Thursday, 3 January 2008

Writing about crime fiction

I’ve been grateful for the reaction to my essay about ‘The Detective in British Fiction’, which appears on my website. To set it in context, it may be worth saying a bit more about how essays like this, for crime reference books such as the forthcoming Harcourt Encyclopaedia, come into being.

I’ve contributed to a variety of encyclopaedias and similar compendiums about crime fiction over the years, including the St James Guide, 100 Great Detectives, and the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. The last of these was quite an experience.

The story of the Oxford Companion began, so far as I was concerned, with my coming up with the idea of such a book and pitching it to OUP. Michael Cox, an excellent editor and anthologist, later to achieve fame and fortune with his own novel, The Meaning of Night, came to my home in Lymm to discuss the project in (about) 1990. All looked good until the news came that OUP in New York had commissioned a similar book, to be edited by Rosemary Herbert. So my project died instantly. With hindsight, I realise that although the idea was attractive, the work involved would have been demanding – quite murderously so. And Rosemary was ideally qualified for the task.

I was asked to contribute to Rosemary’s book, and I met her at a Bouchercon in Toronto in 1992. Some of the topics for essays were challenging (‘The prodigal son in crime fiction’ struck me as especially tricky) but Rosemary and Catherine Aird, who led the UK branch of the editorial team, were terrific to work with. As time passed, the number of essays I was asked to write increased. However, the in-house editors at OUP kept changing and the process of getting the book to print seemed interminable. One or two contributors had, indeed, died by the time the Companion was published, and in the end (through no fault whatsoever of the external editors) at least one critic suggested it wasn’t quite as cutting edge in content as it might have been. I still think it’s a real mine of interesting information, though, and I'm proud to have been associated with it.

With the Harcourt book, as with any similar work, one is limited by the subject matter one is given, as well as by word count. So, when writing about the detective in British fiction, the real challenge is this: how can I squeeze more than a century and a half of material into 3000 words? To say that one has to be highly selective is an under-statement.

All this means that such essays tend to skim somewhat on the surface of things, due to constraints of length and the need to avoid duplication of other essays in the same book. Even so, I find that they are fun to write. Above all, there is always the hope that one will draw interesting books, characters or authors to the attention of someone who will enjoy reading them, and who would otherwise not have encountered them. That’s where the real satisfaction lies.

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