The Definitive Crime Novel
When the UK Crime Writers’ Association recently chose a list of the ten best crime novels ever written, the critic Jake Kerridge pointed out how unhappy Raymond Chandler would have been to find himself listed alongside Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, whose work he derided. But it’s surely a cause for celebration that the list found room for writers so fundamentally different.
‘Crime fiction’ is a useful umbrella term we use here in the UK. It handily covers the entire genre, taking in a wide spectrum from thrillers to hard-boiled, psychological to police procedural, historical mysteries to traditional cosies. It even allows in a bit of science fiction, horror, and humour along the way (like any good umbrella should). The term helps us to avoid those sometimes uncomfortable distinctions between mysteries and thrillers. In my experience, most of the novels I enjoy reading have a mixture of mystery and thriller elements in varying degrees anyway. The thing they have in common is a crime, right? And it’s usually that worst of crimes, a murder.
I became fascinated in the psychology behind murder a long time ago, when I discovered that the vast majority of murders aren’t committed by serial killers, or even by strangers. They’re committed by a member of the victim’s family, or by someone the victim knew well. Almost always, there’s a personal relationship involved. For the writer, this opens up a vast cauldron of potential motives, simmering jealousies, tragic conflicts. While the ‘who’ and ‘how’ might be essential elements of many crime novels, the one question we can never ignore is ‘why?’.
But this topic isn’t the sole preserve of crime novelists. Far from it. I once remember telling an audience that my own books aren’t really about the crime itself, but about the reasons for a murder happening, and about the consequences, which can affect people for years afterwards. As soon as I’d said those words, it struck me suddenly that I might easily have been describing the plot of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’! The Thane of Cawdor and his wife spend the first half of that play working up their justification for killing King Duncan. And in the second half, their guilt gradually destroys them.
Well, almost every book or play in European or American literature involves someone’s death, often by an act of violence – or at least in suspicious circumstances. Think of ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘Rebecca’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Hamlet’. The list is endless. The subject of unlawful killing, as well as the reasons for it, and the frequently catastrophic consequences, have been central themes of literature since people first put quill to parchment.
It’s all about character, of course. We’re fascinated by the mind of the murderer, especially when he or she is just an ordinary person like us. We love to explore the reasons people have for committing a violent crime. What was going on in their life that made murder look like a solution? What went wrong in a relationship to produce such an appalling outcome? We’re riveted by the unravelling of the motives, the psychological effects, the slow deterioration in the mind of the killer.
Well, we crime writers know that nothing brings out character better than a good murder. It puts everyone under pressure, pitches them into a situation where they’re shaken out of their normal patterns of behaviour. As readers, many of us are aware of some dark corners in our psyches, where we can imagine finding ourselves in a situation like this. It may be that every one of us is capable of committing a murder in the right (or wrong) circumstances. Some of you might even have a specific victim in mind right now! A good novel allows us to explore those feelings in a safe way by reading about how other people deal with them.
So what distinguishes an actual crime novel from the rest of literature? It’s an interesting question. Perhaps it’s the existence of a detective, the person who’s going to interpret the clues, identify the culprit, and put all this chaos back to rights. This person hasn’t always been around in literature, has he? Prince Hamlet had no detective to summon – he had to figure things out for himself.
Edgar Allan Poe is credited with inventing the detective story as early as 1841 with ‘Murders on the Rue Morgue’. He cheated a little on the plot, of course – no reader could have spotted that murderer! And it was a short story too. So perhaps the first detective novel was ‘The Notting Hill Mystery’ by Charles Warren Adams, published in 1862-63, five years before Wilkie Collins’ more famous work ‘The Moonstone’. In fact, ‘The Notting Hill Mystery’ came complete with chemical analysis reports, and a crime scene map. Maybe we could blame Adams for the start of the whole ‘CSI’ phenomenon!
Yes, Poe gave us the gifted amateur sleuth in Auguste Dupin, but Adams surely invented the first PI with his insurance investigator Ralph Henderson. Collins, on the other hand, familiarised readers with the idea of the dogged police detective in the shape of Sergeant Cuff, building on his friend Charles Dickens’ Inspector Bucket, the moral heart of ‘Bleak House’ (1852-53). Meanwhile, the English speaking world conveniently overlooks the fact that in Europe the first detective story was actually ‘Das Fräulein von Scuderi’ (1819), in which E.T.A. Hoffmann’s character Mlle de Scudery is a kind of 19th century Miss Marple.
So these detectives who first appeared in the Victorian era now seem to define the modern crime novel with their skills of deduction and forensic techniques, don’t they? Well, wait a minute…
When I was a child, one of the few books we had in the house was the King James Bible. I knew all the stories in the Old Testament. And I remember a section in the Book of Daniel (Chapter 14, if you want to look it up), where our hero is challenged to establish the guilt of the deceitful temple priests. Daniel cleverly proves his case by the use of footprint evidence. What was that? CSI in the Bible? So perhaps there’s nothing new, after all?
When I set out to write my first Cooper and Fry novel, featuring two young Derbyshire police detectives, I’d been a fan of crime fiction for many years. In lots of ways, BLACK DOG was simply the book that I would have enjoyed reading myself. But I did a couple of things I didn’t think were happening much back then. I wanted to use a rural setting but with a darker, contemporary feel, to help break down those distinctions between the genres. And I wanted my detectives to be young and junior, to avoid adding another world-weary, middle-aged, alcoholic loner to the world of crime fiction!
Apart from that, I’ve always felt there are several aspects which help to define a crime novel in the mind of a reader. The trouble is, they change from one reader to another. I know from the reactions I get to my books that many people love to become involved in the lives of familiar characters and follow them over a series of novels. Others enjoy learning about a new place, as they do with my Peak District locations. Some individuals will read a book simply as a ‘whodunnit’, or maybe just to enjoy the atmosphere. Or they might find they identify with a particular character through their own circumstances, so that a novel has a particular personal resonance for them. When readers talk to me about one of my books, they almost NEVER mention the actual murder!
And readers are the most important people in this process, aren’t they? It’s what they think that matters. Their experience is crucial. So what is the definitive crime novel? Well, it seems to me that defining a crime novel is about as difficult as trying to define a reader. Every one of them is different. And long may it be so!
About the Author:
Stephen Booth is an award winning British crime writer, the creator of two young Derbyshire police detectives, DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry, who have appeared in twelve novels set in England’s beautiful and atmospheric Peak District.
Stephen has been a Gold Dagger finalist, an Anthony Award nominee, twice winner of a Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel, and twice shortlisted for the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year. Ben Cooper was a finalist for the Sherlock Award for the best detective created by a British author, and in 2003 the Crime Writers’ Association presented Stephen with the Dagger in the Library Award for “the author whose books have given readers the most pleasure”.
The Cooper & Fry series is published all around the world, and has been translated into 15 languages. The latest title is DEAD AND BURIED, with a new book, ALREADY DEAD, published in June 2013.
Synopsis: The helicopters are halted. The search for fifteen-year-old Laura Vernon ends when her body is found, murdered, in the forest.
On his hunt for the killer, detective Ben Cooper begins to suspect the people of Derbyshire are guarding some dark secrets-secrets that Laura might have known. Further complicating his investigation, Cooper is paired with an unfamiliar partner: Diane Fry, a woman as tenacious as she is alluring. Together they learn that in order to understand the town’s present, they must unearth its past.
Black Dog is like Twin Peaks by way of Tana French, and the first novel in the multiple award-winning Cooper and Fry series.