The Ingredients of a Crime Novel/la

A few days ago, I published a short segment of a possible novella – I say “possible” because sometimes these things run away with themselves and end up much longer than they were ever intended to be. As it stands at the monent, it’s likely to be novella length. Interesting Daily Post on ingredients that I have decided to reinterpret for my new project.

Despite that it features ghosts, an imaginary Cornish village and a large dose of humour already, it will actually be a crime story. I hope I can write something edge-of-the-seat as well as impart some genuine laugh out loud moments too. Though I’m not intending to rewrite how crime fiction works, there are some identifiable tropes that I will avoid if I can help it – though some are almost written in stone that you need them.

Personal Difficulty for the Protagonist

If the protagonist is a man, he’s usually down on his luck; he has hit the bottle and his wife has left him. Either that or he hit the bottle because the wife died in a crash and his child(ren) will never forgive him. This trope is overused but I’ve decided to reimagine it slightly. He will be going through a divorce, but not for the usual reasons that we’ve become used to. I understand why this trope exists – it’s so The Case can give the protagonist a reason to fight back, a reason to be again, to win back the affection of those closest to him. But it needn’t be that way – the protagonist in a crime drama needn’t be a wife-beating alcoholic every time; he could have other flaws to overcome.

An Eccentricity

Morse had his love of classic cars, Poirot had his “Little Grey Matter” phrase. Arguably, a character being a bit of a maverick is a quirk. Thankfully, that seems to have died out in recent years. There’s only so many detectives with no respect for authority but who persistently gets the job done every time (the only reason they get to keep their job) that we can take before it all wears a bit thin. For Jessica Fletcher it’s that she was a novelist (in one of the most intriguing bits of metaliterature). For Rosemary and Thyme is that they were detectives-turned-gardeners. Yeah, the less said about that the better I think.

Red Herring

We know who did it by about half way through. It was that one you know – the jilted ex, the estranged offspring, the former business partner and so on. Of course they did it, it’s obvious because they’re a very shifty character and they have the motive and no alibi. Except they’re dead by about halfway through. They can’t be the killer because they have fallen victim to the real killer. Red Herrings are good, but we see them coming a mile off so much so that the first person to be a suspect is usually the person least likely to have done it purely because they are identified so early.

The Actual Killer

There are rules about the actual killer – it cannot be a new character introduced towards the end; it is vital that we meet them early. It must be somebody we know, somebody we have come to like and even trust. If this doesn’t happen, the audience feels cheated. There are exceptions and I’ve seen some brilliant sleights of hand where we thought we were following one person but it turned out we were actually watching twins, one of whom was the killer, or usually somebody we believed to be dead (we “meet” them by introducing their character even though we believe them dead).


2 thoughts on “The Ingredients of a Crime Novel/la

  1. solsdottir

    Two comments: 1) thank you for not giving your hero/ine a personal difficulty, (it always makes me think of the asdf cartoon about the guy who’s allergic to backstory); and 2) have you ever noticed how many Golden Age female crimewriters had novelists/painters/etc for their heroes or significant others? Mrs. Oliver, Harriet Vane, and Agatha Troy. Not sure if Amanda Fitton (aiirplane designer) fits in here or not. Anyway, enough of me showing off – I enjoyed your post.

    1. Hello and thanks for your comment. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with those writers as I don’t read a lot of crime fiction – mostly because of the stereotypes and tropes I discussed in this post. I was determined not to make DI Blackman yet another haunted character; he is going through a divorce, but going against the typical reasons why, the divorce is because his soon to be ex-wife got her own way in everything, all the time and sulked if she didn’t. It took her leaving him after the incident to make him realise.

      So I guess the case will be the making of him in a very different way from conventional tropes.

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