Crime Pays – Writing the Crime Novel
by Russel McLean
Crime pays. That’s what people say, anyway, when it comes to literature. Crime is frequently cited as one of the most popular genres, and even some of those who decry it have written under pseudonyms to try and get in on the some of the sales action enjoyed by the most popular practitioners. But is crime fiction as simple as it seems? Is it simply a matter of creating a detective and having them solve crimes across multiple books? Or is the genre more complex, especially in the modern era?
The intent of this tip sheet is to help you navigate the world of crime fiction, to avoid the traps and pitfalls that some writers stumble into when submitting to publishers and agents, providing an overview of the genre and some hints and tips as to how to succeed in writing.
What is a crime novel? Most people will tell you that it is a story where a detective (amateur or professional) solves a crime – usually a murder – and brings the criminal – who is often unknown at the start – to justice.
This is an old model of crime fiction, and perhaps the most pervasive one. The police procedural – as practiced by Ian Rankin, Peter James, Eva Dolan et al – is usually based around this framework, with wrinkles and unique elements employed to make each book stand out.
But, as we shall see, there are numerous “sub-genres” in crime fiction, some of which are more popular than others, and some of which may even be rooted in a particular era of writing. There is no strict rule for crime writing, despite what some people say, apart from this:
Russel’s One Rule of Writing Crime Fiction: A crime fiction novel must include, as a central plot point, an (or acts) that transgresses the law.
This opens up the genre considerably beyond detective fiction to include all kinds of other delights.
Crime is filled with niches and sub-genres. Although in the UK, the procedural (and the thriller) often dominate, there are lots of sub-genres and sub-sections of crime fiction that open up the basic formula. Here are some of the most essential (along with some good examples of their practice):
- Police Procedural – The biggest market in the UK. Generally a series of novels following the investigations of a squad of police detectives, or one detective in particular, paying close attention the way in which they conduct their inquiries. Ian Rankin, Alex Gray, James Oswald et al are worth reading for examples of how to craft the procedural.
- Hard-boiled – A hard-boiled novel will usually refer to a novel where the action is violent, the setting gritty, but the hero is still essentially a good person. A police procedural can be hard-boiled (Michael Connolly’s early Harry Bosch novels are definitely in the genre) but the form is more often associated with a private eye protagonist (Traditionally Raymond Chandler, but contemporary examples include George Peleconos’s Nick Stefanos or Derek Strange books, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels, and Gunnar Staalesen’s Varg Veum mysteries)
- Noir – often confused with hardboiled, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, so it doesn’t matter if you pitch as hardboiled or noir to most people, but hardcore fans of the genre will tell you that Noir differs from hardboiled in that the hero is rarely honourable (except, occasionally, in a delusional way) and that the end of the book is very often downbeat, with good failing to triumph over sleaze and darkness. Good examples of modern noir include Allan Guthrie, Don Winslow, or any paragraph (never mind whole books!) by James Ellroy.
- Domestic Noir – Seen by many as a “new” phenomenon, the domestic noir movement came into modern popularity with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Generally the modern movement features female protagonists who cannot be trusted, domestic settings and themes and, like noir itself, very little in the way of police presence. While the genre is associated with women writers, some men have given the genre a try. Jason Starr’s latest book, Savage Lane, is an excellent example of this. While seen as a recent phenomenon, the basics of the sub-genre itself can be traced to writers like Patricia Highsmith, who were previously labelled as psychological thriller writers.
- Cosy – As you might guess, this is the antithesis of the hardboiled and noir set. The cosy novel is often light on violence – skipping over the grisly details – and, in American publishing especially, often employs a hook or a theme. US publishers, for example, have produced long running series based around hobbies such as knitting, cooking, and even popcorn (This is genuinely true!). In the UK, cosies are much more traditional, usually following the lines of Midsomer murders or the basic formulas set up by “Golden age” writers such as Agatha Christie et al. The Scottish author Catriona MacPherson does an amazing homage to the golden age era in her amusingly satirical Dandy Gilver mysteries. Generally there is little swearing or explicit violence in this subgenre.
- Forensic Thrillers – popularised by Patricia Cornwell), the forensic thriller is now part of the crime fiction landscape. Closely related to the police procedural, the forensic thriller relies on science and deduction to save the day, and usually features detailed scientific techniques in the solving of the crime, which means a lot of research on the part of the author. Most serial killer novels have an element of the Forensic thriller in the foreground.
- Heist/Caper – Hugely popular several decades back, the heist or caper novel has taken a back seat to other genres in recent years. Generally, the heist novel will follow, from the criminal perspective, the execution of a robbery on a large or dangerous scale. When the novel is lighthearted – a-la Donald Westlake or, more recently, Chris Ewan’s Good Thief’s Guide novels – it can be referred to as a caper.
There are of course several more subgenres, but these are some of the most popular. Working out where your work fits into may also help you to determine the basic shape of your book during early stages of development.
Opening lines are always important in fiction, but in crime fiction, they really are vital in pulling the reader into your world. An oft-mentioned suggestion is that you should have a body on your first page or chapter, but this device is both clichéd and sometimes unnecessary in modern crime writing. There are, in fact, many ways you can open your novel.
Two good, oft-quoted examples of opening lines:
- “Jackie Brown, at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.” – from The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins
- “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.” – from Firebreak, by Richard Stark
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is held up by many crime writers as their favourite opening line. The simplicity of the set-up is brilliant, and you immediately want to know who Jackie is, why he’s getting guns and who he’s talking to.
The Stark line is a great example of an author who knows what they’re doing. Many of his Parker novels begin this way – not just in the middle of the action, but with the same word: “When.” It’s a word that immediately sets the action moving, no matter what’s happening.
