April 29, 2012

Unbroken Excellence

Some crime writers are very obvious: there's a crime, an investigator, a criminal and finally a solution that includes a resolution. The prose takes you along briskly with perhaps some incidental commentary on society or the immediate environment in which the story is taking place. The investigator is brave, wry, cynical.

Then there are crime writers who are not obvious, but tangential: the originating crime is perhaps minor, the criminal is unclear, the solution doesn't really offer a resolution. And the investigator is uncertain, not brave, and not particularly cynical. The story emerges piece by piece, because the investigator is dogged and shrewd and is good at pattern recognition. Martin Cruz Smith with his Arkady Renko books has been, for me, the chief architect of this type of crime novel. But there are times, as in Wolves Eat Dogs, when it's hard to know exactly what has happened - the storytelling is so tangential as to be obscure. You have the sense that you're reading something good, even excellent, but you also think you must have missed something and have to go back to check up.

Peter Temple's The Broken Shore is another first-rate entrant into this sub-genre, with a style that is also tangential in the way it accumulates detail but is crystal clear in its use of imagery, character and dialogue.

April 25, 2012

Truth and fiction

I was surprised to read a report in The Guardian that mirrors almost exactly a key plot development in Peter Temple's The Broken Shore.

In the book an Australian police unit try to arrest some youngsters in a car, but it goes wrong ... I won't add any spoilers here. The story in The Guardian echoes not just the event but the placating noises made by the police commissioners and the calls for police sanctions from prominent members of the Aboriginal community. Were the book not four years old you'd think Temple had read the headline and just copied it out ...

I guess this happens more often than one thinks. I know from my own experience that I've written something and a while later I've seen a similar incident on the news (or a similar plot development in something I've read or seen) ... and the feeling is one of both smugness and bitterness. Smug because in a sense you've 'predicted' the event; bitter because your moment of insight has been stolen by someone else (to include, possibly, God ... )

They say (or at least Christopher Booker does) that there are seven basic plots. Appallingly, maybe that's true in life, too.

April 23, 2012

Defending the Indefensible

William Landay's Defending Jacob is a very odd book. Narrated in the first person, it tells the story of an Assistant District Attorney whose son, Jacob, is accused of murdering a fellow pupil at school. The form of the book is that the narrator, Andy Barber, is providing some kind of deposition before a Grand Jury. The narration moves from him answering questions in making the deposition, to a straightforward first-person voice.

This sets up an odd situation for the reader - there are stretches of prose where this first-person voice is telling us the story ... and this is suddenly interrupted as we're whisked back into the courtroom:
The cop hesitated, appealing to Duffy with his eyes. Why waste time?
"We do it again,” Duffy repeated. “Like the man says.”
Mr. Logiudice: They never got the chance, did they? The detectives never got back into the interrogation room with Leonard Patz that day.
Witness: No, they did not. Not that day or any other day.
Mr. Logiudice: How did you feel about that?
Witness: I thought it was a mistake...

April 18, 2012

New Bond alert

Good news that William Boyd is to write the next James Bond book. The last one, Carte Blanche, by Jeffrey Deaver was a disaster. The villains were not particularly villainous, the action perfunctory and often just plain silly. What's more, it was sometimes hard to work out exactly what was going on. And it was all told in Deaver's lifeless, clerical prose.

Boyd, on the other hand, can tell a good story, has an interesting prose style and knows how to build surprises into his plots. I particularly liked Brazzaville Beach.

Also, I think I sat opposite him once on the Dockland Light Railway to Greenwich.

April 16, 2012

Suburban Angst

There seems to be a sub-genre of crime fiction developing that I'll call Suburban Angst. This genre of books is marked by the creation of a milieu that is white, middle-class, professional and populated by characters who still hark back to their glory days as jocks or cheerleaders. Harlan Coben in his non-Myron Bolitar books is an exponent of this sub-genre, as is Greg Iles, Linwood Barclay and the writer whose book I'm currently reading, William Landay.

The titles of these books are usually commonplace phrases - Fear The Worst, Tell No One - and they focus on commonplace people caught up in events beyond their experience. Often they involve children going missing, or husbands/wives finding something out about their spouse's past. Typically they don't involve private eyes or the police (except in a tangential way) and it's down to the resourceful ex-jock-now-lawyer or ex-jock-now-journalist to find out Exactly What the Hell is Going On.

If nothing else, these books offer a fascinating view of what middle America thinks is 'ordinary' or 'typical', because it's these ordinary worlds that are threatened by the disastrous events of the book, and therefore these worlds that the main characters struggle to reassert. And of course what the books also show is that beneath any display of the 'ordinary' there is usually a dark secret place that has always lay beneath the norm - a place where addiction, passion and violence lie dormant but are only waiting for the opportunity to rise again.

Most crime novels are based on the premise that the criminal act undercuts or questions the current status quo, and it's the role of the detective or policeman to weed out the criminal and therefore restore the world to its harmonious balance, where everyone knows their place. The difference perhaps in the Suburban Angst novels is that the disruption of the status quo is laid out so clearly - we don't need to use any literary critical faculties to infer that the world has been disrupted: we're told as much in so many words. This makes them rather naked in their ideological position and sometimes makes them difficult to read because we're expected to identify with characters who are leading such 'perfect' lives. Perhaps that makes them peculiarly American, and why I'm struggling to think of any parallels amongst UK crime writers.

