While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Crime Fiction, My Thoughts

The last few days I’ve been working on a short story for this competition. Crime fiction, 2000 word limit (which really hinders my quest for seven figures), judged by Scotland’s king of crime fiction, Ian Rankin.

Rankin’s been in the news a lot in the last couple of months due to the release of Exit Music, the seventeenth and possibly last book featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus. I’ve only read one Rebus book, Dead Souls, and that was only after I arrived in Edinburgh (where all the Rebus novels are set). So first, let me talk about Dead Souls

The story focuses on several apparently unrelated cases: the possible reoffending of a paedophile, the disappearance of the son of Rebus’s high school sweetheart, the release and return of a Scottish murderer from a US prison (which uncannily resembles the release of Kenny Ritchie today). At first, the only link is Rebus. But as the story progresses, the reader and Rebus discover hitherto unknown connections between these cases. The cases also become connected post factum because of Rebus’s involvement (e.g. the mother of the missing son crosses paths with the returned murderer at Rebus’s apartment).

I enjoyed the novel as a piece of entertainment AND I thought it was one of the best straight crime fiction books I’ve ever read. From the last twenty years, I can only think of L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy to place on the same pedestal. I think it’s unfair to compare classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep because they came so early on in the detective genre’s evolution.

The thing is, I don’t read a lot of crime fiction. I loved L.A. Confidential when I read it, but I’ve never got around to picking up another Ellroy book (although he occasionally makes it onto my list of authors to search at the library). With Rankin, I suspect it will be the same. What’s going to be different in another Rebus novel? In some ways everything and in some ways nothing. The fact Rebus ages in real time and a new book appears pretty much annually means each novel is like one pearl on the necklace. One is almost identical to another, only a little bit further along the chain.

Generally, I don’t seem to be interested in re-entering characters lives after I’ve read one novel. (There are plenty of smart people who are the opposite). Maybe it’s just a habit I've formed after reading a lot of stand alone books. You know not to get your hopes up for a sequel. You learn to fill in the bits before and after the novel’s action with your own imagination. I never felt a great desire to know what happened to Yossarian after Catch 22 (perhaps because the pessimist in me presumed he’d died at sea). What made me read Closing Time, Joseph Heller’s sequel to Catch 22 set as Yossarian’s generation enter old age, was the fact it was another Joseph Heller book, not another Yossarian book.

I think that’s why I don’t read a lot of crime fiction. It may be another character playing the detective role, but you sort of know the path it will tread before you read it.

Of course, this applies to all genres. It’s the reason why ‘genre fiction’ (so often a dirty term for book snobs and I fear their quote marks have snuck around the term) outsells literary fiction (where are the quote marks here?). A lot of readers like to know, basically, what they’re in for when they pick up a book. I don’t.

These are two ways of reading, neither is better than the other, but both are better than not reading at all.

I’m not completely averse to crime writers. I’ve read multiple books by Elmore Leonard, for instance. But when I read his books, I’m not reading for plot, I’m reading for something else. To quote The Castle, “It’s the vibe.”

What’s the vibe of an Elmore Leonard book? Well, to me it’s a mixture of the dialogue and general sense of cool, combined with a different take on the world of the novel, be it the movie or music industries (Get Shorty, Be Cool), the wild west (his early stuff) or law enforcement. A Western like Hombre says, What if the hero is as ruthless and cold-hearted as the villains usually are? That’s enough promise of genre-bending for me to read the book (sadly, Hombre falls down in terms of narration, but I digress).

The books I enjoy the most are ones that employ a canny knowledge of genre, but their heart is never in being crime fiction or war fiction or family saga. Some people read Catch 22 as a satire of war, I read it as a satire of life. (I guess that’s why Closing Time could operate along almost identical lines while being set in peace time). Moby Dick can only bring itself to be a quest plot when Ishmael’s almanac of a brain needs a rest. Pale Fire looks at first like an academic tome, then like a biography, then an autobiography, and continues to shed genres and assume others till its final pages, where you are given every encouragement to flip back to the first page and start reading again.

These are the books I like the most. Which makes the task of writing a 2000 word crime story an interesting task. I couldn’t resist the compulsion to subvert the genre in some way. It meant spending a well placed sentence or two on the classic requirements – a crime, a crime scene, suspects, red herrings – and going somewhere else the rest of the time. I don’t think it works completely – 2000 words is just to few for the main character to go from investigator to… well, that would be giving it away. If I don’t get any where in the competition (perhaps if this post reaches the wrong eyes), I’m unsure it will end up here at some stage.

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