No, I’m not suggesting actually going out and holding up your local post office or committing a murder. I mean, writing a crime story or even a novel, where you can let your imagination run riot. I couldn’t kill someone in real life – apart from the occasional parking ticket I’m usually a law-abiding individual. But in my head it’s quite a different story: I can visualise all kinds of lives lived on the other side of the law and all manner of grisly ends for a variety of people, some deserving, some not so much.
There are various forms of crime fiction and the choice of form and plot is huge. Should I write a police procedural, with a protagonist on the police force, like Peter James’ Roy Grace or Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne? Should it be a traditional whodunit, when we get to know the identity of the perpetrator at the end of the book, or perhaps the more modern inversion, where the crime and the identity of the perp is revealed at the start and the novel describes the attempts to solve the mystery.
Or maybe it should be a courtroom drama like those John Grisham excels in. What about a traditional locked room mystery, such as Jeffery Deaver’s The Vanished Man, featuring the criminalist, Lincoln Rhyme, or a detective thriller incorporating some psychological conflict and the services of a clinical profiler? I could use an unreliable narrator, such as a serial killer, to keep the reader’s interest or I might use a character on the edges of the investigation, such as Nicci French’s psychotherapist, Frieda Klein.
If the investigator, from whatever discipline, has an accomplice or assistant I can use their relationship to illuminate personality traits, set clues and give insights into how the criminal mind is working. Should the detective be a thorn in the side of his superiors? Should they be a bit of a maverick, doing things their own way? Or a stickler for detail and correct procedure?
I realise I’ve got a way to go to produce a nicely-rounded, extended piece of work that fulfils all the requirements of a successful crime novel. It must satisfy the various conventions and will need a lot of research to ensure that all the rules and legalities are followed. Today’s readers are a sophisticated bunch and they will not forgive procedural errors any more than they will excuse holes in the plot or fudged details.
Luckily there’s a lot of information in book form and online to help with authentic detail. I’ve got a marvellous little book entitled The Crime Writer’s Handbook, by Douglas Wynn, which is full of ideas for offing your victim. Ultimately, we can dream up as many plots and characters as we like, but we must keep references to reality real. It’s all sounding rather exhausting. Maybe I’ll stick to reading about crime rather than writing it.