April 13, 2012


Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear (1943) was written in the middle of World War II and is filled with very specific detail of what it was like to be living through the blitz. The central character, Arthur Rowe, finds himself accidentally caught up in some kind of (ill-defined) Nazi plot and spends most of the book trying to find out exactly what is going on around him. His confusion is compounded after a bomb explodes close to him, producing several weeks of amnesia, a period during which he is spoken to and treated as though he were someone else.

Greene is celebrated for his creation of what people have punningly called 'Greeneland', an odd melange of real geography and an unknown spiritual terrain. His characters travel not only through real places, accurately described, but through memories, dreams and psychological habitats. In The Ministry of Fear these journeys are evident and almost crude, as Greene is here writing one of his 'entertainments', books intended to garner sales rather than critical kudos. As a result, the internal journeys are externalised - Rowe's voyage to discover himself, and the hero he wants to be, is rendered through action as well as internal dialogue. His passage is physical as well as psychological.

April 12, 2012

What you learn from reading

I've recently returned to writing my third novel after a gap of some months. In the interim I've been reading assiduously for this blog and reading in a different way - reading to learn instead of just reading for pleasure. Now of course writers say - and beginning writers are told, endlessly - to read and read and read. That's fine, but you have to read differently, critically, if you're to learn from what you read.

For example, you must try to keep an eye out for how the plot is working. When you're reading for pleasure (RFP) you get caught up in What Happens Next. When you're reading to learn (RTL), you might be saying, 'Right, I see what you did there ... you led us up to a revelation at the end of the chapter. Then in the next chapter you cleverly took us to the sub-plot.'

Here are some more differences:

April 09, 2012

Populism or snobbism - who wins?

James Hall, a writer of some very good crime novels, has written a contentious article in The Wall Street Journal. He suggests that those who dismiss popular literature as inferior just because it's popular are exercising a literary snobbery that can't really be excused. Judging from some of the comments beneath the article, he's going to have a hard time convincing some people of that fact:

Beware Literary Snobbery: Why we should read best-sellers

April 08, 2012

Entertaining Mr Greene

I've started reading Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear, one of his so-called 'entertainments' (as opposed to his serious works, I suppose).

I'm reminded very much of Conrad's The Secret Agent so far. I think it's the prosaic nature of the London life described by both Greene and Conrad, together with the larger-than-life characters who are Hitchcockian in their secrecy and the sense of foreboding that they bring. It's something to do with the way they say one thing while seeming to imply another, as if their personalities, if not their whole lives, are simply a front that you're supposed to take at face value without questioning what goes on behind. In the case of both of these books, that's rather true in that they're both about conspiracies in which 'ordinary' people are involved - again, as in many of Hitchcock's films.

I've just remembered that when I was at Sussex University I took an option and studied Conrad under Professor Cedric Watts. At the time, he was helping Norman Sherry research and write his multi-volumed biography of Greene. And looking at Sherry's books on Amazon I see that he's actually edited many of Conrad's books. So perhaps there's more similarities between Conrad and Greene than I had thought ... Hmm, I feel a learned paper coming on ... quick, nurse, the screens ...

April 06, 2012

Plod the policeman

In the UK, 'the Plod' is sometimes used as shorthand for the Police, presumably because they're seen as deliberate, slow-moving, conscious of detail: plodders.

Well that could certainly be used to describe Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's homicide squad in Roseanna, their first novel in the Martin Beck series, published in 1965 in Sweden and translated into English a couple of years later.

The plot revolves around the discovery of a dead girl in a canal in Borenshult. She is naked and there's no way of identifying her. The story then shows the slow process undertaken by Beck and his squad to identify her and find the killer. Unlike many contemporary crime novels, the investigation takes place over several months.

This is both the strength and the weakness of the book.

April 05, 2012

Getting there ...

Only about another 60 pages to finish in Sjowall and Wahloo's Roseanna. It seems to have been a long read, and I think it's because it's a very detailed police procedural, where every aspect of the pursuit of a killer is laid out in an undramatic fashion. In fact, 'undramatic' is the perfect word to describe the events of the book. The murder happens off-stage and Martin Beck, the policeman in charge of the investigation, is not exactly an action figure.

But funnily enough, you don't get the tension you had when reading - for example - Forsyth's Day of the Jackal, which was equally detailed but somehow more exciting. I think Sjowall and Wahloo's Swedish cool keeps the temperature down, whereas Forsyth's over-excitable personal temperament kept you on the edge of your seat, wanting to know what happened next. A style review will follow soon!

April 03, 2012

SJ Rozan's Sagging Middle

Rozan has written a series of books about the detective pairing of Bill Smith and Lydia Chin. In an interview here she talks interestingly about the ways a writer can help her or himself get through the tricky middle section of a book:

Thanks to bookbaby.com for the video.

April 01, 2012

Swedish beginnings

I'm reading Roseanna at the moment, a crime novel by the Swedish partnership of Maj Sjowall And Per Wahlöö. It was written in 1965 and is dated to some extent (no DNA, no computers, international telephone calls a nightmare ... ). I'll write about it later, but coincidentally my colleagues at Mysterytribune.com have also posted on this couple and their books:

Sjowall and Wahloo