Friday, April 2, 2010

Listening to Crime Fiction Fans...

Most crime fiction authors learn a great deal from the feedback that they get from agents, editors, and friends and family who read manuscripts for them. Critique groups, too, can be very helpful. But crime fiction authors can learn a lot, too, from those who read and savor their books. Publishers and agents know what sells, and that’s very important, but crime fiction fans know what keeps them engaged in a book, what brings them back time and again to a favorite author, and what makes them dislike a book or an author. I know that I’ve learned a great deal as an author from finding out what other lovers of crime fiction enjoy, and for that, I’m grateful. Of course, any crime fiction fan will tell you that the best novels have strong mystery plots and interesting characters. There are other things, though, that are important to think about when creating a crime fiction story, so today, I’ve decided to share with you just a few of those other things I’m learning from the wonderful crime fiction experts I’m privileged to know.

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?


  1. Great tips, I hardly know what to add. These things are important in all fiction as well. What matters most to me is an author who makes the reader think, as you pointed out. I love how Agatha Christie, in just a few well-chosen words, makes me think about a situation and/or character, even if it has nothing to do with the crime or mystery itself. There's more to the reading than the mystery. I like layers in my mystery books.

  2. Karen - You put that very well. There is, indeed, much more to a story than just the bare bones of plot. In a well-written crime story, there are inter-relationships among the characters, and there are other events, and they, too, affect the story. And I agree; Agatha Christie was a genius at making people think.

  3. Margot I am humbled by and grateful for your kind words.

    I think all of those things are important and, as KarenG said, not just for crime fiction. One of the reasons I have gradually stopped reading the literary fiction that I used to read almost exclusively is that some of those lessons seemed to be completely ignored in the hunt for clever sentence construction. Of course I love it when the language is used well but prettily constructed sentences are not an end in themselves - they have to convey something about the people or the story. In my bookclub that only reads 'worthy' books I've found myself so bored to tears by most of the books that I've virtually stopped attending the club all together. Among the authors you've mentioned are people who can string words together beautifully - be it humourously like Cotterill or descriptively like Temple but they don't forget to tell a story as well.

  4. Bernadette - Believe me, it's my pleasure : ). I think you make a very well-taken point about words and the ability to use them in a certain way. It's easy to mistake facility with words for good plotting, chracterization and so on. Without those sturdy elements to a story, it's just not a good story. Then, the words (or facility with them) just don't save it.

    On the other hand, of course, a corking good story can be lost if it's not neatly told. That's the beauty, in my opinion, of language such as Cotterill and Temple use. There's a strong story, and the language they use is wrapped round it well. I think that's also true of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine at her best. There are many others, too, of course. To me, the key is - tell a good story first. Then, edit and make the language fit it.

  5. Challenge the Reader - I think this is very need to throw in twists and challenge the reader intellectually. You need to keep up with the news and try to be cutting edge sometimes.

    Make The Reader Care What Happens - also important. If the reader doesnt care, they won't read on.

    I think it's important to read the masters and learn from them.

    I really enjoyed this post.


  6. Thanks for the mention, Margot. The blend of history and mystery is definitely one of my favourite combinations. Crime fiction is such a good medium for teaching people about the past and the recent past, as well as the history of countries we know little about such as 1977 Laos [Colin Cotterill], and 1988 Algeria [Yasmina Khadra] the setting for the book I am reading at the moment.
    Having said I like historical crime fiction I have to mention that when I switched from a series of foreign settings to Martin Edwards modern English police procedural I really enjoyed his writing.

  7. Ann - Thank you : ). You make a well-taken point, too, about keeping up with the news and being "cutting edge" at times. If the writer becomes too predictable, she or he loses readers. So it's important that the writer try new things, include well-written plot twists, etc. I think, to put in in "a nutshell" the author needs to stretch him or herself.

    Norman - So nice to see that you've paid me a visit! : ). And it's my pleasure to mention you and your terrific blog. I think you're absolutely right that crime fiction is a very effective context for teaching about a particular time or place. Not only do readers get caught up in the mystery at hand, but they also get the chance to experience life as it was at one or another point.

    I'm glad, too, that you've really enjoyed Martin Edwards' writing. I've become a fan, myself : ).

  8. What an excellent post (no surprises there, then!), Margot. And thank you very much for featuing my blog in it, I am honoured.

    I think you have got all the bases pretty much covered in this post. I agree that if there is a good plot, good characters, a strong sense of place (and/or time), and the author is thinking of what we in the content-producing website buisness call the "user experience" (rather than "sales"!), then she or he can't go far wrong. I am sure this is why authors like Ruth Rendell, Michael Connelly, P D James, Agatha Christie et al. do so well over the years, without the need for massive marketing budgets.

