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WHAT IS A CRIME NOVEL? – AN AUTHOR’S PERSPECTIVE by DAVID GRACE

In crime on July 24, 2012 at 6:54 am

I used to say that I wrote “mystery” novels but I had to stop doing that because it implied that my books were about a detective who figures out who killed a particular victim and my books have a wider scope than that. Don’t get me wrong. I like mystery novels but they constitute only a portion of the crime novel spectrum.

For example, my previous book, Shooting Crows At Dawn, centered around three escaped killers who were running for the Mexican border and the small-town Texas sheriff who was determined to catch them before he lost his badge in the upcoming election. The book contained episodes of home invasion, murder, chases, gunfights, etc. but it wasn’t a mystery in the sense that a crime had been committed and it was the hero’s job to find out who did it. Everyone knew who the bad guys were and the focus of the story was on Sheriff Jubal Dark and how or if he would catch them.

I like to have a wider scope of stories to tell than just a whodunit. If you think about it structurally, a standard mystery has a pretty basic set of components: a victim, a detective and a killer. Yes, the victim in one story might be a concert violinist and in another a retired general and in another a famous scientist long-thought dead but now returned from the dead to be, well, dead again. And you can make a list of various types of detectives: cops, private detectives, lawyers, insurance investigators, military police, etc. But, in the end, it’s basically the same sort of story. Victim found. Hero engaged. Clues, plot twists, blind alleys, brilliant discovery, confrontation. Again, there is nothing wrong with that kind of a story but if I’m going to write a book every year, I don’t want to be writing the same book every year. Also, I like to have a strong emotional component in the story.  A purely intellectual exercise might be fun for me to read but it is not all that much fun for me to write. I want to write emotional scenes. I told some female friends of mine that if they did not cry at least once while reading The Concrete Kiss then I would have failed. So far, I have not failed.

If you take a wider view of crime novels than that they are just a whodunit sort of a mystery you get to change-up not only the characters but the basic structure of the story. And there are several kinds of stories you can pick. Sometimes you feel like writing a “chase” story. That’s one where the hero is chasing the villain or the villain is chasing the hero, or both the hero and villain are searching for the same lost or hidden “thing.” They can be exciting if done right.

But you can go wider than those plot structures. One of my books, True Faith, revolved around a group of terrorists who had taken over a courtroom of immigrants being sworn in as new citizens and followed the efforts of a lone police officer, whose diabetic mother was one of the hostages, to rescue her before she died from lack of insulin. Certainly that’s a crime story but it is not a mystery story.

In another book, Stolen Angel, a man finds a kidnapped child whose abuser is the brother of the small-town chief of police. Her real family lives only a three-hour drive away and he decides that the safest thing is to take her home before the chief’s brother can grab her and make her disappear permanently. Of course, things go terribly wrong. Again, this is certainly a crime story but is not a mystery.

How about this story: The Secretary of State discovers that the President is a traitor and he commences a plot to have the President assassinated before he can betray the country again. And he succeeds. Five years after the President’s apparent accidental death the hero stumbles onto a murder that leads him on the trail of evidence of the plot and the true nature of the President’s death. That is not really a mystery, is it? But it is a crime novel — The Traitor’s Mistress.

The point of this is to say that you might want to consider a wider choice of plots than merely dead body, dogged detective, wily killer, got him! Widen your horizons to any kind a story that involves a crime. The focus could be on a crime that has happened, that will happen, or the people who committed, or will commit, the crime.

Second, it needs to be a story that interests you, the writer. If you aren’t excited about telling this story then it is unlikely that you will craft a book that will excite the people who read it. You need to enjoy or at least feel satisfaction in telling the story. If you view writing your book as a chore, something equivalent to work, then forget it. Get a real job. It will pay better.

Third, don’t expect everyone to react to your story the same way you do. People are very specific about the kinds of stories they like to read. The things that excite you about a particular story may leave someone else cold. If you loved The DaVinci Code and you’ve written a book with that kind of a story structure, someone who loves cozy mysteries may not like your new book no matter how good a job you’ve done. So, when you are choosing the type of story you’re going to tell, and if there are several ones that you could write, all other things being equal, you may want to give some thought to which of those structures has the biggest potential audience.

Fourth, if you want commercial success as a crime novelist, figure out the best set of characters you can with the widest range of possible plots and write book after book after book with those same characters. The strongest, most reliable path to success as a crime novelist is to write a series of books with the same characters and similar plots. Too late for me, but maybe it’s not too late for you.

Having just released my latest crime novel, The Concrete Kiss, I am already thinking about the next one. This time it may actually be a mystery.

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  1. crime and mystery are different, you are right.

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