The following is an extract form the introduction of Henry Sutton’s new monograph, Crafting Crime Fiction, published by Manchester University Press in October 2023.
What is crime fiction? Let’s start here, with the biggest mystery of all. Or is it? This book will ask many questions and hopefully answer quite a few. Crime fiction is spectacularly dynamic. It’s also, of all the genres, very much of the moment. As a writer you can’t second-guess it, and there’s no point jumping on a bandwagon if you want to be original, successful and true to yourself. The genre (and this term will be variously used and interrogated in due course) is far-reaching. It’s inclusive, it’s individual. Contrary to old beliefs, old habits, it loves busting boundaries and breaking rules. I like to think that it’s the genre that got away, and kept running. Catch me if you can …
Pace is intrinsic to crime fiction: structurally, practically and theoretically. This book will also endeavour to shift with purpose and energy, and entertain. The novel was designed as a unit of new entertainment, let’s not forget, and the crime novel perhaps even more so. And it is the novel, both long, and preferably short, on which this book will focus. One of the few commonalities of the genre is that crime writers tend to work at speed. Georges Simenon wrote the Maigret novels in days: on average, fourteen. Ed McBain spent nine days a pop on his early 87th Precinct novels. Patricia Highsmith usually took around three months’ writing time on a novel. Such speed fits the dynamism of the genre as it forever and urgently breaks new ground. It also, arguably, cuts out a lot of waffle. Being succinct is another great commonality. Too much interiority, too much description, too much indecision will sink any plot; at least if you’re looking for a plot that moves with purpose and strives to appeal to more than a very few. Crime fiction is not elitist. It needs an audience, and why not an audience as large and as international as possible?
This breadth of appeal lies at the heart of genre fiction, of popular fiction, as opposed to what some term ‘literary fiction’. Literary fiction can seemingly exist on its own terms, with or without a large audience, because it’s ‘important’: artistically, culturally, politically, academically. Yet genre fiction and crime fiction particularly can be just as ‘important’. More so, you could argue, because the mass-market appeal means it invariably has a bigger reach, a bigger audience, a much bigger sphere of influence.
Raymond Chandler, who was forever troubled by literary insecurity, angrily nailed it in his landmark 1950 essay, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’. Attacking Dorothy L. Sayers for daring to suggest that crime fiction, or in fact the detective novel, was a ‘literature of escape’ and not a ‘literature of expression’, Chandler declared that such labelling was ‘critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings’.1 For Chandler, the most important thing was that ‘everything written with vitality expresses that vitality’, and that ‘there are no dull subjects, only dull minds’. Recently, I realised that for years I had invented a Chandler quote, in relation to this essay, and often recalled it while teaching. As Chandler declared, I’d say in class: ‘There is no such thing as literary writing, there is only good writing and bad writing.’ I can no longer find this quote anywhere. But it is something I believe, passionately, whether Chandler ever said it or not.
Bad writing can be popular in spite of its shortcomings, though never as popular as good writing. The fact is that good popular writing is extremely hard, and quite rare. It’s potentially far harder to pull off than good literary writing, because it’s arguably determined by purpose, style and accessibility, as opposed to individuality of expression. Also to be contemplated is audience, and who we’re writing for. Form and control, knowing what you are doing and who you are doing it for, can determine fiction that works with real intent. Lee Child was particularly vocal on the literary/genre divide, well before he retired and judged the Booker Prize. ‘We’re doing our thing,’ he said, when I interviewed him at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 2013, ‘and they are doing their thing – ours is very big and theirs is very small. They know that we could write their books but they can’t write ours.’2 Literary writers, he suggested, don’t get what it takes to ‘create suspense and evolve a story, with a non-stop, seamless narration’. In other words, I believe, he was talking about the importance of form and craft.
He used the analogy of manufacturing a Ferrari compared to a Ford. One of these is a no-expense-spared indulgence for a tiny few, and the other is a utilitarian tool of immense global use at a reasonable cost. Interestingly, Lee Child decided to retire from writing fiction and the Jack Reacher novels at the age of 65, and hand on the legacy – to his younger brother – just as if it were any other retirement from a family-run business. No pretension, no fuss. However, in practice hitting that universal ‘utilitarian’ sweet spot isn’t just about approach, or even having an idea of an audience. It’s much more about authenticity, being true to yourself, and believing in what you are doing. You need to bring to the table the right goods in the right order. Readers sniff out frauds with remarkable ease. Believing in and knowing what you are doing takes time and experience, and this book, like much of my teaching, is designed to speed up and enable that process. Creative writing courses, such as the ones I’ve run at UEA, can’t make brilliant writers, but they can make good writers into better writers. They can spot potential and they can accelerate and focus the learning curve. Vitally, they can also create a constructive and supportive environment: a place where you’ll find like-minded individuals; a place where advice and insight are readily given; a place to absorb and collaborate. Writing should not be lonely, nor should it be excruciatingly hard work. It should be fun, certainly if your aim is to entertain.
Graham Greene, as we know, divided his work into ‘entertainments’ and ‘other novels’. It was a ruse to attract interest from the film industry and push up sales. Few critics can determine a difference in ‘literary’ quality from, say, novels such as Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana and A Gun For Sale, to The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter and The Power and Glory. If anything, the former are more engaging. Is that a problem, and for who?