Turning to Crime

This weekend I attended the Write on Kew literary festival. What a beautiful venue for it. The weather cooperated too. It was a stunning afternoon in south west London, as I made my way through Victoria Gates into the great botanical gardens. The lecture theatre took a little finding, but I got there in the end, after a detour that saw me admiring a gaggle of waddling Egyptian Geese and the remarkable board-walk borders, as they are locally known.

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Turning to Crime was a talk hosted by Mark Lawson, and included esteemed crime writers Sophie Hannah, Stuart Prebble and Paula Hawkins. The authors revealed what made them ‘turn to crime’. I was most interested in Paula Hawkins, as she wrote romantic fiction under a pseudonym before penning this year’s runaway bestseller, The Girl on the Train.

I found the talk amusing and interesting, with some great insights that I’ve listed below.

There seems to be a trend in crime writing at the moment to explore the psychological thriller. Normal motives for murder, like sex and money, are no longer enough; authors are turning to deeper, more psychological motives, like paranoia, self doubt and pathological conditions.

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The “unreliable narrator” also seems to feature strongly in new crime fiction. Paula’s book features an alcoholic who has blackouts as her main narrator, which has the reader (even the character herself) questioning if what she is seeing is the real thing. Sophie explores pathological lying, where the character truly believes what she’s seen is the truth. There has even been instances where the narrator is the killer… but there was some debate over whether this is satisfying to the reader. The reader, it seems, likes to trust the narrator, and as Sophie pointed out, sometimes it is better to have a reliable narrator in a world where nothing makes sense. Food for thought.

There was some discussion around red herrings and the overuse of them to the point where the reader is totally confused. Alternatively, as James Patterson once said, red herrings can’t be so convincing that the reader closes the book thinking, “well, that was SO predictable.” There is a fine line between convincing the reader and still maintaining that shadow of doubt.

An interesting topic of conversation revolved around the use of modern technology in novels. While the mobile phone makes it hard for anyone to be out of touch, it can also be used to a writer’s advantage, in so far as tracking is concerned. Likewise with DNA testing, which can make a who-dun-it much easier to solve, it can also be used as a plot device.

Finally, the discussion around US crime drama, with deeply flawed characters like Dexter and Breaking Bad, was interesting, as Stuart said it was unlikely that they would have been excepted for British TV when they first came out, as the characters weren’t ‘likeable’ enough. So they discussed the impact of likeable characters in crime fiction, and how important is it really, for the reader to ‘like’ the characters in a book?

All in all, a very interesting talk, and money well spent.

If anyone has any of their own insights into crime writing, please let me know in the comments below.

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