Saturday, 9 August 2008

A hard look at crime writing

Natasha Cooper, for me, ranks as one of the most important commentators on the current state of crime writing. She wrote a feature recently in The Times about why it's harder for a woman to hack it as a crime writer than it is for a man. Not long ago she wrote a compelling piece despatched in an email from the Crime Writers Association. No link, so I'm going to post it as it appeared in the email (see below). I'm reminded that Mslexia featured an interesting piece about this, from the angle of both women writers and literary types turning their hand to crime. More broadly, this piece by the British Council is interesting on the Moral Dimension of the Crime Novel. Oh and a couple of features on the recent Harrogate Crime Festival, from the Telegraph and the Independent on Sunday, for those like me still catching up with events. If you have links to better write-ups, please share them.

By far the most interesting take on all this - to me, right now - is Natasha Cooper's email from the CWA. Here it is.

Trends and Dangers in Crime Writing by Natasha Cooper

Fashion and luck are two of the essentials in successful crime writing, as in most other endeavours. But it's dangerous to fixate on the first and impossible to engineer the second. By the time any writer struck by a current fashion in murderous fiction has plotted and written his or her own version, taste will probably have moved on. And there's nothing more unattractive to editors and critics than last-year's fashion.

At one time in the recent past the only crime novels that seemed to excite people with power in the booktrade were those dealing with serial killers. More and more writers created increasingly florid plots about men with twisted imaginations and sadistic impulses. Writers would introduce their readers to a young and attractive woman, of precisely the physical type that tweaked the killer's taste, just in time for her to become likeable to readers. She'd be the junior detective or a reporter, or the wife, girlfriend or daughter of the main sleuth. The serial killer would kidnap and hide her away to take his time torturing her, and readers were supposed to remain breathless with anxiety as they waited to discover whether she would be saved. Guess what? She always was. Boring.

Then there was (and, alas, still is) paedophilia. Long, long ago it was genuinely shocking to be made to see that child-abusers are not all grubby little men in dirty raincoats hanging about primary schools. As we now know, there are paedophiles in every social class and every profession. Many real criminals were abused in childhood and have gone on to become abusers themselves, citing the 'it never hurt me, so why make a fuss when I do it?' complaint when accused of their crime. Crime fiction must, I believe, reflect reality, but putting paedophilia at the heart of every novel is silly and tedious. It's also dangerous. You should never use a serious and desperately damaging crime in a way that provokes only boredom.

The latest fashion, following on from Dan Browne's astonishing success with The Da Vinci Code, is for novels about conspiracy in high places, preferably the Vatican. Now, whenever I read a blurb that mentions someone powerful trying to stop a world-shattering or religious secret getting out I shudder - in all the wrong ways..

As for luck, you'll need it if you're to find a publisher, win prizes, get picked by Oprah or Richard & Judy, see your title at the top of the bestseller list. Your own particular take on the world and the way you write have to fit with what publishers and critics and selectors happen to be looking for at the moment they light on your book. And there's nothing you can do to make that happen.

But you can write brilliantly, which will always help. You can plot with care and create characters who are psychologically coherent and credible. You can make readers like at least some of them, which you must do if you want to keep people with you all the way to the last page. And you can generate tension. You must set up huge and important questions and delay the answers. These questions aren't huge in the sense of the mad scientist trying to bring about the end of the world, but huge in the importance they carry for your characters and for the men and women you hope will read your novel.

Most of all you must care about what you write. If you don't, no one else will.


Quillers said...

Good post, Sarah. I think my own crime reading reached it's zenith when I read a novel in which someone's head was cut off, then put into a hole in their stomach It was called Blood Brothers, I think, and whilst it was a good story, about a cop and his brother who was a serial killer, I did feel that the writer had just written the most horrific thing they could think of, and as a result the 'head in the belly' scenario was quite laughable.

Cosy crime may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the lack of bloodlust does mean that the story can concentrate on the psychological reasons people kill.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi, Quillers, I've not read Blood Brothers but it sounds desperate and, yes, I can see why it would make you laugh. (I think this is a mistake that a lot of inexperienced, and some experienced, writers of crime make: not appreciating that we're wired in such a way that we will seek light relief in laughter when under prolonged duress. The best writers work with this fact and build the laughter in, at moments of their choosing. Otherwise, we end up laughing at moments the writer didn't intend to be funny.)

I think certain plot devices are simply bankrupt, regardless of genre. I got fed up with Kate Atkinson for using child abuse as the "get out of jail free card" once too often.

The psychology of crime is by far its most powerful weapon, I agree. Actually, a literary agent gave me some great quotes on this very thing; I shall dig them up and post them, I think.

Thanks for the link here, btw. I hope others will join the debate.