As part of my Crime Fiction Month feature, crime fiction writer Harry Bingham stopped by Books, Biscuits, and Tea to discuss what makes a good crime novel. And not only do we have a brilliant and thought-provoking discussion in store for you but – wait for it – courtesy of Orion Books, we have 10 copies of Harry’s first book, Talking to the Dead to give away. Sounds good? Then make sure to read on, join in the discussion and you may be one of our lucky winners.
What makes a perfect crime novel? Or rather, since the market moves on and we don’t want to re-write the great stories of the past, I should ask what makes a perfect crime novel of today?
I don’t pretend to have a universal answer – every reader (and, if it comes to that, every literary agent or publisher) will have their own. But here’s mine.
We have to start with character. It’s impossible to name a really stand-out piece of detective fiction that doesn’t have an utterly compelling central character. Sherlock Holmes is, of course, the paradigm example, but you could throw in Poirot, or or Peter Wimsey, or Philip Marlowe, or Lisbeth Salander, or any number of others.
The classic detective is, of course, something of an outsider. A brilliant analyst of society without ever quite being part of it. Perhaps it’s corny, but I like that model. My own Fiona Griffiths is in recovery from a major (and strange) psychotic collapse. She’d love to belong to ‘Planet Normal’, but getting there, and staying there, is more of a challenge for her than solving crimes, no matter how dangerous or complex. There’s a way in which the Sherlock Holmes stories are nothing but a vehicle for the character. The same, I guess, is true of any tale that has Fiona Giffiths trampling through it.
And for that matter, I want detectives who have real lives. Romances, mysteries, problems, families, challenges. One of the beauties of the crime story is that there are so many series novels. They give writers an extraordinary chance to map someone over huge amounts of time, to devote a million words or more to a single life. Writers need to grab that opportunity and do something wonderful with it.
Love Sherlock Holmes though I do, his stories were often preposterous. The Red-Headed League, for heaven’s sake! Or the number of times that poisons, or serpents or secret societies, bred abroad, wreaked havoc amongst those Victorian/Edwardian domesticities. And in the world post-Chandler, I think that doesn’t work any more. For me, the society has to be broadly recognisable as our own. We need crimes that feel plausible, villains that feel realistic.
For that reason, I don’t really like those modern serial killer stories with strangely coded forms of murder, or any sort of sadism that just seems designed to generate nasty crimes for a detective to solve. That’s not to say we can’t flirt with the outrageous. Fiona Griffiths is not, by any means, a standard issue police officer, but for me at least, that’s one real departure from reality. It’s the one concession I demand from my reader.