Recipe for Crime
~ Madhvi Ramani ~
I love crime fiction (Gone Girl!), true crime shows (48 hours!), crime dramas (How to Get Away with Murder!), killer films (Psycho!), books about real-life psychos (The Devil in the White City!) – you get the picture. Love crime.
Crime fiction can hold a mirror to society and tackle important subjects – life and death, morality, revenge, desire, greed…
Plus, it’s about story-telling. Crime fiction is all about penetrating surface impressions and character lies to get to an underlying truth. The detective, or reader, collects pieces of a puzzle, shuffling and re-shuffling them, until they arrive at a narrative that fits. As a storyteller, I find this fascinating.
As I’m currently working on a crime novel, I’ve been thinking about what makes a great crime story. These are my top five ingredients:
An Interesting Investigator
The original private investigator was Chandler’s smart-talking, hard-drinking Marlowe, who came up with lines like, “From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.” – The High Window
Of course, now, this type of lone male investigator has become a cliché and writers must find ever-more interesting characters to delve into the world of crime.
There are down-and-out actor sleuths (The Charles Paris Mysteries), computer-hacking troubled Swedish girls (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), homely Botswanan women (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) and 4’11” French Commandants with artistic talents (Alex).
An original, interesting investigator to accompany us on our journey is essential. Who’s your favourite investigator?
Whether it’s the bleak Swedish town of Ystad in the Wallander novels, American Psycho’s New York, or The Weight of Blood’s Ozark wilderness, setting is key to crime, murder and mystery novels. Just consider the creepiness evoked here:
“The land was rocky and gummed with red clay, the thorny underbrush populated by all manner of biting, stinging beasts. The roads twisted in on themselves like intestines. The heat sucked the breath from your chest.” – The Weight of Blood, by Laura McHugh
As well as atmosphere, the setting provides clues about what happened, why, and mirrors the psyches of characters.
Keep Us Guessing
Don’t you just hate it when you’ve sussed everything out halfway through a book?
I want to be kept in suspense until the very end.
Even if I know who the murderer is, there must always be unanswered questions to keep me reading, like:
Will the investigator figure it out?
Will the culprit get away with it?
Why did he /she commit the crime?
And why was that giraffe-shaped balloon left at the crime scene?
Simple Plots, Complex Characters
Plots that are overly complicated, with constant twists and turns, are tiring. I prefer simpler plots that focus on character psychology, the intricacies of relationships and the grief of victims, thus giving the story more depth and making it seem more plausible.
If something is badly written, it jolts me out of the story.
On the other hand, when the language is rich and subtle, like in the novels of Tana French’s, or when it leaps off the page, disturbed and unusual, like in Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie, which is told from the point of view of a serial killer, it adds so much to the reading experience.