On Writing Crime

Some years ago, in the internet discussion group DorothyL, readers revealed their pet peeves – writerly tricks that drove them to throw the book aside or worse, not to start the thing at all. And my, what a picky lot those readers were. What was top of the pet hates list? Novels told in the present tense, closely followed by novels in the first person, and then, at a slight distance and tying for third place, novels told from more than one point of view and novels by writers of one sex writing as the other. Wow. These pet peeves eliminate a lot of fiction.   Dear old Charles Dickens (that wild modernist) offended against every one of these peeves in a single novel, Bleak House, much of which is told in the first person by the maddenly sweet Esther Summerson, but some of which (chapters concerning the washed up aristocrats, Lord and Lady Dedlock) are told first person present tense. Other chapters are third person, past tense, omniscient narrator. No chance for Dickens, then, with the crime fans on DorothyL.

Don’t use first person? Come on!  That would mean goodbye Raymond Chandler and half the hard boiled school. Goodbye in fact to many post-19th century novelists. No writing as a member of the opposite sex? Any number of female crime writers have ignored that one – and plenty of male writers have successfully inhabited the mind of a woman (including, I like to think, myself). Leaving aside tyros like Charles Dickens, crime writers from Cornell Woolrich onwards have changed sex whenever the story demanded or would benefit from a different point of view.  Dorothy L Sayers herself wrote Montague Egg first person male.

Don’t use present tense? OK, it’s a minority taste (if we exclude mainstream writers from James Joyce to Carol Shields and, of course, Mann Booker winner Hilary Mantel) but has been used effectively from time to time by crime writers like Barbara Vine, Bill Moody, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Peter Cheyney, Steve Martini and Russell James. Plenty of serious mainstream authors use present tense, and it was beloved by Damon Runyon – but (and here’s the key) often when a book is written in the present tense, the reader doesn’t notice. Present tense adds immediacy. Many oral anecdotes are told in the present tense, so there is no way it sticks out or grates. And what if it does? Jay McInery told his Bright Lights, Big City in the second person – which, for the first page or two, was weird.  But you quickly got used to it, and the restrictions imposed on McInery by his approach actually helped the story and made it more immediate.

Dear timid reader, please trust the writer. Believe me, few adopt a style purely for effect. They write that way for a reason, and if you stay with them a few pages you may find yourself taken down paths you haven’t travelled before. Give it a try. If after a while you don’t like what you’re reading, give up – but don’t confine yourself to a road that never bends or strays off its predictable course. Instead, look
forward to encountering different styles. Some will surprise you – but writing is meant to surprise you. Surprise is what fiction does.  Don’t set up barriers against style – just read a chapter. If the style continues to grate, it’s failed writing. If it doesn’t it’s because it worked.