Crime: A Manifesto

Fiona Griffiths series

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.

Character

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.

Reality

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.

Intelligence

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.

Prose

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.

Depth

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 BinghamHarry 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.

Win!

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!

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35 Responses to “Crime: A Manifesto”

  1. Celine says:

    I completely agree on all the points you touched on! Especially the need for darkness without sensationalism. I can’t stand graphic torture in books – but I do like the gritty realism that automatically comes with death. Great post! And your book sounds amazing, I’d love to read it sometime.
    Celine recently posted..Review: Rise by Anna CareyMy Profile

    • Vicky says:

      So do I! I don’t mind a bit of gore, to be honest (I love Chris Carter’s books, for example, which are pretty gorey) as long as it’s not pointless and the author doesn’t try to substitute it for the story or the characters. If it has an intriguing and well-written plot and relatable characters AND there’s a reason for its violence then I’m totally OK with it. :)

  2. Great post! I agree with all the points made, most importantly for me: Reality, character and depth. It’s so important in even the smallest way to make the reader relate to some part of the story, I read Just What Kind of Mother Are You by Paula Daly recently and thought, wow, that could very easily happen to anyone! I LOVED The Never List and I’m reading Until You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes, which I’m finding excellent! Thanks for sharing this post and for the giveaway! I hope to read Talking to the dead soon! :)
    Carly @Fiction Fascination recently posted..The Spook’s Curse by Joseph Delaney‏My Profile

    • Vicky says:

      I completely agree with you. Actually, the more realistic the story is the more frightening it becomes – purely because you feel like this could happen to any of us. We seem to have similar taste in crime, by the way :) I absolutely loved The Never List and What Kind of Mother Are You has been on my wishlist for quite a while. :) I’ll need to check out Until You’re Mine, though!

  3. Marina Sofia says:

    What a great article and list of things to look out for! I completely agree about the style and plot being equally important. I want an outstanding voice, something that really captivates me, that is completely believable, even if it is a world that is unfamiliar to me. And I do like local atmosphere – I don’t just mean abandoned buildings, dimly lit places – I am quite keen on crime fiction set in different countries or cities, which give you a really good feel for that place (without becoming a guidebook).
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  4. Alison Campbell says:

    Like you, I want fictional detectives to have real lives, because without, they can’t have empathy for the victim, or have battled with some of same demons and vulnerabilities & feelings to enable them to build up rapport with the victim, enabling them to get information which helps with thecase.

    I’m loving the sound of Fiona Griffiths, who sound like she’s been through the mill, yet still come out of it fairly intact.

    • Intact? Um, not that intact actually. Fiona is simultaneously a genius crime-investigator and a total klutz when it comes to the simplest of domestic tasks. There’s a scene in LOVE STORY, when she gets a bit frazzled when trying to buy clothes in Gap, and comforts herself by thinking of a corpse’s severed head. That’s Fiona for you: bananas, but somehow you love her anyway.

      • Alison Campbell says:

        Fiona must be fairly intact to hold down a job and be good at it too. And as for being bananas aren’t all the best people slightly bananas Lol.?

        The only kind of shopping I enjoy, is shopping for books,and when I’m doing the mundane but necessary food shopping my mind is always miles away, so I guess Fiona and I would get on like a house on fire.

  5. The perfect crime novel, for me anyway, is one where the killer isn’t known/easy to pick out from the beginning, where life isn’t so grim it’s unbearable but with a little bit of real life thrown in and one with a good crime/problem/mystery that will keep me turning the pages until the book is done!
    Fi @ Bookish Outsider recently posted..The Weight of Souls – Bryony PearceMy Profile

  6. Kim says:

    This is a really great breakdown of what makes a great crime novel. Although I don’t’ read a lot of crime novels, I agree with all the points you’ve made. For me, I often find myself intrigued not only by the story and characters, but the settings too. (Dark and gritty come to mind-just not too dark). Thanks for sharing. :)
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  7. erinf1 says:

    thanks for the great post!!! I totally agree :) Right now, my fav “crime” series is the Lincoln Rhymes series by Jeffery Deaver.

  8. Wendy says:

    I don’t really read crime, so I can’t answer your question, but I totally agree with what’s stated above. I would love to read books by Harry, because I haven’t read them ;)
    Wendy recently posted..EVENT | Bout of Books Read-A-Thon 8.0My Profile

  9. Ruby says:

    This is a very interesting post! I’m only 14, so I don’t read a huge amount of crime fiction, but I’ve read all the Sherlock Holmes stories and about 3/4 of Agatha Christie’s work! A sentence from this that particularly struck me is “We need crimes that feel plausible, villains that feel realistic” – I couldn’t agree more! Whilst I too love Sherlock, I feel as if some of the plots were too out of the box! As for the bad guys, well… like BBC Sherlock’s Moriarty said: “Every fairytale needs a good old fashioned villian”!

