Some Clues about Story in Crime Fiction
This paper was delivered at the Centre for Professional and Public Communication, University of South Australia, Crime Colloquium, 20 April 2001. Other papers were delivered by Tim Heald, Jean Bedford, Jan McKemmish and Paul Skrebels.
I want to begin my talk at this colloquium by saying from the start that I am outclassed here. I have published one crime novel, and while I have used some aspects of the crime genre in my current novel - notably a kind of mystery and a movement towards resolution - I would not classify myself as an expert. What I do know about is the teaching of writing, the value of plot and the ever-important idea of story. Story and aspects of plot are vital ingredients in crime fiction and so I come to the task of writing this paper searching for more clues about how to write story in crime fiction.
Clue 1. A convergence of forms
In a recent crime fiction review in The Age, Kerry Greenwood (Greenwood 2001), a lawyer active in the magistrate courts and a writer of crime fiction, reviewed two books, one by P.D. James - the current dowager of crime writing in the clue-based tradition - and the other by Ian Rankin, a not-quite-so-young Turk whose crime writing has been more classified as grunge than clue based. Her review is interesting because it gives insight into the way two traditional forms are converging.
Crime fiction is no stranger to blurring its borders and we should not be too surprised when Greenwood notices the convergence between these seemingly disparate writers. The convergence comes from James's move into the darker side, but more importantly, from Rankin's move towards the clue-based tradition. Let me spend time looking at this convergence in terms of the genre and the authors.
P.D. James works in a form of the golden age tradition where a careful reader might well guess the culprit, the murder, the mystery, but because of skillful writing, the reader is distracted from such discoveries. It's a clue-based puzzle and offers the reader immense satisfaction. This satisfaction is an important ingredient to its success.
For James and others, the tradition usually involves: a closed community; a crime somehow bred or generating out of the community; and a sleuth, who by investigation rights wrongs and restores balance. Increasingly James' communities have been located on the shores of a bleak England and walk, as in her recent Death in Holy Orders (2001), the decaying cloisters of Anglicanism. Traditionally this form of crime fiction employs a narrative which ends in harmony and order; this is also the case with James, even if, in her contemporary version, the order is crumbling.
The traditional message of such crime fiction, and the point of the narrative, is that since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden we can never achieve the perfect harmonious world, but we can get some way towards it. What awaits us at the end of one of these crime novels is a kind of tarnished Eden. James takes this a step further. With the crumbling of the importance of Anglicanism in the modern world and the simultaneous erosion of British sovereignty into the European Common Market, the restoration of order which awaits her readers is slim. It is a private order glimpsed from the wider decaying society. The good which is restored is minimal and individual rather than societal. In the resolution stages of Death in Holy Orders she writes:
At the conclusion of this bloody and clue-based crime novel, her remaining characters seek private moral order, private solace. There is no coming together, no public representation of restoration.
The clue-based tradition is normally viewed in opposition to the other great tradition set in an open community, usually a city, where crime is endemic. Crime here is part of the view, part of the polluted air and neon lights, the cars, the beaches. The settings are familiar - LA or San Francisco, but it could be Surfers, Byron, Bondi, St Kilda or even Glenelg. For Ian Rankin it is Edinburgh.
In this tradition a loner - maybe a PI or maybe a cop - cruises through a world of sleaze and gangs and corruption. And somehow the PI, male or female, ekes out a tram stop's worth of humanity - of morality, even if it's bent and grimy and only a couple of people can shelter in it.
This is the territory Rankin normally occupies. His hero is the alcoholic disrespectful loner, Detective Inspector John Rebus, who investigates and walks the gritty side of Edinburgh. Edinburgh functions as a character as much as a backdrop for Rebus just as LA does for Philip Marlowe, or Sydney for Cliff Hardy.
But Rankin has worked a sleight of hand. In his recent novel The Falls (2001) Rankin writes a crime novel so dependent on clues that it is structured like a child's game of hunt-the-treasure-chest. The clues are often presented as riddles and readers are asked to try to solve them ahead of the distracted Rebus and the plotting police. The clues lead to more clues hidden in parts of the city and as each riddle is solved we move closer to resolution.