    Of course it is tough out there for authors, and although we readers and bloggers are quite strong about what we like, this does not necessarily translate into huge sales or vast quantities of readers. I think that this disjunct is a pity, becuase what many "ordinary members of the potential reading public" see as representative of crime fiction are authors who, frankly, do not reflect the genre at its best (Patterson, Cornwell et al). I occassionally wonder what could ever be done to bridge that divide. It is also reflected in author signings and events - it is great that authors do this and I am sure it helps sales, but it is not a one-way ticket to mass best-sellerdom, even for those who justly deserve it.

  9. Maxine - Thank you; you're very kind : ). And it is my great pleasure to mention your wonderful blog and what I've learned from it.

    One of the points you make in your thoughtful response is that disjunct between what most people think of as "crime fiction" and what really is well-written crime fiction. I confess that I'm not as well-versed as I should be on the "big picture" of sales and marketing. I do know, though, that especially given current economic conditions, publishers are loathe to take a risk on authors who may not have the "mass appeal" that some authors do, but have real talent. For the publisher, doing the marketing that's required to promote those authors just costs too much.

    I can say, happily, that there are smaller publishers out there who do work with lesser-known, but talented authors and promote them. Not wanting to appear to curry favor, I won't mention specific names. However, one that I can definitely think of recently did a fantastic job of promoting a new author and his debut release. This smaller publisher took advantage of blogs, Twitter and other social networking media and did what I thought was a classy and informative "ad campaign." I was fortunate enough to read that debut, and thought it quite good, and worth the publisher's risk. answer your question... I think there are two ways to bridge that gap you mention. One is smaller publishers and agencies who are willing to be flexible and take risks. These companies are often more "in tune with" what crime fiction fans like and want. The other is that authors need to help bridge the gap, too. Not, admittedly, a happy thought for me, as I'm not much of a one for a lot of self-promotion. Yet, in today's publishing world, it's necessary. Authors whose names aren't "household words" can read blogs, E-zines, and other resources to stay current. They can be certain that their names are on all of the relevant social networking sites, etc., and that they keep and comment on blogs. There are other strategies, too. It's still a real struggle, but unless one is extremely fortunate, so that a large publishing company with very deep pockets notices one, authors have to be aware of what the market is like and be at least somewhat proactive.

  10. It is so great to be here among lovers of the classic crime story (where plot, setting and characters matter more than blood and gore)!

    One principle I try to adhere to at all times is ´challenge your reader´. Now and then I have readers who ´dont´get it´ because I don´t want to spell it out. On the other hand I am certain I would lose several of my faithful followers if I added too much information.

    Thank you for another excellent post, and I am very proud of being seen in this company!

    Happy Easter.

  11. Dote - Oh, it is I that am proud of being in the same group with you : ). I agree with you very much that it's important to have enough respect for readers so that one doesn't tell them everything. That's one thing I like so much about your writing (besides its creativity and your sense of humor). You invite the reader to think : ). I'll bet your students love you!

  12. Margot I have been paying brief visits but not commenting due to the fact that I have an I Mac and to sit down in one position for more than a few minutes hurts like hell!

  13. Norman - I can understand completely why you haven't been doing a lot of commenting. I'm just so pleased you felt well enough to stop by. I do hope you're healing and that it won't be long before you're back to health.

  14. Thanks for your interesting response, Margot. We'll have to think some more about how to get the word out about the better authors!

    I agree that some of the small presses are doing a great job at promoting good writing in the genre. I also put in a word for some of the arts/culture councils and organisations who provide grants to translators for some of this work, and assist authors to get published eg regional authors.

    Some of the presses I think do good work with crime fiction from the readers' perspective are Bitter Lemon, Arcadia, Creme de la Crime, Soho but I know there are lots of others that I haven't mentioned here, and also small presses like SortOf Books that aren't dedicated crime but publish occasional good crime novels.

    Also there are "medium small" publishers like Canongate and Quercus that do crime fiction proud. But I dread to think how much Quercus must have spent in promoting Stieg Larsson. Canongate's Karin Alvtegen is easily as good, if not better, but (understandably) does not have as huge a marketing budget behind her as Quercus has put behind S Larsson, so is far less well known.

  15. Maxine - Thanks for mentioning those publishers. And thank you for all that you do, too, to promote the publication of good work even by authors whose names are not "household words."

    I'm not familiar with all of the authors you mentioned, but I agree with you about Quercus, speaking as a reader. They really do a fabulous job, don't they? But I agree; I would not want to have the debt they must have incurred promoting Larsson. Interesting contrast, too, with Alvetgen; as you say, marketing budgets often dictate whom readers get to hear about...