Monday, November 22, 2010

Why I Write Crime Novels

Vicki on Monday. This is a reprint of an article I wrote for Creatures and Crooks blog. I hope you don't mind the repeat, but I think it's worth repeating.

What would you do if you believe the person you trust most in the world has betrayed you? What would you do if you discover that the person you trust most in the world believes you capable of betrayal?

That is the question that forms the heart of my new book, Negative Image, the fourth in the Constable Molly Smith series from Poisoned Pen Press.

Mystery novels, or as I prefer to call them, crime novels, are frequently disparaged as not being important or literary. Particularly in Canada, where I live, the very idea of a crime novel being short-listed for an important award would have people rolling in the aisles in laughter.

It seems a strange mind-set to me.

Crime novels, it has been said, show the human psyche under pressure.

Crime novels take (usually) normal people and put them through a heck of a lot. Some survive, some do not. Physically as well as mentally or morally.

Crime novels allow the reader to ask him or herself: what would I do in this situation? What would I do if this happened to me? How far would I go to save my child/defeat my enemy/get revenge/save myself? What would I do for money/for love?

Would I do the right thing, or would I fail?

In Negative Image a long time marriage is under almost unbearable strain. One partner distrusts the other, the other is horrified to discover how deep the distrust goes. Old secrets, long concealed, are revealed. Another marriage ends shattering all involved, and a young woman is very hesitant, frightened almost, about the beginnings a new relationship.

The use of a crime or a mystery allows the author to up the stakes for the characters, but the essential humanity and the complex range of human emotions are what’s all-important.

Crime novels often reflect the worst (and the best) of the world in which we live. Here in Canada we have been captivated by the tale of one Colonel Russell Williams, commander of the largest air force base in the country. A military man so prominent he has piloted the Queen.

And in his spare time he dressed in stolen women’s underwear and was a sexual sadist and serial killer. An unprecedented amount of the police investigation was revealed to the media, including the video of the initial police interrogation. Williams starts off calm, sure of himself; by the end he’s confessing to murder. “Why did you do it?” asks the officer. “I don't know the answers, and I'm pretty sure the answers don't matter” he says.

Of course it matters, it matters a lot. And because we’ll probably never know the answers to why Williams did the things he did, we’ll read and write crime novels to try to get some insight into what causes a person to go bad.

And perhaps also give us some insight into what we might do, if we come across such a person.

As we all know, crime novels can come in many forms. Some are as I have described, some are not. Mystery novels can feature emotionless automatons or have formula plots. But so-called-literary novels have been occasionally been stiff or unoriginal as well, you know.

An article recently in the Globe and Mail was headlined “Freedom’s just another world for absolute banality”. The columnist went to refer to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as, “Dull narratives about dull people leading dull lives”. “Coming up,” she says, “with actual plots and genuine revelations is exhausting work.”

Fortunately we have crime writers prepared to do the exhausting work, and mystery novels to read.

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