If the traditions were as far apart as we might think (writing from the Australian perspective) then Rankin, by adapting the clue-based form, ran the grave risk of alienating his readers. But far from alienating them, he has something of a best-seller on his hands. His recent Australian promotional tour generated huge audiences, long lines of readers wanting their books signed and extensive press coverage.
In addition to employing the clue tradition in The Falls Rankin used the city in a different way. No longer is it the lonely haunted place with alleys and dark doorways ready to hide the criminal and the sleuth. Edinburgh has become cosy, domestic. The subplot has Rebus considering moving from his flat in the old town to a newer one. The final section of the novel has Rebus consider:
Rankin has his criminals hide, not in the city, but on the internet, where they send their clues via untraceable emails. It's flawed of course as any email user knows - in the end all our communications are traceable. But perhaps too are our footsteps in the alleyways.
What has happened here is that our sense of place, our understanding of the world, has shrunk. Anonymity, so essential for those living outside of the accepted morality and law, and once associated with city living, is now more elusive. It is so because the city has shrunk into byte size villages where we police each other by observation and gossip. Tom Waits in his song What's He Building? (1999) illustrates this point succinctly. You don't know what your neighbour is doing but you are sure he is up to no good.
Similarly, it is more than possible, and we all know this, for someone to live in a small community and for them to have another complex, even criminal life elsewhere, conducted via communication outlets.
Clue 2. Some implications for writing crime in Australia
I'd like to suggest that while both of these traditions exist in Australian crime writing, along with various hybrid versions - Stephen Knight's definitive text on crime writing in Australia (1997) is useful here - the open community, city-based tradition has been privileged. It is seen as slightly less twee, more real, more hard-nosed, more clear-cut, more worthy of our attention. In some senses it is considered to be a more contemporary tradition mirroring a more contemporary world. The distinction between the two traditions and the preference for one is defended by sectors of the Australian industry especially in reviewing and critical appraisal.
Kerry Greenwood again is interesting. Geenwood comes from a working class background, which she celebrates, she works in legal-aid as a lawyer in one of the more seedy parts of town, but her crime fiction revolves around an independent woman-of-means in a Melbourne of the 1920s. Her own life story and history are at odds with her crime fiction. How can someone who has seen it all write crime fiction in such a romanticised manner?
In the lead article/interview of the first edition of a new Australian crime writing magazine, Crime Factory (Greenwood & Honeybone 2001) Greenwood comments on this seeming contradiction. While she makes a distinction between the two traditions she illustrates how both are inventions and seldom, if ever, represent reality. She says:
Greenwood's world of the lawyer or her world of the writer may not be attractive to us, but she is correct in drawing our attention to the underlying fictional world that both traditions create. To privilege one form of crime fiction over another in the justification that it is 'more real' or 'more reflective of society' is to confuse the issue. This privileging has caused a smoke screen which pretends that one form is more worthy or recent but in reality both forms are nostalgic and paint a romantic version of reality. Further, the city, I would suggest, in contemporary crime fiction is as closed a society as that found at the country abbey - it is only the stage which is large. The PI drives around the city, the sleuth walks around the abbey. It is size, not openness, which alters here.
Although in the Australian publishing industry we have validated one tradition over the other, I have been at pains above to illustrate that what is happening in the UK market is a convergence of these traditions. As writers interested in practical issues relating to the writing/reading/selling of crime novels this convergence needs to be understood.
It is a huge issue but I wish to look here at one part of it. I want to suggest that the convergence has occurred partly because the moral questions being addressed in writers such as James and Rankin no longer seem so far apart. To unpack this we need to look at the way the works offer completeness rather than fragmentation. Greenwood writes in her review of James and Rankin:
My opinions on this review don't matter here, what is important is that this review was published in the Age, was read by a vast number of book-buying Victorians, and no doubt (there were no howls of protest in the letters pages or elsewhere) accepted as appropriate. Greenwood's evocation of the novels as contained and solving their own problems was it seems, precisely what the readers wanted to know. They bought the books in droves.
