Friday, June 3, 2022

Crime Writers; weird or not?


                                                        Why are crime writers so weird?

Are they weird at all?

Well, yes.

And no.

After Crimefest, I have been considering this point. It’s a question we are often asked when we are on panels, sometimes phrased as ‘why are you obsessed with murder?’ and the  answers to the question are as varied as the crime writers concerned.

Martin Edwards, hyperintelligent mega being and all round good egg, has written a rather marvellous book that I would have bought at the book shop at Crimefest, but it was too heavy to carry while flying… well too heavy to carry while using a plane as a mode of transport.

The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators by Martin Edwards published by the Collins Crime Club. It’s a whopper at 736 printed pages. It’s a book I will have on my coffee table when I retire.

There was a copy in the bookshop at Crimefest but Simon Brett bought it - one detectorist to another I think. ( There is a quaint very English thing called The Detectorists Club but that’s a blog all on its own.)

Andrew Taylor then wrote a review of the book and it appeared in the Spectator. I saw it on Facebook in case any of you think that I’ve gone intellectual all of a sudden. Andrew says “What a weird lot crime writers are. I don’t come to this conclusion lightly, since I’m a crime writer myself, but on the evidence of this magisterial but wickedly entertaining book the conclusion is inescapable.” 

He's probably right.

But maybe he’s talking about  the era of the books that are  considered in The Life Of Crime, in those books when  crime fiction was dawning, the genre was struggling to  find a form of its own instead of?.... well, instead of what exactly? My agent says, ’every book has a crime in  it,  some sort of deceit or there’s no story.’

I wouldn’t argue with her. I guess she’s right. Even if it’s a crime of the heart rather than full blown gaffa tape in the basement, in all books somebody A does something nasty to B, it’s just the setting and the means that makes it a crime novel or not. Is the crime centre stage, or just part of the bigger story?

Andrew goes back to the writers of those early days - one crime writer was considered for sainthood, another convicted of murder. Wilkie Collins had two mistresses at the same time, they bore his children but he married neither – I’m surprised that he had the time or energy to write anything.  Mary Roberts Rinehart didn’t promote her chef to butler so he nearly murdered her. There was Agatha and her vanishing act, there’s Sayers and her non existent illegitimate son, and, this one I knew about, Patricia Highsmith and the snails in her bra.

I really wish I'd paid the excess baggage and bought the book now!

They might be a little odd but as incidents in the bigger picture of life, I think we’d get the same proportion of weird in any occupation. Probably much higher in politicians. Much, much higher in the Royal family.

Martin Edwards stays clear of the weird life that some of our contemporaries live. Was that fear of being sued? Or are we all just a bit too boring nowadays? Maybe anything about us that is even mildly interesting is already in the hands of our publicity team, our brand managers ( I have one of them you know) or buried so deep that nobody would ever find out until after we die.

 Unless we stick it on facebook to generate sales.

The crime writers I know are all rather lovely people. No hold that thought, I do know some horrors but they are not the people I mix with (obviously).  They take two years to write a novel and complain that their publishers are pushing them too hard, but then, they seem to be on social media for 16 hours a day vaguely bullying people in the guise of being keyboard warriors for the disenfranchised… so maybe they are sitting at their desks.. .just not working on their books.

But back to the point....

Andrew and Martin then go on to ponder what crime fiction is all about anyway.

Martin Edwards. Author of The Life Of Crime

 I think ‘murder’ is the sassy, but incomplete answer to that one. Andrew poses the question ‘ Isn’t crime fiction a debased cultural form, appealing to our worst instincts? Well, yes and no. It’s unashamedly populist. Its main job is to entertain – and judging by sales figures, it succeeds.’

My OH calls it murder porn. He has 5 degree in philosophy but can’t follow the plot of Mid Summer Murders  so I think  we can reject his opinion. He does watch a lot of films etc where there are very distinct goodies and then very distinct baddies, the lines are very clear cut. The story seems to be about who kills who first. The 'why' is often irrelevant…  so I get bored and go off and read a book. Or even write a book.

Surely in modern crime fiction, it’s the why and the motivation that we love. I like to think that there’s a very fine line between the investigator and the perpretrator. Maybe in a different life, brought up in different circumstances, lives could be interchanged. Has anybody written a timeslip ‘Life after Life’ or ‘Sliding Doors’ in that vein?

Andrew says in his article ‘discriminating readers have always recognised that the best crime stories are rather more than entertainment. Edwards quotes Wittgenstein in support of this argument: ‘More wisdom is contained in the best crime fiction than in philosophy.’ Cyril Connolly was another unexpected ally, predicting that ‘in 100 years our thrillers will have become textbooks... the most authentic chronicles of how we lived’. "

And that takes us back to how the crime novel reflects societal issues, in a palatable way. It’s rare to read a novel where I feel preached at by the author although it does happen. And the book goes in the bin.

 Andrew, Martin and myself ( and everybody else to be honest!) has a high regard for the work of PD James. There’s a sense of  society in those books. Of women making their way in a changing world where progress was moving quickly, of medicine, of class breakdown as well as the struggle of life and death.

I’ll leave you with the two quotes that Andrew chose to end the article with. The same two quotes that Martin uses in  his book.

One from James Runcie suggested that ‘we write, and we read, not just to be entertained but in order to work out who we are and how we might live a better and more meaningful existence on this frail Earth’.

And the other from  one of my favourite writers, the late, rather fabulous, Reginald Hill thought that the quest for detective, reader and author alike was to reveal the ‘truth about human character and experience. That’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it?’

Oh yes indeed.

Right, what are they saying about me on facebook?




  1. Why go to Facebook when there's plenty of opportunity for blood porn celebrity bashing right here, right now? Get yer head on, girl! (Oh, wait, too late if you're the murder victim...)

  2. I'm not sure what has me more excited, Caro, the thought of you with a brand manager or Patricia Highsmith with snails in her...