A practical, critical and personal guide to the craft of crime writing by novelist and professor of creative writing, Henry Sutton. Drawing on exceptional experience and resource, the mystery of creating crime fiction which moves with pace and purpose, menace and motivation, is forensically and engagingly uncovered. The work of the genre’s greatest contributors, and that from many lesser known names from around the world, past and present, is explored with both practical acumen. Sutton also mines his own fiction for lessons learnt, and rules broken. Personal creative successes, struggles and surprises are candidly addressed. In nine entertaining chapters the key building blocks for crafting pertinent and characterful crime fiction, are illustrated and explained. The genre’s extraordinary dynamism, with its myriad and ever-evolving sub-genres, from the cosy to the most chilling noir, the police procedural to the geopolitical thriller, is knowingly captured. However, the individual and originality are given centre stage, while audience and inclusivity continually considered and championed. This is an essential guide for those interested in writing crime fiction that gets noticed and moves with the times, if not ahead of the times.
In this chapter literary, genre and thematic influences are explored, along with learning by imitation. In particular, the development of genre and numerous sub-genres is considered in relation to imitation. Sub-genre boundaries and the limits of learning directly from others are explored, with reference to originality and landmark texts. Ideas around searching for originality and marked difference are examined, also in relation to Henry Sutton’s continuation fiction, First Frost. Series crime fiction is analysed for both continuity and development, with examples from Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Jean Hanff Korelitz, among others. First lines from landmark texts are analysed, and the concept of reading as writer explored. Brit Noir is examined, while there is a deeper investigation into Raymond Chandler’s fictional approaches, with mention of William Faulkner. The debt writers pay to other writers is further explored, with reference to Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating the Dead, and how individuality can best be enabled.
This chapter builds on the necessity of having strong point-of-view characters, who ultimately determine the narrative drive, along with reader engagement. Ways to build on drive and character are explored. Gender, ethnicity and age are discussed in context, along with fictional responsibility and ideas around appropriate and inappropriate appropriation. The importance of knowing your characters intrinsically, ahead of too much mapping and sketching, is practically articulated. Aspects of violence and capturing murderous characters are explored with reference to fiction centred on serial killers. In particular, works and approaches by Thomas Harris and Val McDermid are analysed, and theoretical and critical approaches to fiction by James Wood and Professor Andrew Cowan are considered. Striving for character originality and authenticity is further examined, with reference to genre and non-genre writers, such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Raymond Chandler, along with a detailed analysis of Sutton’s novel Get Me Out of Here.
The specifics of plot and point of view, and how they are the engines of long-form crime fiction are analysed practically and critically. Henry Sutton also draws on his own writing, and journey into crime fiction. Simplifying and being consistent with point of view and determining character intent are discussed. Two types of plot emerge: one, concerned with action, events and inciting incidents; the other being more organic and necessary and focused on character motivation and conflict. Puzzle plots are deemed of lesser importance than character-led plots. Readers’ enjoyment and engagement to character ahead of twisty plots are articulated. Aristotle’s Poetics is laid out as foundational, while modern and contemporary crime writers’ various practical approaches to plotting and planning prove that there are no right and wrong ways, only widely different approaches resulting in widely different styles. Positions from great modern genre writers such as Patricia Highsmith, Stephen King, Ruth Rendell and Walter Mosley are explored through citation. Further, the intricacies of hard-boiled fiction and noir fiction are explained, along with voice; specifically the voice of the novel, and how this might diverge from a writer’s voice and DNA.
A personally experienced, practical and critical introduction to what crime fiction is and might be. The genre’s overriding traits and attractions are considered, alongside key practical implications. Comparisons and distinctions with other genres, particularly literary fiction, are made. Views from defining twentieth- and twenty-first-century crime writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L Sayers, Patricia Highsmith, Lee Child, Graham Greene and John Banville are aired. Further approaches and work from writers such as Oyinkan Braithwaite, Attica Locke, Yrsa Sigurōardóttir and Val McDermid are discussed. Literary critics and theorists including Boris Tomashevsky, James Wood, John Yorke and Rita Felski are cited. Henry Sutton’s own fictional writing journey is also detailed, and how he became a writer of crime fiction. His key positions on ‘pace and purpose’ and ‘menace and motivation’ are detailed, while the joy of collaboration and asking key questions at key moments can provide focus and drive to complete a work of crime fiction. The introduction concludes with the message that writing such fiction should be fun, and also swift.
