- Crime stories revolve around resolving a mystery.
- The nature of the crime may illustrate the society it happens in.
- The mystery format can drive stories that are not about a crime.
- Crime and mystery fiction demands more attention to plot than any other genre.
When I decided to write this series, I knew I had to include crime because it’s at the root of so many of my stories. Then I saw how few I’ve written and realised that of all my published stories, I can only unambiguously classify Newgate Jig and another story still waiting for publication date as crime stories. How, then, had I got the impression that I’d written a few of them?
Like most people, when I think of crime stories I really mean mystery stories. Stories that revolves around a mystery, even if their backdrop makes them fantasy, historical or science fiction. In crime fiction, the mystery is who committed the crime. In fantasy or science fiction, the mystery is usually a broader question of what is going on. Whatever the nature of the mystery, placing it at the centre of the story keeps a reader’s curiosity piqued while the characters and the setting are revealed. For that reason, I’ve found it well worth the effort of paying attention to the protocols of crime fiction.
Crime fiction is about resolving a mystery
Crime fiction is defined by its structure. To see the structure in its purest form, it’s worth going back to the genre’s origins. It was Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter that introduced the fictional logic problem, and the idea that a crime could be ‘solved’ like a problem in algebra. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories developed the concept but it was Dashiell Hammett who refined it into the form that has lain at the heart of mystery fiction ever since. The template from a story like Arson Plus can be lifted and another story built around it.
Hammett’s went far enough beyond the logic problem to justify Raymond Chandler’s view that he ‘did not write detective stories at all, merely hardboiled chronicles of mean streets with a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini’, but many of his stories were structured around a mystery. In Arson Plus, the Continental Op receives the case, interviews everyone relevant to it and uses a combination of logical deduction and his knowledge of human character to collar the perpetrator. As the reader has been perched on the Op’s shoulder throughout the process, he has all the information needed to solve the crime.
However, the characters the Op has encounters are three-dimensional enough that much of the actions that are used to illustrate their characters serve as distraction and misdirection, concealing the salient points from the reader until the narrator untangles them at the end. As a magician might employ a scantily clad female ‘assistant’ to distract an audience from his sleight of hand, so Hammett uses our interest in the character.
The most plot-driven genre of them all
I conceived Newgate Jig as an exercise in writing crime. It didn’t take long to realise I was writing the most plot-driven genre of the lot. Le Méridien needed to gather the relevant information by his own efforts, but in small enough quantities that the solution wasn’t obvious too early. A reader who got ahead of Le Méridien would conclude he was a bit dim and lose interest.
The short story format limited me to a small cast of characters and limited the misdirection I had space for, and anyone reading it had probably read enough crime fiction to understand the way they’re structured. Le Méridien didn’t know he was in a crime story so he couldn’t use the story
structure to guess the answer, putting him at a disadvantage when compared to the reader.
I turned to Hammett for a solution. When the Op reveals the solution to his mysteries, he implies he’s known the solution for a while but not for how long. If the reader had worked it out before the denouement, he couldn’t be sure he’d got there ahead of the Op. I used a similar technique for Newgate Jig in that Le Méridien knew from the start that the person accused of the crime was innocent, making the mystery a question of who was trying to frame her and why, and what he was going to do about it.
Why is more interesting than who
While the question of who framed Carrie Barlow drove the action of Newgate Jig, it was far more about the reasons why. Those reasons were tied into the class hierarchy of Regency England, and the brutality of the ‘bloody code’ that specified death as the penalty for petty theft. Crime often reveals the flaws in a society, both in terms of what may be considered a crime and in terms of how it is dealt with. Carrie forced Le Méridien to prize open those flaws to understand what had happened to her.
Because crime fiction lends itself to an exploration of society, there’s a strong overlap between historical and crime fiction. James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia has a murder mystery at the centre of it and the plot takes a similar structure to Hammett’s mystery novels like The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon. However, The Black Dahlia is far more about the machinations of the corrupt, brutal and racist police force of late 1940s Los Angeles. Similarly, Philip Kerr’s A Quiet Flame tells the story of a detective’s two-decade pursuit of a murderer, starting against the backdrop of the Nazi party’s rise to power in Berlin and ending among the ex-Nazis skulking in post-war Argentina. The protagonist muses at one point that it’s rather difficult to finger a murderer when all the suspects are mass murderers.
It wasn’t until years after I wrote The Redeemed that I realised it’s as much a crime story as it’s anything. In my defence, it was the first worthwhile story I ever wrote and given how little I knew at the time, it’s a miracle that it has a coherent plot at all.
In modern crime fiction, the crime in question often revolves around a murder, but there’s no reason that has to be the case. Much earlier crime fiction revolved around locating an item. Many of Sherlock Holmes’s earlier cases involved theft while Auguste Dupin had to find The Purloined Letter because it was being used by a blackmailer. The crime in Arson Plus is, unsurprisingly, arson.
Mysteries need not be crimes
In science fiction or fantasy, the mystery can be less clear cut. While Sherlock Holmes could safely assume he was seeking a criminal limited by the physical constraint of being human, Peter Grant can make no such comforting assumption when hunting a supernatural serial killer in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London. The mystery has as much to do with what the criminal as with who it is.
Yet the mystery plot need not revolve around a single criminal. I used the mystery format in Virulence, but the only crime was the riot that broke out as a result of the mystery. The mystery was not the crime itself, but the question of why people were behaving strangely enough to be rioting in the first place. The question at the centre of the mystery is not ‘who’ or ‘where’ but ‘why’.
Beware the boys in blue
When structuring a crime story, I’ve found the obvious starting point of appointing the detective to the police is deceptively seductive. It comes with a ready made motivation because it’s a police detective’s job to solve crimes. On the other hand, I don’t know how the police go about investigating a crime and I’d need to put in a lot of time and effort to find out. Authors who have built their careers on writing police procedurals, such as Val McDermid and Ian Rankin, often deviate from real procedures but their deviations are based on a solid knowledge of what they’re deviating from.
A further problem is that the institutional support behind a modern police detective dilutes tension. A crime scene is processed by specialised officers. Samples are sent to a lab and processed where the detective can’t see what’s going on. When the time comes to confront the murderer, the detective can call for backup and face her nemesis from behind a flak-jacketed wall of stormtroopers brandishing Heckler & Koch submachine guns.
Without McDermid’s and Rankin’s knowledge of the police, I prefer to take further instruction from Hammett and keep my detective dependent on his own resources. Newgate Jig is set when the nearest thing to a formal police force were the warranted thief-takers, who were more interested in collecting bounties than any notion of justice. Le Méridien is motivated by a romantic and impractical sense of justice rather than institutional duty or any hope of reward.
My list of crime stories is rather paltry, but here it is nonetheless:
Full text of Newgate Jig
Preview of The Redeemed