Monday, October 02, 2006

The rules of crime

A reader's reference to S.S. Van Dine's Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories has touched off a discussion. What must a crime story do to keep you reading? What features must it have to qualify as crime fiction? Do rules even have a place in discussions of contemporary crime writing?

You will not be graded on your answers, but attendance will be taken. Good luck.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the reasons why most American crime fiction is so bad is that many new writers believe there is a formula – a set of rules – that produces best-sellers. This leads to monastic study of successful works and the typing of poor and lifeless reproductions. Talk of rules for writing crime only encourages the untalented.

October 02, 2006  
Blogger AaronX9 said...

Perhaps "rules" is the wrong word. But all genre fiction must adhere to certain conventions -- that's what makes it a genre.

And believe me, the rules ... er, conventions, can't be ignored if you want to sell anything. It's fine to depart from any particular few, but depart from them all and you'll remain unpublished.

To sell, you must understand what sells.

October 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a tautology to say that genre fiction is fiction that adheres to the conventions of a genre. Almost all works of so-called literary fiction make use of the conventions of one or other genre. These are simply ways of telling stories, and it is quite possible to write a work without any knowledge of the conventions of the genre in which others subsequently pigeonhole it. As for publishers knowing what sells in fiction, this is only because they know what SOLD in the past. To set out to satisfy these commercial expectations is to choose mediocrity.

October 02, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comments, anonymous and aaron. The owner of a crime-fiction bookstore lamented to me recently that more crime fiction than ever was being published and that most of it was crap. He didn't elaborate, because I didn't have time to ask him to.

Anonymous: It's hard for me to comment further because you give no examples. So, what formula leads to those poor and lifeless reproductions? And, since you singled out American crime fiction, what are non-American writers doing differently?

Aaronx9: In theory, it should be perfectly possible to write a mainstream "literary" story about an average Joe or Jane who just happens to be a homicide detective, but that's not likely to happen. I think readers of crime fiction can accept that it has certain conventions, even if the conventions boil down to one rule: A crime story is a story primarily about crime.

I have a feeling that British writers are stretching the definition of the crime story more than Americans are these days. But look how much definitions have been stretched already: A few decades ago, we would have been talking about "mystery" stories. Now, the very term mystery has a nostalgic air about it.

October 02, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Of course it's tautological to say genre fiction is fiction that conforms to the rules of a genre. But it is not tautological to say crime fiction is fiction that is primarily about crime. Or rather, it's a tautology with a wink, acknowledging the fluidity of genre boundaries when it comes to crime fiction, and the wide range of possibilities available to crime writers.

What about a crime story in which the "action" is the criminals sizing up their victims and talking among themselves? No crime is committed, no clue found, no mystery solved. One could argue that such a story defies genre conventions and works because it does. But the convention still lurks in the background, as that thing that the writer defied in order to produce his story. The concept of genre may be a vestige or it may be a marketing tool for publishers or a mental contruct for readers, but it's still with us.

The Anglo-American detective story has captured the imagination of so many writers everywhere that it's hard to imagine a writer turning to crime fiction "without any knowledge of the conventions of the genre in which others subsequently pigeonhole it." The more likely possibility is that he or she will write with full awareness of those conventions, but use them to creative ends. Rubem Fonseca, Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Yasmina Khadra come to mind.

October 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You want examples? Let's start with the formulaic works of Patricia Cornwell. David Baldacci, Sara Paretsky, Kathy Reichs, Jeffrey Deaver and their dozens of clones.

Why is it hard to imagine a writer who knows nothing of the traditions of the Anglo-American crime story? I know people who have never read a piece of crime fiction in their lives. (Yes, I may be mixing with the wrong people.)

And inserting the word 'primarily' into the definition doesn't make the statement any less tautologous.

October 02, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Happily I have never read any of those authors. I suspect your reading tastes and mine might be more similar than one might expect from this exchange of messages.

You may know people who have never read a word of crime fiction in their lives, but the chances are that Sherlock Holmes is part of their mental landscape. Or maybe Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon. Or maybe just a guy smoking a cigarette and wearing a trench coat. I think you get the idea. These images may be no more realistic than the idea that the streets of America are filled with cowboys and Indians, but they are powerful nonetheless, and they linger in the mind of many writers outside the United States and the U.K. It was no accident that I chose a Brazilian, a Mexican and an Algerian writer as authors who have rung interesting changes on the Anglo-American detective-story tradition.

As for your third point, Blogger unfortunately lacks a font that will let me indicate when I am joking, so I'll be explicit: Drop primarily, and my statement still holds. When I say a crime story is a story about crime, I mean simply that the possibilites are wide open. Crime fiction today does not have to conform to old rules of structure or subject. Possibilities are wide open. Your citation of several crappy writers does not preclude the possibility that other, better writers are doing good, non-formulaic work.

October 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And that, Peter, brings us back to my starting point: the best work is non-formulaic and not governed by any conventions except those that seem to be built into homo ludens when the time comes to tell stories of any kind.

Naming bad writers does not preclude anything. You asked for examples. I cited some best-selling crime writers. Publishers are looking for more writers like these. That is the horror of it.

October 02, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Publishers may also have trouble knowing what to do with good writers when they get them. Several correspondents (you among them, I think) have recommended Peter Temple's Jack Irish novels. Reviewers and readers invariably mention the humor and wit of the stories. One correspondent even called them droll. Yet I am told that the books are being promoted in the U.K. as having a protagonist similar to Ian Rankin's. Now, Rankin's John Rebus may be many things, but he is not droll. It would be a shame if mis-labeling by publishers gave potential readers the wrong idea about Temple.

October 02, 2006  

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