What really distinguishes a detective novel? ‹ CrimeReads
I was named after a crime novel. My parents chose my nickname, Polly, after Dorothy Sayers’ Lady Mary Wimsey, a rebellious aristocrat who defies her upper-class family and sometimes helps her brother, Lord Peter, solve crimes. When I was growing up, my mother would relax every night after dinner with a glass of Chardonnay, a packet of Virginia Slims, and a pocket mystery from Ngaio Marsh or Colin Dexter. I remember thinking how great it would be to write a book where someone could just disappear like that. What was there in the detective fiction that she loved so much? How did these writers get his attention, and how could I do the same?
When I became a novelist, I formulated this question in more technical terms. A crime is defined as an act punishable by law. How does the inclusion of this kind of act direct the course of a story? Why is it that for me and readers like me, a novel with a crime is immediately more engaging than a novel defined by other elements – love, or aliens, or a setting in the distant past? Crime fiction doesn’t need to include murder, assault, or even violence to pique my interest, but unless someone is transgressing the boundaries of social and moral convention, it probably won’t catch my attention. .
I teach creative writing for a living and think about crafting all the time, but nothing I’d read about plot, pacing, or suspense suggested an answer on those topics. I decided to ask four of the genre’s greatest writers how they would answer the following questions: How does the inclusion of an immoral or illegal act affect the way a narrative is structured and how it progresses? In other words, when it comes to craftsmanship, what does detective fiction do that other genres can’t?
“Crime causes a ripple effect,” said Megan Abbott, author of The participation. “It provides a roadmap for both the writer and the reader. When a story involves a crime, you know certain actions are going to happen – concealment, investigation, discovery. It sets all those things in motion, and those actions reveal character.
Laura Lippman, author of dream girl, echoes the idea that the detective story seems to require certain narrative elements, including a satisfying resolution. “A detective novel presents a situation. It doesn’t have to be a mystery, but something happened, and the promise is that by the end of the book, you’ll figure it out. Traditionally, a mystery novel also offers the possibility that some kind of justice will be served and, on some level, that things will be put back in order. If the powerful are allowed to get away with what they’ve done, at least people know that. The protagonist and maybe a few other people know this, and that means something.
However, they also agreed that crime fiction can give a voice to people who are less likely to see justice in real life. Shawn Cosby, author of Blacktop Desert and razor tears, said that for him, detective fiction provides a lens to examine the lives of people at their wit’s end. “Crime fiction is the fiction of despair, and growing up poor like me, I understand despair intrinsically. he’s a character I might want to write about, I want to create characters strong enough to survive the things that crush them.
For Ace Atkins, author of the Quinn Colson series and the next Free fall, this training is about seeing the impact of crime on a community during its days as a crime reporter. “An MP once told me that if you question someone in a big city, you might say, ‘Where are you from?’ but in a rural place like where I live in Mississippi, you’d say, “Who are your people? The impact of crime is simply more immediate in a place where everyone knows each other. He uses the same phrase as Abbott, observing that crime creates “a ripple effect” and “you see connectivity between people in a certain place.”
Abbott and Lippman also discussed the genre’s unique ability to explore the impacts of crime and injustice, especially on women and people of color. With Abbott, I discussed the genre’s roots in the Victorian thriller. “There is always a need for a genre that measures the temperature of culture,” she said. “I think detective fiction has replaced the sensational novel and the social novel as the place to navigate all of this. It’s a place for the marginalized, and to me it’s about the female experience. In detective fiction, you find an understanding of what it is to be helpless.
Lippman agreed that perhaps especially at this cultural moment, detective fiction is about what it’s like to be a woman in America. “The bottom line is that being a teenager is to some extent being thrust into a dark history. Women move through the world with an awareness of their predators, and that really shapes your worldview when you can’t take your safety for granted. This can apply to any woman walking down the street, and it applies to people of color as well. Many of us go through life with a pretty acute awareness of which can go wrong.
Although detective fiction can be distinguished by a great plot, satisfying resolutions, and the ability to tell the stories of the underprivileged, all writers have argued that the genre can pit itself against any other in terms of quality. “It’s a very open and inclusive genre in terms of literary style,” Lippman commented, while Atkins said simply, “The best writers are in detective fiction.” Cosby went further: “The best detective fiction elevates the story of the dusty street or the gutter and elevates it to art. You read Dennis Lehane or Elmore Leonard, and it’s detective writing as an examination of the human condition. When it reaches that point, I think there is no higher form of literature.
After finishing my conversations with these four masters of the craft, I began to wonder if this was more important than a technical question. Maybe it wasn’t just about how a plot was constructed, or how an ending played out, or even a subject matter. Perhaps the resolution that detective fiction offers isn’t just narrative, but also psychological.
For me, as a writer, when I look at the suffering of people around me and in society at large, I want to create space to reflect on the causes and effects of that suffering. I can’t provide definitive answers, and I certainly can’t offer solutions, but I can write stories that have an ending, and that seem to me to satisfy a deep and primordial human need. Maybe there is no better answer than that. Maybe, as Atkins says, “I love it.”