The sense of wholeness she talks of here, the idea of completion, for me evokes a moral agenda. That a book contains its own answers to its own sets of puzzles and does not send out too many, if any, tentacles into the real world of white lies, petty office pilfering and over-charging, means that it sets up a world (perhaps not a safe one) which contains its own moral boundaries.
Is it this completeness which is so attractive to readers?
Stephen Knight is interesting here. He talks about crime fiction enacting a contradiction between the formal way the world is presented in the novels as a place of certainty, in contrast to the way the plot and characters revolve around change and flux. He discusses how the readers of crime fiction are caught up in the middle-class ideologies of the individual. These ideologies are complex and shift over time and gender.
He addresses the two traditions. Of Christie's readership he writes:
For Knight, the readers of the clue-based crime novel, mainly women, find a safety in the validation of their passive powers. Change, so actively about them, could be tamed by the careful application of the intellect.
And for those who enjoyed the other main tradition of cities and streets and crime and corruption, where the individual could get lost in the commodification of culture, he writes of McBain's police novels:
For Knight's readers the qualities of the individual, their basic humanity, give an illusion of security - even in this tatty world, they could survive, possibly a little worse for wear, but knowledgeable, enlightened and alive.
For Knight, both traditions leave the reader with some sort of faith in their own class ideologies and also in some aspect of law - natural, political or cultural.
But somehow I find Knight's analyses a bit too tidy. I don't want to pan him, his work was early and important, but I'm not sure I enjoy the crime fiction I read, or the little I've written, because it reinforces my passive skills to survive. And I don't feel comfortable about using the tools of ideology to interpret my reading or to understand the lure of completeness contained within most crime fiction. Instead, I want to use a far riskier tool. I want to use story, and in particular my culture's creation and salvation stories associated with good and evil.
Clue 3. Sin: desire and abhorrence
As I have shown above there has been a convergence between the two traditions of crime fiction and in that world we as readers play out, I want to suggest, our moral values. We act out the black and white or shades of grey of good and evil as we know it. Our reading lets us watch others wrestle with nuances of human evil or what my culture calls sin.
According to my culture (and there are many other similar stories) sin began when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. Their banishment from a world of perfection introduced the possibility of human evil. As children of Adam and Eve we were doomed to constantly wrestle with temptation.
But this wrestling with temptation was no simple matter. Adam and Eve's inheritance for the human race was both a fascination with, and an abhorrence of, this evil. So capturing was this idea that in the collection of stories known as The Bible, the embodiment of evil was given a large number of names:
The particular manifestation of the possibility of human evil that I am attracted to is the one embodied in Lucifer. Lucifer is a character in our creation story I don't often talk about because over time he's become too black, too evil, too clear-cut. But originally that was not the case. Lucifer was the most beautiful angel, the most perfect. He embodied all that was desirable and at the same time he embodied all that was repugnant. As the most beautiful of God's archangels (a high rank of angels) he became jealous of God's appointed heir and, gathering other angels around him, mounted a challenge. God mustered his other loyal archangels, notably Michael, who fought Lucifer and forced him from heaven. Lucifer was banished from heaven as Adam and Eve were banished from their garden.
Lucifer's story is one of the fallen hero, it is intriguing to the human mind, it puzzles us and always offers more. Could things have gone differently for him - could he have made it up with God and stayed in Heaven? Could Adam and Eve have found the apple a little too dull to bother with? Could the story have changed for the human race?... I doubt it.
What a fantastic character, and whenever I return to these stories I'm in awe of the writer, or the writing team! I'm only partly being flippant here. My research into Lucifer shows that the fallen angel character was created more by Milton than by the authors of the Book of Revelation. In the Bible the name Lucifer originally referred to the planet Venus, 'the light of the morning' (Job 50:17). It was also metaphorically applied to the King of Babylon (Isaiah 14:12) indicating his princely status. But Lucifer as the beautiful one who fell was pure Milton. Apples aside, how wonderful to see temptation in terms of power:
I am trying to navigate a tension here written about by Michael McGirr in a recent column in the Age (McGirr 2001). It was Easter and so he located the tension in Christianity, but I'd like to see the struggle in a wider field. He reflects on the importance of the story surrounding Jesus' death.
