How To Write A Crime Story
Writers have always looked for ways to tell stories differently. They have written as ghosts, have ‘died’ in the course of their story, have written as men, women, children, babies, cats, dogs – even as a mirror on the wall, telling the story of what passed before it. Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding wrote lengthy novels as series of letters, without a single word from an omniscient narrator. American crime readers (on DorothyL) said they liked stories about or by clever domestic animals: Lassie solves it again, Tiddles pulls it off. For some reason, these anthropomorphic horrors delighted them.
Well, fine – whatever turns you on. But allow a writer his/her indulgences. First, they first decide from whose point of view it will best be told, when it’s set, where the action takes place. There are still some readers want (or think they want) nothing to challenge them: a straightforward, old-fashioned story, comfortably related, in which men are men, and women do what they’re told (think 50 Shades of Grey) – though, if that’s what they are looking for, why do they read crime? Don’t they know that crime is shocking, dirty and unpredictable? It certainly is in real life, and it sure as hell is in books. Crime writers do not write for the bourgeoisie. Nor for sewing bees. They write about crime, and – here’s a surprise – in practically every crime book, people die. The Golden Age’s “Death in the Library” sounded cosy – but try asking the corpse. The corpse will tell you there’s nothing cosy about having your head bashed in, a dagger thrust in your back, your guts corroded with poison. That’s the reality of violent death. It’s what a character has to go through before you and I, dear reader, can settle down in our armchairs to solve the crime.
Why else read a crime book? Some people read crime for the mystery, to solve the puzzle. Others read for the frisson of watching people put through hell – people screened from them behind a protective wall of prose. Think of the terrible things that happen in fairy stories. As many before me have pointed out, fairy stories are tales of murder, blood and outrage, in which child abuse is common and villains are cruel. But since Victorian times, fairy stories have been repackaged to fit modern Health & Safety guidelines. ‘Once upon a time’ they reassuringly begin, and ‘Everyone lived happily ever after,’ they end. Fairy stories have become emasculated. Should crime stories go the same way?