The Character of Crime Fiction

To explore crime fiction, we have to take several things into account.

On one hand crime fiction is by far and away the most popular genre due to it’s ease to get involved with. When you’ve had a hard day at work, you are far more likely to want to tuck into a tasty adrenalin rush than to sink into a literary classic where you will more than likely fall asleep within two or three pages.

On the other hand, people love a good challenge. Readers like to put their wits up against the story’s protagonist and – whilst it come sometimes frustrating to work out the identity of a mystery killer within the first few chapters – there is usually a pay off for the reader when they get that ‘I knew it was them’ moment.

But – for me at least – crime fiction is about character more than anything else…

And with that the whole room goes silent. 

Bear with me on this one.

Crime fiction – plot wise at any rate  – is pretty darn simple. Some crime is committed. Might be terrible, might be quite small. Either way the story goes in one of two directions.

1) It follows a detective, investigator, private eye or meddling civilian as they try to solve the mystery, usually reaching a successful conclusion in the last couple of chapters.

2) It follows the criminal in their attempt to complete their crime or otherwise escape justice.

If I had to chose my favourite type of crime fiction, I’d go with the latter. One of my favourite reads is Perfume: A Story of A Murderer by Patrick Suskind – a tale of an apprentice perfumer who kills women in an attempt to bottle a perfect smell. One of my favourite films is Kind Hearts and Coronets, an Ealing comedy about a man who bumps off a long list of his relatives so that he can inherit the family title. However, my favourite film by far is Secret Window – a film (adapted from a Stephen King novella) about a writer who is staked by a dangerous stranger, but later turns out ***SPOILERS**** to be a vengeful murderer in his own right.

But the storyline isn’t everything. There has to be a certain wow factor that comes into it. With some stories, there is a comedic element that keeps the story bouncing through nicely, for others the premise is quite dark and ghoulish, which keeps the reader turning those pages.

But even then that’s not enough.

Some point out that most crime fiction – particularly whodunnits – are successful due to their complexity and attention to detail. And yes that is true to a certain extent.

However. That is still not enough. Any writer can sit down and come up with a convoluted mystery and plan it out so accurately that it is flawless – but it won’t necessarily make a good story.

Which brings us neatly to the characterisation.

For me, character is everything in crime fiction. I have read some great crime stories. And I have read some shocking ones. And what separates the good from the bad isn’t the crime itself or the attention to detail (although failing on these points is a guaranteed coffin maker for any writer).

It’s the characterisation.

And I’m not just talking about the characters either. I’m talking about the character of the landscape as well.

Take Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – A total classic, by the way. Definitely worth the read.

Here we have a group of characters being picked off one by one. Each character is a stereotype, yes that’s true, but each one is just as believable as the next. The story is set on a desolate island off the British coast, with high crashing waves, fast winds and wet weather. Even the house has secret compartments and rooms.

It ticks every box.

Now, let’s take out the characterisation and leave ourselves with just the plot:

A group of people are murdered one by one.

Great. Nice and original. Not at all like every other crime story written… *cough*

So, you see my point. Crime fiction is as much about character as it is about anything else. I love reading Perfume: A Story of Murderer, not because of a load of women being killed for their scent (although admittedly that premise is awesome on it’s own). I love it for the characterisation of the killer, Grenouille. I love it for the character of the landscapes that he travels through.

I don’t love Kind Hearts and Coronets for the story of a man bumping off his relatives. I love it for the characterisation of the man himself – his reasons for committing the crimes, the way he thinks about each murder, the humour that he recounts his story with.

I don’t love Secret Window because it’s basically about a writer losing the plot. I love it for the character of Mort Rainey and the emotional turmoil that he has been through with his divorce.

Crime fiction is as much about character as any other genre. The only difference is that crime fiction consistently allows us to explore the the very darkest parts of our minds. We get to witness the horrific things that people are capable of doing to each other, we get to test the morals of different characters and watch as they squirm and try to lie their way out of things.

We can be judgmental when we read crime fiction. But we are also capable of compassion and forgiveness with it as well.

Perfume, Kind Hearts and Coronets and Secret Window work because we can feel compassion for our killer. We sympathise with their plights and, as such, we almost feel like cheering them on, even when they are doing the most utterly cruel things imaginable…

I think what I’m trying to say is:

Crime fiction is about good characterisation. End of story.

And I challenge anyone to disagree…

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