With the crime fiction genre encompassing such a wide range, the reader and writer alike will have preferred sub-genres. There are cosy crimes, police procedurals, high concept crime action thrillers, everyman novels and a whole raft of other sub-genres and even sub-sub-genres. Yet they all have the same basic elements.
- The detective / investigator / normal person who must solve a crime is the cleverest person in the story
- A crime (well obviously)
- A criminal (well duh!)
- A mystery (even more obvious)
- Consequences if the crime isn’t solved / bomb isn’t disabled etc
- A sense of justice for the reader
- Red herrings or misinformation
Now let’s take a look at each element in more detail.
The lead detective / private investigators range from genteel ladies like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple to hard drinking losers such as Hammett’s Sam Spade. These characters all have their flaws - Sherlock Holmes was a junkie - yet they are dogged in their pursuit of the answer if not necessarily a conviction. For these characters solving the puzzle is everything.
Characters in higher concept crime thrillers such as James Bond, Charlie Fox or Joe Hunter usually have to use their physical skills as well as their mental ones in order to thwart the plot of the bad guy(s)
There are also characters such as Lee Child’s nomadic Jack Reacher who combine Sherlockian deduction with physical ability.
Throw in the everyman characters from Dick Francis, Linwood Barclay or Simon Kernick and you have a massively powerful character that the reader can instantly connect with
Each of these characters draws the reader into their world while becoming their hero along the ride. Sure they ain’t perfect but each person tries to do the right thing. This quality alone makes us the reader champion these paper bound sheriffs even if we don’t fully like them.
Cosy crimes can be tales of missing necklaces etc where the strongest word on the page is “damn”. Yet there are many novels (including the one I’m currently writing) where the crime is something heinous like rape, kidnapping or murder. High concept thrillers usually focus on some kind of world domination be it financial or through military might.
The crime must always be so sufficiently horrific that it compels the reader to want a sense of justice for the criminal. We readers don’t care if somebody wealthy has their pocket picked and loses £20. We want them to be held at gunpoint by a masked intruder who threatens their beloved with torture / murder or rape if the victim doesn’t open the safe / hand over the code / whatever.
A stolen necklace only matters if it a priceless heirloom – cheap costume jewellery bought last week has us reaching for a different book within seconds.
Crimes which invade the homes or lives of normal people work very well as do the crimes which sadly populate news media.
Choosing the right victim for the crime is as important as selecting the crime.
The criminal can often be the crime writer’s best friend. Create a good one and you are laughing. Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes often locked horns and who can forget the exchanges between Bond and Goldfinger or Bloefeld?
The criminal has to be a nasty character without ever descending into the dark territory of clichedom. Human touches are a must although the criminal may have to be inhuman at times. One of the best baddies I have ever read celebrated his birthday with a solo game of Russian roulette and called his dog his “associate”.
What the author must be wary of though is the criminal being a better character than the lead. Before you snort coffee, wine or beer over your computer screen at this last comment, I recommend you recall the way that Goldfinger got the best line in any Bond book or film and how Alan Rickman dominated scenes in Die Hard and Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. What about Hannibal Lector? He too overshadowed the detectives chasing him in Manhunter and prying him for clues in Silence of the Lambs.
Mysteries can be forensic heavy police procedurals or a lone wolf operating on instinct and fitting together pieces like a jigsaw. Whichever form they take the reader has to be given the clues as well as the detective. We read mysteries because on some level we too enjoy the puzzles. We want to solve the case with or preferably before the detective, but only a page or two before them. Solving the crime on page sixty-two of a five hundred page novel means reading four hundred plus pages for the vindication of being right.
On a personal level I enjoy the battle of wits between author and reader from both sides of the fence. I love playing detective and I also love devising ways to fool my readers.
Getting the balance right is one of the trickiest parts of crime writing. Too easy and you run the risk of alienating readers. Too hard and baffled readers will shy away from your next release.
Obviously there must be consequences to drive any story forward. The bomb in the school must be defused. The serial killer must be stopped or the ransom must be paid. For cosy crimes the antique wedding ring must be recovered by Saturday or the wedding cannot go ahead.
What the consequences do more than any other element is add pace and urgency. The reader knows the deadline as well and so they root for the hero to beat the deadline. Serial killer novels usually shorten the time periods between kills to further increase the tension.
A Sense of Justice for the Reader
Whatever else happens in a crime or mystery novel there must be some justice meted out to the perpetrator of the heinous deeds. Some characters such as Bond or Hunter will take matters into their own hands and kill the bad guy whereas more traditional detectives will arrest the criminal or call for the police to make the arrest.
If an arrest is made then the reader has to know that the arrest will end up with prison for the criminal. There must be no worry in the minds of the reader that there isn’t enough evidence for a conviction to stick.
Red Herrings or Misinformation
One of the most important elements in any crime novels is the trail of red herrings and false leads. No detective novel is complete without there being a dead end or two and guessing which leads are real is all part of the game between reader and writer. Some however do not work as well as others, take the guy who is arrested in the first third of the novel, there’s no way he can be the killer as the book is nowhere near complete and there must be more to the story. The best author I’ve ever read in terms of twists and red herrings is Jeffery Deaver. His books are fantastically tangled plot wise and he always bests me.
A crime novel must be plausible. The plot should make good sense and even if fantastical it should be believable. Readers are quite prepared to suspend their disbelief but only to a point. Cross that point by having a machine gun toting Grandma or the hero fighting lions with his bare hands, readers will be lost quicker than you can say “this is rubbish”.
The bumbling Clouseau style detective has no place in serious crime fiction. The lead investigator has to be the cleverest person in the book lest plausibility flies out the window.
About the Author
Graham Smith is married with a young son. A time served joiner he has built bridges, houses, dug drains and slated roofs to make ends meet. For the last eleven years he has been manager of a busy hotel and wedding venue near Gretna Green, Scotland.
An avid fan of crime fiction since being given one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books at the age of eight, he has also been a regular reviewer and interviewer for the well respected review site Crimesquad.com for over three years.
He has three collections of short stories available as Kindle downloads and has featured in anthologies such as True Brit Grit and Action: Pulse Pounding Tales as well as appearing on several popular ezines.
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