    Thanks for sharing, I loved this post!
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  10. kit says:

    This is a great post, with loads of good points. I think the detective’s character is crucial – because the crimes tend to unfold gradually (or at least the solutions), I think the main character has to be compelling enough to make you want to stick with them and find out what happened. And I like it when they’re one step ahead of me as a reader, figuring stuff out – but I do like a few clues, I’m not a huge fan of being kept completely in the dark for the whole novel!
    kit recently posted..Review: Life After Death: Eighteen Years on Death Row, Damien EcholsMy Profile

    • I agree! I do try (especially perhaps in LOVE STORY) to give the reader all the clues that Fiona ends up using to solve the crime. I don’t think any reader would be able to piece them together, but once she’s done it, a reader will be able to look back and say, fair enough, all the clues were there …

      That said, I think the thriller aspect of a novel is just as important (more important?) as the brain-teaser aspect. I’ve written a few novels before, but getting the plotting right on these crime novels is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

  11. Annie says:

    Intrigue. Why people – not just the killer or cop – are doing what. I like a story where the ‘why’ might unravel. People interest me, how they become what they are and what drives them to be saint or sinner.

  12. Mel S says:

    I love that list – I especially agree with the idea that the lead detective has to be apart from society, an outsider and yet have a recognizable world. I think that helps us as readers as we are essentially outside of the book and the crime as readers and the lead detective is our guide to the crime and world! I also like that it has to be dark but not sadistic.
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  13. johann says:

    I think a good crime novel is to keep the reader hooked till the last page and to have lots of twists and turns so it is hard to work out who is the goodie and who is the baddie

  14. Judith Allen says:

    I’ve loved rereading Sherlock Holmes this year, but okay, it is a little unlikely. I do enjoy a strong sense of place in ‘tec fiction; Stephen Booth’s Derbyshire, Rankin’s Edinburgh. But I’ll read just about anything. Not very discerning really.

  15. SHELLEY S says:

    GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR BOOK AND THANKS FOR THE GIVEAWAY!

  16. Megan says:

    This is one of the most interesting guest posts I’ve read in a while. I agree it’s a really fine line for an author between too much violence and not giving the crimes the respect they deserve. I also agree that the great books in any genre look beyond that genre to deal with universal concepts.
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  17. Great manifesto. I completely agree on the point about intelligence. I like being treated like I can think for myself by writers, and I like characters that are cleverer than I am. Easy reads may entertain for a while, but they’re never going to satisfy properly.

    And yes to great crime novels being just great novels. I think the mark of a good book in any genre is that it’s a good book full stop.
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  18. Trish says:

    Great article! I like dark, gritty and realistic plotlines. And characters that are interesting and have hidden depths. I want to be scared and I want to be kept guessing. And I love plot twists. Oh I’m not at all demanding am I!
    My favourite is Tana French, I heart all her books.
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    • Vicky says:

      Haha, not at all! I’m pretty much the same, actually. And I love Tana French! I’ve only read the first book but her writing is just beautiful. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

  19. Ann says:

    I stopped by your blog today. The cover is intriguing.
    Ann
    Ann recently posted..Which Book?My Profile

  20. Millie says:

    I think a good crime novel is one that drops hints but does not reveal the mystery until right at the end. It must not be predictable and have loads of twists.
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  21. Jemma says:

    I think it’s really important to have a protagonist that I can empathise with, if not completely relate to. I think atmosphere is such a huge thing in crime novels/thrillers, that if you’re able to get inside the main character’s head, it adds to the experience.

  22. Moonlight says:

    I think it should always keep you guessing, no immediate clues but subtle ones of which will then point you in the wrong direction. And then for the end it should be dropped like a bombshell and leave you thinking ‘How did I miss that!?”.
    Thank you for the awesome giveaway :0)
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  23. The perfect crime novel for me is one with a great set of characters and some quirk in the setting, quite apart from never ever revealing the real killer till the very end. Also, I like the hero to have some sense of fun, even in all the darkness around him. I am loving Ian Rutledge nowadays, possibly because his alter ego Hamish is such a practical, fun dude.
    P.S. I wish I could have been part of this give-away but unfortunately I am too far – away for it :(
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  24. Michael says:

    It just seems to get harder and harder to come up with unique characters as detectives nowadays

    • Vicky says:

      That’s exactly what I was thinking. I’ve read quite a few crime novels lately which were mediocre at best and I guess one of the reasons for that is that it’s getting more and more difficult to stand out from the crowd and write something different.

  25. Katy says:

    My favourite crime novel authors of the moment are Val Mcdermid, Nicci French and Patricia Cornwell.

    I love an in depth storyline where you can really get in to the characters lives, something my above favourite authors all do well.

  26. Judith Allen says:

    Thank you! Very happy to know a new book is on its way to me.

    • Vicky says:

      It is indeed, congratulations! Graeme (from Orion Books) should be in touch soon, if he hasn’t emailed you yet.

      Hope you enjoy the book!

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