Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Has Crime Writing Changed?

What difference do you notice between the prose in crime novels that were written twenty years ago and current ones?  Do you think the writing has gotten better? Are the subjects different?

Terry Shames. I’m in a new spot this week, moving from Monday to Tuesday.

I recently had a bookseller tell me that the quality of crime fiction was so good these days that she sometimes couldn’t decide whether to shelve them in the Mystery section or the mainstream fiction section of the story.

Oh, really? I’m not sure how much that has changed. At the heart of many “mainstream” novels is a mystery. Try reading Jane Eyre without the mystery of the madwoman in the attic. Try reading Faulkner’s The Wild Palms or The Sound and the Fury without their puzzling center themes. Many so-called serious works of fiction aren’t only about the mystery of the human heart, but of a real, substantive mysterious happening.

In the past few weeks I’ve dipped into a few mysteries I read several years ago. In particular I’ll note James McClure. His books are police procedurals. I was happy to find that his writing not only holds up, but fairly sizzles with all the elements that make a crime novel stand out—great setting, characters that leap off the page, dialogue that sounds real, an intriguing mystery, and conflict on every single page. In addition, his prose is absolutely breathtaking. He writes in the backdrop of apartheid South Africa and there is anguish on every page. I sometimes feel when I read his books that the pages can barely contain his descriptions of place and characters. That’s serious writing.

And I compare him to crime writers writing about Africa today: Kwei Quarte, Malla Nunn, Michael Stanley, and Alexander McCall Smith come to mind at once. That’s four to one, and that’s a narrow field. McClure is solidly in with this modern group of writers.

Storytelling is the bottom line. You may think Agatha Christie was “just” a little lady writing mysteries, but her stories were always intriguing. If a book doesn’t tell a good story, it doesn’t matter how elegant the prose is. Or how simple. No one would argue that Dick Francis is a wordsmith. His writing was formulaic and straightforward. But he knows how to tell a story that engages the reader.

 It isn’t so much that the writers are better across the board these days, but that there are so many more to choose from, especially with the ability of authors to publish their own work. There is sometimes a complaint that to many self-published authors publish before they have done enough editing. But that isn’t always true. I’m currently reading a book recommended to me by a bookseller, Outlaw Road, by Billy Kring. I’m finding hard to put down. About midway through I wondered who published it. Billy Kring published it. Same with an author named George Weir, who writes swashbuckling stories with depth and breadth that remind me of Patrick O’Brien—and he publishes  them himself. He’s a writing machine. If he had to depend on mainstream publishers, there would be a lot fewer of his books available.

Of course I also run across books written years ago that seem dated. These days readers expect a crime novel that is faster-paced, that gets you into the story at once. Readers are used to more down-to-earth prose and sometimes earlier writers were more stilted—maybe trying to be “serious” writers.

As for the subjects, crime is timeless. Ask Rhys Bowen, James Ziskin, or Ann Parker, who write historical crime fiction. People have always been greedy, calculating, frightened, vengeful, covetous….look to the Ten Commandments and you’ll always have enough subjects to keep crime writers busy.

I’ll end with a bit of excitement of my own. The cover of my next Samuel Craddock book was revealed last weekend, and I love it. I hope you do, too.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Good post, Terry, and I like the new cover.

Terry said...

Thanks, Dieter. I liked Susan's post yesterday. Very comprehensive.

Terry said...

It's George Wier, not Weir. Sheesh!