Getting Away with Murder

Ever thought of trying your hand at writing a crime novel? Perhaps you may have had a go already, perhaps you have an incomplete manuscript still lingering in a dusty corner of the loft (in which case you have more in common than you realise with many successfully published novelists). Would studying a manual on the technique of crime writing make the difference between success and failure?

The questions are prompted by the proliferation of guides to techniques of writing crime fiction. At a time when many publishers are pruning from their lists those novelists deemed incapable of earning a sufficient slug of profit for the shareholders, there is a mini-boom in how-to-do-it manuals for the would-be author of mysteries. Three have appeared in recent months. The Writer’s Handbook Guide to Crime Writing, edited by Barry Turner (Macmillan) offers a mix of articles, interviews and listings. Teach Yourself Writing Crime Fiction by Lesley Grant-Adamson (Hodder) is a focused and practical guide from an accomplished practitioner; the eccentric cover artwork should not deter prospective purchasers. Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman (Writer’s Digest) is a collection of essays on a wide range of topics from members of the Mystery Writers of America. The popularity of this branch of help-literature can be judged from the fact that the Grant-Adamson and Grafton titles are fresh editions of books published previously.

Wisely, none of the authors pretends to offer a magic formula for success. Sue Grafton, for instance, acknowledges that ‘the truth of the matter is that you must teach yourself how to write’. She points out that the aim of the contributors to her book (the cast list of members of the Mystery Writers of America who have written chapters is glittering) is really to offer a ‘road map’ and to warn the tyro of pitfalls. Lesley Grant-Adamson says that she is trying not ‘to teach you to use my working methods but to help you discover what best suits you.’ Frankly, when one listens to established writers at conferences and other events, it is rare to hear them say that reading text-books of this kind contributed significantly to their success. All the same, it would be a mistake to dismiss out of hand the value of the suggestions that such books make. Back in 1994, in introducing the revised edition of his Writing Crime Fiction, H.R.F. Keating said that: ‘on one occasion at least a writer acknowledged gaining publication from following the advice I gave, after her book had been rejected earlier.’

By and large, though, it seems to me that a considerable part of the appeal of these books goes far beyond their educational content. Even those who have no need of the advice proferred, either because they have no ambition to write, or because they have already succeeded under their own steam, may find much of interest in the manuals. To my mind, the how-to-write-crime texts published over the past 90 years offer fascinating insights into the creative process, together with a picture of changing attitudes towards the genre that is truly thought-provoking.

The very first crime writer to proffer advice in a full-length textbook was the American Carolyn Wells. Now scarcely read, she was once a best-seller. The Technique of the Mystery Story originally appeared as long ago as 1913; a revised edition came out sixteen years later. The commentator Jon L. Breen has argued that ‘this book probably made a greater contribution to detective fiction than its author’s enjoyable but sometimes inept novels’. Wells would no doubt have been horrified by this verdict. Nonetheless, Breen is right to say that her book has much to recommend it, including historically interesting discussion of writers whose reputations have fared even less well than her own. Hands up anyone who has heard of Frederick Trevor Hill, for instance, or A.Maynard Barbour.

When it comes to ‘do’s and don’ts’, however, Wells is on shaky ground. The trouble is that she is so didactic: ‘If romance is out of place in a detective story, humor is even more so….few can write or read about murder with any touch of humor. The best Detective Stories are absolutely void of it, and except in the hands of a whimsical genius it is entirely out of place.’ This startling distaste for light-hearted stuff was not confined to Wells or to the United States. In 1936, Basil Hogarth published Writing Thrillers for Profit, in which he issued the stern pronouncement: ‘Very few writers possess the gift of sustained humour. You may occasionally introduce a witticism by way of a little light relief; but it is a makeshift usually. If your story is so boring that you feel the necessity to enliven it, the real way is to reframe it or rewrite it so that it is less tedious.’

Marie F. Rodell devoted a whole chapter to ‘Taboos and Musts’ in her 1943 offering Mystery Fiction: Theory and Technique. Rodell was not only an editor of mysteries, but also a practitioner herself. Life must have been testing for some of the authors on her list, since (although she acknowledged that more than one author had broken the rules she set) she expressed her views so robustly that they seem unintentionally amusing to the modern reader. Take this, for instance:

‘Sexual perversions, other than sadism, are definitely taboo. And sadism must be presented in its least sexual form. Homosexuality may be hinted at, but never used as an explicit and important factor in the story…All other perversions are absolutely beyond the pale.

