What is a ‘crime novel’? A question of genre

I know I should understand this by now, but I don’t. I’ve asked various people ‘What is ‘genre’ and why do we need it?’ and the only answer that I remember, perhaps because of its absurdity – to me at least – is ‘So that the bookseller/librarian will know which shelf to put it on.’ When I went through the tedious and time-wasting process of submitting my work to an agent, I was informed that knowing your genre was crucially important, presumably so that you pestered the right agent, but that too seems to me like a post-facto rationalisation, a curious case of how the tail can wag the dog.

So here I am, trying to play the game, thinking of a move from one genre (‘regional historical women’s commercial fiction’) into another (‘regional historical crime fiction’). I’ve bought and read the Arvon book on writing crime fiction. I went on a course at Crimefest with Ryan and Hall and reviewed it favourably in an earlier post. Now I’m reading ‘The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure’ by Michael O’Byrne (published by Robert Hale in 2009). On the first page of Chapter 1 O’Byrne asks the question I’m asking myself: ‘Is it a crime novel or a novel in which a crime occurs?’ He also makes the assumption throughout that the protagonist of a crime novel must be a ‘detective’.

In the novel I’m now trying to plan, the protagonist is not going to be a ‘detective’, except in the sense that he/she is trying to find out ie. ‘detect’ what happened and why. So no Miss Marple, or Morse, or whatever the Nordic noir guys are called. Does that mean that this story is doomed to be ‘a novel in which a crime occurs’ that will leave the bookseller/librarian weeping with indecision? I stamp my foot. I’m the writer: I don’t want my main character to be in the police force, so there. The story will be what is, so get over it.

Most of the advice I have read and heard about writing good stories applies to any story. The 3 Act structure explained by Ryan and Hall works whether or not crime is involved. It’s about gripping the reader and pulling them into a book they can’t put down. You can perceive this structure in Hardy and Austen, who had the good fortune to write before the strictures of genre were so tight. Did Wilkie Collins know he was writing crime fiction? Of course I’m not comparing my own efforts with those greats, but the whole genre thing feels like a game for which everyone else except me knows the rules. As my kids in school used to say when their glaring ignorance came to light, ‘I must have been away that day.’

 

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2 thoughts on “What is a ‘crime novel’? A question of genre

  1. I’m with you on the mysteries of genre. I love the idea of being way that day. The problem applies to most of the other writers I talk too who fall back on ‘erm, well it’s not x,y or z so I suppose it is literary commercial fiction’. The only other reason I think that makes genre relevant, similar to the bookshelf example is the metadata for Amazon etc; people do search by genre so if you can squeeze yours into a genre it may help it rise to the surface of searches.

    • I can live with the Amazon thing I suppose, but you are allowed more than one category so it seems easier, less rigid. Thanks for the interest Ruth

      On Tuesday, August 5, 2014, Ruth's writing about writing wrote:

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