What is the difference between being entertained and being engaged? This question is explored with numerous references to some of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ most compelling crime fiction. Reader expectation and publishing industry positioning is explored in relation to reaction and audience scope. Violence and entertainment are also considered, and how fictionality and drama can elevate meaning and text beyond realism. Popularity is further considered in relation to the genre and bestsellers, and audience reach. Ideas around extreme and fantastical violence are looked at, along with the concept of the ‘hero serial killer’, and the appealing criminal. Empathy and sympathy are explored in the context of the chapter, along with ways of implementing desired effect. Implementation of devices such as misdirection, and aspects of humour, are practically explained and referenced. Crime sub-genres involving ‘cosy’, ‘soft’ and ‘comic’ are elaborated on, again with multiple references. The complexities and subtleties of incorporating humour into crime fiction are extensively and practically analysed. Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer are particularly cited. Thematic choices are considered along with such attributes as amateur or accidental detectives. Henry Sutton’s Hotel Inspector series is introduced and explained within context.
How does surprise impact on mystery and suspense? This question is explored and answered, particularly in relation to earned surprise. Suspense is considered in relation to fear, jeopardy and risk, along with pace and narrative drive. Also explored is the concept of asking questions and delaying the answers. The use of mystery, and just what it might be, is unravelled with reference to sensation fiction, the uncanny, classic detective fiction and E. M. Forster. The determining genre ingredient of menace is further explained in relation to mystery and suspense. Sub-genres and fusion crime fiction, including science fiction, the supernatural and fantastical are explored in relation to the mystery and suspense drivers. Tzvetan Todorov’s influential, but now dated essay ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’ is explained. Work from Leye Adenle particularly is analysed. The concept of the unexpected is explored, along with ideas of how to include it, and best practice. Using structural devices such as line breaks, chapter breaks are explained, along with cliff-hangers. How to incorporate series suspense, particularly in relation to Georges Simenon, and Henry Sutton’s Goodwin Crime Family trilogy of novels, is explored and explained.
A revealing interview with James Patterson about process and his overriding adherence to the concept of ‘pace’ determines the first half of this chapter. How is pace defined and incorporated in crime fiction? What are its advantages, its possible weaknesses? Key genre authors’ approaches are explained. A comparison is made in relation to fluency between the beginning of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries; the latter being heavily influenced by the former. Tempo is discussed in relation to Patricia Highsmith’s approaches; along with reader genre expectation. Authorial intent is identified using work from Sara Paretsky, Denise Mina and James Sallis, among others. Concepts of narrative drive, succinctness and literary versus genre approaches and styles to and of pacing are further explored.
Setting is outlined as a further fictional character, however well based on an actual place. The ways it can determine mood and atmosphere, and bring a fiction to life, are explored. However, of fundamental importance, as outlined, is the idea that it is the point- of-view characters who do the seeing, the observing. Setting in crime fiction is determined by characterisation, and the mood emanating from particular characters. Setting does not exist omnisciently, or independently from the plot. Examples of highly effective description from Ian Rankin, Steph Cha, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are among others are detailed. Further examination of fact, forensics and police procedure in relation to setting and generating authenticity of time and place is detailed. Period crime fiction, with mention of Stuart Turton and Eleanor Catton among others, is further examined, along with its reliability on description and effective observation. Work from Abir Mukherjee is analysed historically, while description in Henry Sutton’s novel My Criminal World is practically detailed.
Wildly different approaches to plotting and planning from many major crime-fiction authors, including Lee Child, Patricia Highsmith, Stephen King, Louise Doughty and James M. Cain, along with screenwriters such as John Yorke, are explored and analysed. Merits and pitfalls of the three-act structure are detailed. Henry Sutton’s own approach to structure, dependent on word count and dividing a novel into thirds or quarters is explored; also how he outlines and plans a novel. Timelines and the use of multiple narrative threads are examined. The counterpoints of instinct and control are analysed in relation to merit and diversion. Raymond Chandler’s adherence to sentence and scene over plot is addressed, along with the idea of turning corners joining two stories together. Red herrings, plot twists and other structural devices are explored and explained, with references. Positions on structure and development from American literary writers and critics Grace Paley and Eudora Welty are cited. Knowing when something has gone wrong and when to radically alter and cut a fiction is explained, with references. This chapter includes a short story by Henry Sutton: the result of radical editing and structural intervention.