But the opening chapter itself is also important. While you don’t have to murder someone on page one, you do need to:
- Establish your voice
- Introduce conflict (or an inciting incident)
- Set up questions for the reader
Which is much the same as in any genre, but in a one as propulsive as crime fiction, you need to engage the reader fast. You don’t have to introduce your protagonist straight away, but many choose to do so. You also don’t have to set up your central crime/mystery. But many writers find that the opening is the best place to do this.
Do watch for clichés. Especially:
- Killing told from the point of view of the murder – This is still prevalent and popular, but needs a unique point of view to be effective any more.
- Brutal death of a young, attractive woman – crime fiction has been called out for this several times in the last few years. Often because the victim becomes little more than a plot point, making such scenes appear gratuitous to readers.
- The hungover detective/hero – The white, male, hard-drinking, middle-aged detective waking up with a hangover and being called to a crime scene is another cliché we need to escape.
All of these can still be done well, but you need to be aware that they are overused and that, if you can find a unique way of opening your crime novel that surprises your readers, you will be far better served in the long run.
Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train has an intriguing opening. That first line, “There is a pile of clothing on the side of the train tracks,” opens up a lot of question. Seemingly normal or everyday details add to the tension because they’re given such prominence, and while little happens, the tension lies in what is not being said. It is an entirely atypical opening to a crime novel, and yet hugely effective, judging by the reaction of millions of readers across the world.
Your protagonist is the heart and soul of your novel. For them to be effective, they should be as unique as possible.
We’ve already mentioned the white, male, hard drinking, middle-aged detective as being a cliché in the opening of the book, but he is also a cliché in general. And he has been recently joined by the quirky, eccentric, socially awkward genius detective (usually, again, male).
Eva Dolan’s procedural novels work well because she manages to subvert the typical detective duo with Zigic and Ferriera. Zigic, the male detective is softer, more new-man, whole Ferrirera is tougher, spikier and more impulsive. They’re also from ethnic backgrounds, which makes their assignation to the hate crimes unit of Peterborough police all the more intriguing – they have a personal connection to some of the cases they investigate, and a reason to care.
When creating your protagonist, as the following questions:
- What makes them unique? – Why are they different from other protagonists created by other writers?
- Why are they involved in the plot of your book? – If they’re a police detective, what is it beyond their job that makes them care about this case? If they’re not, what is the central connection to the action of your book that spurs your protagonist forward?
- Why should the reader care about what happens to them? – This is not to say that your protagonist needs to be sympathetic. But they should fascinate the reader. Think about Jack Carter in Ted Lewis’s classic, Jack’s Return Home (better known as Get Carter). He’s a nasty piece of work, and yet we are fascinated to know what he does next.
A good character, or characters, at the heart of a crime novel is often essential. They are often what make your book memorable in reader’s minds. The same is, of course, true of the antagonist, and you should ask much the same questions of them, as well.
When writing your crime novel, there are some things you need to consider that may be preventing you from writing the best work you can.
- Over-reliance on impersonating older writers – While I have, of course, cited several older authors here, you need to remember that the genre is always changing and adapting. Tastes and reader’s preferences change. Do not try and copy Hammett or Chandler or Christie directly. Read them and learn, but immerse yourself in newer authors, too, to get a handle on current trends and styles.
If you need a reminder of how much tastes have changed since the “Golden Era” of crime fiction, read Ronald Knox’s 10 rules of crime writing, and you will instantly see how outdated this 1929-penned list of criminal commandments are (especially the jaw-dropping #5).
- Dismissing the genre – A lot of people think crime writing is easy money and that they can knock off a crime novel quickly and easily. They don’t do any research, and wind up writing clichéd, dull and occasionally insulting pastiches. Crime readers are a savvy bunch and know when someone is talking down to them.
- Forgetting the writing – People are always told that the secret to good crime fiction is a good plot. Often this is true, but it should never come at the expense of the writing itself. The best crime novels combine brilliant writing with tight plotting. And even if some bestsellers can be accused of leaden prose, for the most part there is still a level of skill and intention to the writing that allows the novel to maintain its pace, clarity and effectiveness (I highly recommend reading Allan Guthrie’s essay Hunting Down The Pleonasm to anyone looking for tips to improve their writing voice).
Crime fiction is one of the most exciting genres to work in. Far from being restrictive, as we’ve seen, it can encompass a multitude of plots, ideas, characters and styles. While you may have to follow certain rules in plotting and structure, there are plenty of other ways to put your own individual mark on the crime fiction novel, which is rewarding not only for the writer, but the readers as well, who are always looking for a fresh take on the genre they love.
(c) 2016 Russel McLean
Russel D McLean was born in Fife, and moved to Dundee where he studied philosophy at the University of Dundee. Russel’s path to publication started at sixteen when he submitted his first full length novel to Virgin Publishing New Doctor Who Adventures. The novel was summarily rejected and he spent the next fourteen years perfecting his style before finally switching genres and writing dark crime fiction. His first paid credit was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 2004 and his first novel, THE GOOD SON, was released in 2008. He has since been published in the US, translated into Italian and nominated for best first PI novel by the Private Eye Writers of America.
He spent over a decade as a bookseller in Dundee and Glasgow, writing at night. These days he writes full time from his office in a Gothic Monstrosity somewhere in Glasgow, supplementing his fiction work with literary journalism, reviews, editorial assessments for a variety of clients and just about anything that pays the bills. He writes a monthly crime fiction column for the Scottish Herald. And yes, he really did once share a flat with a cursed mask.
Russel is a reader in emergents’ highly successful critical reading service Work In Progress