My point is that the story of good and evil, as portrayed in our culture's stories, whether it be Jesus or Hamlet, Lucifer or Adam and Eve, represents an ongoing and fascinating tension where we wrestle one side against the other, and can only claim ground, if we can at all, in millimetre steps. We have a notion of being 'more sinned against than sinning' which we apply to those paradoxical moral issues that live in this zone. For example, as listeners to the Jesus story how much work do we need to do on good and evil and significantly, on inevitability, to even get a handle on the Judas figure? We could debate forever the questions: Was Judas an evil man? Was his betrayal of Jesus an evil act?
This wrestle, or tension, or conversation, is the same kind of tension we have in our daily lives when we are mistakenly given too much change, or when we are asked to accept, silently, some human ugliness. Do we hand the change back or keep it? Do we remain silent over the human ugliness? We engage with this internal conversation when we read certain reports in the newspaper or see the television news, hear a political commentary, or even when we go to vote. And we engage with it, in a private and entertaining way, when we escape into crime fiction.
But I am not saying that we as crime writers are moral guardians or gatekeepers. No, we are writers fascinated not with evil qua evil but with the nuances of good and evil. We play in the tension, stretching it into weird shapes and seeing what we can get away with. We know that if we go too near the light we can be singed - if we go too near the darkness we can freeze in the cold. The fascination between good and evil is our playground. And it is a legitimate fascination equally steeped in good as it is in evil.
It is, I would suggest, that because we deal in this fascination that interviewers - and I am sure we have all been asked this - want to know why we are fascinated with murder. The 'What's a nice girl like you...' kind of question confuses the core of our work and interest. It ignores the potency of our genre, the engagement with social criticism and importantly the preoccupation with some of the core paradoxes of humanity.
Navigating this territory of good and evil may not be fashionable and we may not want to talk about it in a public forum, but it is, I would suggest, core to crime fiction writing.
Do our readers bring to crime fiction, to its cities and fetes and writers' week tents, a longing to play out, once more, those massively important stories of humanity? Do our readers come to our work in order to once again try to understand a little more of the conversation between Lucifer and God, between ourselves and our notion of the forbidden desire? Is this the crux of the issue of completeness? Do our readers come to our genre not so much to solve a crime or to restore an order in society or to engage with their ideologies, but rather to play out once again, that basic story of Lucifer's fall from grace?
If so, there is something here for us as writers. But in engaging in this discourse we need to be careful that the tensions we work between good and evil reflect the complexities otherwise expressed in our fictions. To simply equate good with detection and evil with crime is often too simplistic. Our private and public wrestling with good and evil occurs because the lines are not so clearly drawn. Our attraction to Lucifer is strong because we can usually see, lurking behind the ugliness, a shadow of beauty and grace. This complex shadowing of one against the other could be a significant clue for those interested in writing crime fiction.
Brady, Tess. Paint Me a Murder. Hudson: Melbourne, 1989.
Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1948.
Christie, Agatha. The Body in the Library. London: Pan, 1979.
Corris, Peter. White Meat. Sydney: Pan, 1981.
Greenwood, Kerry. 'Grunge meets Golden Age as crime gets happy.' In 'Extra'. The Age. Saturday 14 April 2001:7. Return to article
Greenwood, Kerry. Murder on the Ballarat Train. Melbourne: McPhee Gribble, 1991.
The Holy Bible. Online edition. From the Latin Vulgate. Bishop Richard Challoner (tr). http://www.cybercomm.net/~dcon/drbible.html Accessed September 2001.
Knight, Kevin (ed). The Catholic Encyclopedia. Online edition.
Volume IX http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/
Accessed September 2001.
Knight, Stephen. Continent of Mystery. A Thematic History of Australian Crime Fiction, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1997. Return to article
McBain, Ed. Killer's Choice: An 87th Precinct Mystery. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1960.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Online edition. http://www.literature.org/authors/milton-joohn/paradise-lost/ Accessed September 2001. Return to article
Tess Brady lectures in writing at Deakin University and is the co-editor of TEXT.
Vol 5 No 2 October 2001
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady