Monday, August 15, 2011

What is a Crime Novel?

On Saturday I attended my first Mystery Writers of America event since my return to New York City. In honor of that enjoyable and informative experience I address the above question from my most recent Writing the Thriller-Mystery Novel to Die For seminar.

Some may quibble about my answer but here it is.

I begin with the market angle. Mystery novels and thrillers – sometimes referred to as suspense novels – are very different commodities when it comes to marketability.

The market for traditional mystery novels – with a few exceptions such as the stellar Berkley Prime Crime line – is generally modest. Thrillers on the other hand dominate the field and the bestseller lists.

One element of the traditional mystery novel – generally divided into hardboiled’s and cozies – is a market plus. That element is the series hero – a compelling main character who continues from book to book in a series.

A well-written series protagonist appeals to readers and that appeal grows with each new encounter in each new story. Until the reader is not only hooked but hooked deep.

The market appeal of the thriller is all about the thrills. This is a fast-paced high-impact story that takes the reader on a wild rollercoaster ride from beginning to end. The wilder the ride the deeper the hook is set.

The crime novel is a happy medium between these two. Happy because of high sales potential.

The pace of the crime novel is fast like a thriller. The story situation is intense with high stakes and a truly terrifying evil villain. The hero is both tough and determined.

In other words the crime novel is as thrilling as a thriller novel. The difference is that the savvy crime novelist has also borrowed wisely from the more traditional mystery.

Most crime novels have a continuing character as story hero. We fall in like with this character in the first book and that like turns to love as we cleave ever more tightly with each heart-stopping adventure.

An example of this for me is my newly minted infatuation with Mickey Haller of The Lincoln Lawyer. I first discovered this character in the film. Then couldn’t wait to read the book which thoroughly hooked me on the author.

I’m a latecomer to Michael Connelly’s work. Now I can hardly wait to know him better via Harry Bosch in The Black Ice where Harry’s connection to Mickey is introduced.

These stories are perfect examples of how techniques of the mystery novel are incorporated into the intensely dramatic and powerful story situation of the thriller novel.

In true mystery fiction fashion the hard driving hero investigates relentlessly – discovers clues and suspects – and refuses to be satisfied until the truth is revealed and evil is vanquished. All of which is accomplished at the cost of considerable risk and often damage to the hero.

This is the best of both worlds box officewise. Just ask James Patterson or Patricia Cornwell or Jeffrey Deaver or J.D. Robb aka Nora Roberts.

Or better yet read a few crime novels and find out firsthand. I suspect you will enjoy the ride.


Dorice Nelson said...

As always, you are right on in your definitions of fiction-writing. You were my mentor and continue to be so. My hat is off to you.

Alice Orr said...

Dear Dorice... My hat is always off to you.. because you work and work and work at making your stories better and better and better.. and you do that whatever the challenges of your life may be... That is the essence of the secret for success at anything.. including success as the human being you are... As I said my hat is always off to you.