For example, one writing style that can be both evocative and tension-building is the descriptive, almost literary style of crime fiction authors like James Lee Burke. Burke’s writing style is sometimes almost poetic, and it evokes the Louisiana setting of most of his novels. Here’s a snippet from Black Cherry Blues:
“I drove back to New Iberia through St. Martinsville. The sun was above the oaks on Bayou Teche now, but in the deep early-morning shadows the mist still hung like clouds of smoke among the cattails and damp tree trunks. It was only March, but spring was roaring into Southern Louisiana as it always does after the long gray rains of February.”
P.D. James also uses a literary style of writing in her Adam Dalgliesh novels, and it can add quite a lot to the tension in the story. Here, for instance, is a bit from her A Taste for Death:
“Some premonition alerted her subconscious: earlier disquiets and a vague sense of unease came together and focussed into unease. A faint smell, alien yet horribly familiar; the sense of a recent presence; the possible significance of that unlocked outer door; the dark passageway. Suddenly she knew that something was dreadfully wrong…
There were two of them, and she knew instantly, and with absolute certainly, that they were dead.”
Of course, that literary style isn’t the only really effective way to tell a crime story. Some authors choose a style that reflects a particular place or culture. That’s what Adrian Hyland does, and it’s very successful. This kind of style places the reader and sweeps the reader into the story. Here’s an example from Hyland’s Moonlight Downs (AKA Diamond Dove):
“Still, I reflected as I relaxed at the wheel of my ute, knees on the dash, fag hanging off my mouth, they can’t be doing too badly if they can enjoy themselves this much.
Bindi’s clutch had packed it in, as a result of which he couldn’t change out of first gear. Nor could he stop since he wouldn’t be able to start again so he circled slowly a round us like a great clanking buzzard, cracking jokes and occasionally flushing the old boys out of the bushes.”
Alexander McCall Smith’s writing style also has a unique sense of place. In his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, for instance, his style is very evocative of the Botswana locale of the series. Here’s a bit from Tears of the Giraffe:
“Smoke from the morning fires, the fine wood smoke that sharpens the appetite, and he would hear the sound of people on the paths that criss-crossed the bush near his house; shouts of children on their way to school; men going sleepy-eyed to their work in the town; women calling out to one another; Africa waking up and starting the day.”
This sort of writing style adds a lot of local colour and authenticity to a story. The only risk is that the author might use terms that readers may not understand. For that reason, some writers (Hyland is one) provide a glossary, so readers can understand better.
Some crime fiction fans prefer a very spare, almost terse writing style. That’s got its benefits, too. Authors of novels with an edge of bleakness often find that the spare writing style suits the mood of the book. Here’s an example, for instance, from Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers:
“He [Wallander] was feeling uneasy. Being confronted with the old woman with the noose around her neck had shaken him. The cruelty of it was unthinkable. Who would do something like that?”
Ian Rankin also sometimes uses that spare kind of writing style. Here, for instance, is a snippet from his Mortal Causes:
“’It’s hell out there,’ one constable had already commented as he paused for rest in the canteen. Rebus believed him all too readily. The cells were filling nicely along with the CID in-trays.”
This writing style features short, almost staccato sentences and outlines rather than long descriptions to tell the story. Some readers would like more details, but crime fiction fans who like this style swear by it as a way to convey a story.
Another style that’s sometimes used to tell a good crime fiction story is what I’ll call the dialogue-driven style. We learn what’s going on through what people say to each other rather than through long descriptions. This style is an effective for authors to “show not tell,” and many readers like the way it moves the action along. Agatha Christie’s novels, for instance, often feature a dialogue-driven story. Here, for instance, is a snippet from Christie’s Hallowe’en Party:
“A murder. After the snapdragon, everyone went home,’ said Mrs. Oliver. “That, you see, was when they couldn’t find her.’
‘A girl. A girl called Joyce. Everyone called her name and looked around and asked if she’d gone home with anyone else, and her mother got rather annoyed and said that Joyce must have felt tired or ill or something and gone off by herself, and that it was very thoughtless of her not to leave word. All the sort of things that mothers say when things like that happen. But anyway, we couldn’t find Joyce.’
‘And had she gone home by herself?/
‘No,’ said Mrs. Oliver, ‘she hadn’t gone home…’ Her voice faltered. ‘We found her in the end – in the library-…’”
Dialogue-driven stories can carry the reader along without interrupting the story. However, they don’t always allow for strong character development unless the author is talented at conveying character through dialogue.
And then there are authors who choose a dry, sarcastic or comic style of writing. Fans of this style like the way that it allows the author to tell a sometimes very bleak, sad story without leaving the reader depressed. The “light touch” can also move a story along at a quick pace. Marshall Karp uses this style; here, for instance, is a bit from his Bloodthirsty:
“If you’re looking to get rich, being a cop is not the way to go. Especially the honest variety.
Last year, I made ninety-three grand working homicide for LAPD. My partner, Terry Biggs, who is one pay grade lower, managed to make eighty-eight with overtime. Not bad money. Except that my plumber cleared one-fifty. And he didn’t get shot at. Of course, I don’t have to snake toilets. Life is full of trade-offs.”
Carl Hiaasen’s writing style also uses humour to carry the story along. It’s a slightly different kind of humour, but it’s nonetheless very effective at keeping readers engaged. Here’s a peek at Skinny Dip:
“…Joey had found herself looking forward to visiting the ship’s ‘private unspoiled island,’ as it had been touted in the brochure. Yet this, too, proved dispiriting. The cruise line had mendaciously renamed the place Rapture Key while making only a minimal effort at restoration. Roosters, goats and feral hogs were the predominant fauna, having outlasted the smuggler who had been raising them for banquet fare. The island’s sugar-dough flats were pocked with hulks of sunken drug planes, and the only shells to be found along the tree-shorn beach were of the 45-caliber variety.”
Of course, there are other writing styles that are very effective at drawing readers into a story, keeping them engaged, and adding layers of interest. I’ve only had space to mention a few. And some authors use what you might call a combination of styles. Which writing styles appeal most to you? Is there a writing style that puts you off? If you’re a writer, what kind of writing style do you find most comfortable?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beach Boys’ California Girls.