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.
Next, I want to read crime novels that make real demands of my intelligence. That can come in any number of different ways. I love demanding plots, or books that tackle contemporary issues in a thought-provoking way, or writing that demands careful attention – or almost anything else. But crime novels can’t just be bubble-gum reads. There needs to be a kind of intensity of purpose and thought that demands a comparable commitment from the reader.
And, of course, most detectives need to be super-bright themselves. We want to see them make connections or deductions that could well have escaped us. We want to see them dazzle us. That requires the author to be always one step ahead of the reader. Not easy, especially when so many crime readers are as sophisticated and experienced as they are today.
A big issue for me is the quality of writing. There are, in my humble opinion, just too many cop stories where the writing is pedestrian. The books may still be OK in every other way – and Stieg Larsson, for example, delivered some wonderful crime stories without being much of a prose stylist – but why can’t we demand both? Stunning plots and wonderful writing. I’m not saying that it’s easy to achieve those things each and every time, but we should at least aim high.
Writers like Gillian Flynn or Tana French are to my mind as good as anyone writing ‘literary fiction’ today. Indeed, if I had to save the work of Gillian Flynn or the lionised Jonathan Franzen from some literary inferno, I’d save her work over his, and with relish. What’s more, as Flynn’s sales prove, you can combine dazzling writing with deliciously evil plotting to produce a genuine page-turner. (Which is why, by the way, literary agents and publishers are always on the lookout for writers with her rare combination of gifts: the writing of an angel, the brain of a devil.)
Darkness without sadism
So far, I imagine, most crime readers will have agreed with my wishlist. Yes, of course we want good characters. Yes, of course we want good writing.
But I also make a strange – and perhaps more personal – demand of my crime fiction, which is that I want it to be dark (edgy, unsettling, truthful) without ever being sadistic, gory or plain nasty. That’s a hard thing to explain and (speaking as an author) a thin line to tread. But you’ll know what I mean, I’m sure. The ‘Golden Age’ novels of Agatha Christie et al never really seemed to handle murder as anything but an intriguing crossword puzzle to be solved. That trivialises crime and is contemptuous of its impact on victims. I need my crime novels to be more serious around violent death. To think of the murdered, to think of the families who have lost a loved one.
At the same time, I loathe wanton, sensationalist violence. The kinds of story that start with a girl or woman being tortured – slowly, nastily – to death. It seems to me that such novels collude with the nastiness they are, theoretically, opposed to. It makes me feel dirty as a reader. (Though not for long: if I come across that kind of writing in a book now, I hurl it across the room and don’t read another word.)
And this is a hard line for an author to tread. My Fiona Griffiths stories are quite dark, not least because my central characters relationship with death is a little unsettling. I also describe scenes of violence with what I hope is something close to a literal and moral truth. Any such writing shouldn’t feel too comfortable and I hope mine doesn’t. At the same time, my novels are quite ‘clean’. There’s not a lot of ‘on-screen’ violence and what there is is not of the gruesome or long-drawn-out variety. Indeed, Fiona herself is quite capable of being violent when she needs to be, but she’s aware of that darkness in herself and she isn’t particularly comfortable with it.
And last, I want a crime story to be more than itself. To tackle themes of importance, to achieve literary goals beyond the mere solution of crimes. Often, those goals have to do with the depiction of a society: Denise Mina’s Glasgow, Chandler’s LA, The Wire’s Baltimore. But there’s no single route to achieve that depth. Henning Mankell and Fred Vargas are, in very different ways, intrigued by the philosophy of crime, life and death. Any half-competent novelist will also be looking at the human condition itself, where detectives, murderers and murdered all fall under the microscope.
And great crime novels – well, they’re just great novels, aren’t they? Gone Girl or In the Woods or The End of the Wasp Season or The Black Dahlia – those things will stand any test of time. Will be amongst the most worthwhile novels of their era, whether we read them now or again in fifty years time.
I don’t know if Talking to the Dead and Love Story, With Murders achieve these goals. That’s for you, the reader, to decide for yourself. What I do know is that I care about all these things. That I’ve tried to write the kind of novel that I love to read. One that is exuberantly enjoyable at the level of pure escapism, but which echoes in the mind long after the last page has been closed. And I do know that I’ve loved writing those books. I hope you enjoy reading them.
About Harry Bingham
Harry has been a full time writer for the past fifteen years. He’s written fiction and non-fiction, but it’s taken him till now to realise that crime is where he’s happiest. He also runs the Writers’ Workshop which offers editorial services, runs a variety of writing courses and also offers heaps of free advice about literary agents. He’s also one of the brains behind Agent Hunter, a website which helps writers find the literary agent who is right for them. Talking to the Dead and Love Story With Murders are both available from Amazon.
Courtesy of Orion Books, I have 10 copies of Talking to the Dead to give away. All you have to is fill out the Rafflecopter form below and you’re good to go. The giveaway is open to UK/IRE residents only and winners will be notified via email. Good luck to everyone!