Even references to normal sex relationships must be carefully watched. Except in the ‘tough’ school, unmarried heroines are expected to be virgins…(A tearful and truly repentant Magdalene is sometimes possible.) A certain amount of sexual joking between married characters is permissible, so long as it is not crude, does not use Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, and does not refer too directly to the sexual act. And of course the entire list of possible clues, motives and methods dependent on the natural functions or the sexual act are out of the question. Abortion, however, is considered legitimate mystery material if it is handled carefully and condemned.’

Wow. Applied today, these constraints would rule out the vast majority of our leading writers. And the reason for the rules? ‘The true mystery strait-laced in matters of sexual morality…it is especially true of the feminine majority of mystery addicts.’ One cannot help feeling that the author of a thesis concerning changes in social mores over the past six decades could do worse than take Marie F. Rodell’s strictures as a starting point. There is also a good deal of fun to be had from some of the other taboos. We are told, for example, that ‘curare has lost its magic; so have the blow-gun, the boomerang and the sleeve-gun’ and we are advised to read extensively in the genre to avoid ‘innocent duplication’ of this sort.

A common theme in many of the manuals is a proper emphasis on the crime novel as a form of entertainment. Again, tastes in entertainment have changed over the years and the teach-yourself books illustrate this just as much as the novels themselves. Rodell, for instance, was adamant that: ‘If you have a message, if you want to write fiction with a purpose, try some other form. Mystery fiction will not serve.’ Fast forward to 1986 and Harry Keating, himself primarily an entertainer rather than a preacher, made a gentle point about the unspoken contract between crime writer and reader: ‘What it does not say, or says only in the smallest of print in pale grey ink, is ‘I may also slip you a Mickey Finn by way of telling you something about this world you live in.’ Because the crime story can, to a small extent or to quite a large extent, do what the pure novel does. It can make a temporary map for its readers out of the chaos of their surroundings. Only it should never let them know.’

By the time that Keating was putting his guidance in print, there was no longer any doubt that romance and humour can, and often do, play an important part in a crime novel. He discusses in separate sections of his book comic crime, farce crime and romantic suspense. Michael Innes, Julian Symons, Carl Hiassen, Michael Malone, Colin Watson, Joyce Porter and Dorothy Eden are among the writers name-checked for their work in these fields: not a bad list. But Keating does make the perfectly valid point that ‘there is a considerable art to the pacing of humour’. Subjective judgments of what is funny mean that writing comic crime is no joke.

Today, the possibilities of crime writing at the cutting edge seem endless. When thinking about the genre, we need to understand much more than the fact that using a boomerang as a murder weapon has been done before. The issues are beautifully summed up by Ian Rankin in the first essay in The Writer’s Handbook Guide to Crime Writing: ‘Why is crime fiction good for you? Well, it is about tragedy, and emotional responses to tragedy, and moral choices and questions. It can be very serious in intent, but also entertaining.’ He goes on to argue that ‘what crime fiction needs is a sense of the incomplete, of life’s messy complexity…the crime genre is capable of so much more than simply telling a good story or playing an elaborate game with the reader…the crime novel can be the perfect tool for the dissection of society…it makes the reader think. Because crime fiction is capable of tackling the bigger contemporary issues, it need never fear boring its audience…crime fiction provides not only the dangerous chaos but also something to put it in.’ He argues that present day stars such as Frances Fyfield, John Harvey and Michael Dibdin are, ‘whether they realize it or not, political writers.’

All this suggests a landscape far removed from that recognised by Carolyn Wells, Basil Hogarth and Marie F. Rodell. Just as the world has moved on during the past few decades, so has crime writing. Perhaps it is only when we look back that the full scale of the evolution – or is it a revolution? – in attitudes towards the genre becomes apparent. The intending crime novelist would do well to study most closely the work of the modern stars. There is no point in re-writing yesterday’s books. But the compleat crime fan, surely, will find space in his bookshelves not only for Rankin and Fyfield but also for those who practised the gentle art of murder in the long ago days when murder by curare was all the rage.

This article first appeared in ‘Sherlock’