instance, I’ve learned a great deal about the sociopolitical conditions in medieval England from Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels, and from Lindsey Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco, I’ve learned about Ancient Rome. There are many, many other examples, too. Whenever an author, whether or historical mysteries or modern crime fiction, takes the time to include interesting information, the reader learns, and that can enhance the reading experience.
Learn from the Masters
That’s a lesson I’ve learned from fellow crime novelist Martin Edwards. Edwards’ own excellent Lake District series is a fine example of novels that are grounded in the same principles that made classic detective fiction classic in the first place. The work of such writers as P.D. James, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and others we call great is well-regarded because these authors paid attention to the important elements of crime fiction. While not everything they wrote is of equally good quality, we can learn from what they did. At least I can.
Whether it’s Queen’s fascinating intellectual puzzles, Christie’s plot twists and surprises, Ruth Rendell’s ability to create suspense, or some other “trick of the trade," the masters can teach us valuable lessons. It’s worth the effort takes to learn them.
Crime fiction fans, what do you think? What lessons would you like crime writers to learn?