Saturday 8 August 2009

The Essence of Crime Fiction

In The Freewheelin’ Hakan Nesser, there’s a quote from Nesser which sums up beautifully the essence of mystery fiction. Offhand, I can’t think of anyone who has expressed it much more economically yet more accurately.

‘The crime novel is interesting because it is so clearly linked to the two basic questions every story tries to answer. What has happened? What’s going to happen now? The first is to do with the past and arouses curiosity. The second looks to the future and arouses excitement. In a detective story or crime novel, the relationship between those two time frames is interesting. The sequence of events comes together in the crime, which is both an end and a beginning. This is where the criminal investigation begins, and at the same time the crime marks the end of a conflict in the past.’

This analysis, it seems to me, can be applied as much to a Hitchcock movie as to, say, Trent’s Last Case or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Even some authors of classic, Golden Age style mysteries, played games with the starting point of their novels – Towards Zero by Agatha Christie and Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare are examples.

I’m not yet ready to start a new book, but when the time comes, I’ll give some thought to Nesser’s way of looking at the genre. Who knows, it may prompt fresh ideas.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

That's it in a nutshell. I often get the question "Why did you choose to write mysteries?" This sums it up nicely.

Mystery Writing is Murder

R/T said...

The crime novel, perhaps more than most forms of literature, demands careful attention to the causes-and-effects in plotting, which harkens back the very early forms of dramatic literature (i.e., Greek tragedies in which the agon (or conflict) was absolutely tied to specific cause(s)); if the author practices his craft with an absolute attention to carefully linking effects to causes, then he or she is well on the way to achieving the goal of crime fiction--the sensible and logical restoration of order (justice) in the aftermath of insensible and illogical chaos (injustice).

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. I agree with your point, R.T.