I write crime novels and enjoy reading within the crime genre. Some of the more literary authors I favour include Dennis Lehane, John Connolly, Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke. They’re literary because of their use of stylish language and willingness to unravel the emotions of their characters. To my mind, genre writing is more simplistic, with the action taking precedence over character development.
Helen Cadbury’s writing is literary because she tackles the thought processes of her protagonist, but it’s not that challenging to read.
Does that mean that literature has to be difficult to get through, but it has a density of meaning that genre writing lacks?
I find that, as a reader, I approach books in different ways. Some titles I hope will be edifying, such as philosophy and self-help books. Volumes of poetry and studies of a painter’s work may lift my spirit. Sometimes, I read non-fiction as research for my crime novels, delving into forensic medicine, autopsies and poisons.
I tend to base my library requests on book reviews and works praised in author interviews. There’s always the drawback, when reading in my chosen writing genre of Crime, that I’ll be less likely to enjoy the ride than look for ways that it could be improved.
There aren’t many authors whose work blows me away every time, making me thrilled when I see that they’ve got a new book being published, keeping me alert for its UK publication date, so that I can be first in the queue to request it at the library. When I’ve got my hands on it, I’m voracious!
One such author is James Lee Burke, whose 400-500 page novels I usually read in a few days, but then I’ve been a fan of his 22 Dave Robicheaux detective novels since the first title, The Neon Rain was published in 1987. After so long together, I’ve invested in his protagonist’s story arc, even wondering about how he’s getting on from time to time, which proves how real he is to me.
Reading a new Robicheaux story is like meeting up with an old friend—and it’s not always good news—Burke’s protagonist is a deeply flawed man, which he realises himself, and it makes him all the more compelling. I’m currently 50 pages from finishing the latest story New Iberia Blues, already having mournful feelings that I won’t be able to find anything as good to read next.
In the Crime genre, the only other author I know of who portrays such a conflicted hero is Jo Nesbø whose Harry Hole is self-destructive, determined and excruciating to keep company with—which again makes the books unputdownable. There’s definitely an element of “What’s the idiot going to do next?”, that keeps me reading on.
It’s a key element of story-telling, that we care what happens to the main characters. Their story becomes our story—their truth becomes ours—a merging occurs. From the time of the caveman telling tales around a fire to people reading e-books on smartphones and Kindles, the narrator needs to create that empathy.
In historical fiction, I’m transfixed by the dilemmas that C. J. Samson’s Tudor era lawyer Matthew Shardlake faces.
Shardlake is one of the most likeable fictional characters ever created, and one who lives on his wits and cunning in what were incredibly dangerous times politically—with heads rolling off the Royal chopping block—and, where a man could be stabbed to death by the henchman of a courtier as he walks along a darkened street.
What these three protagonists share is that they walk a fine line between normality and oblivion. They all want to make things right in society, but the evil forces they oppose threaten to corrupt and destroy them. They’re living on the edge. As Friedrich Nietzsche warned:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
As a reader, I stand alongside them, glad that I’m not them, but eager to know how they’ll survive.
There’s certainly a place for two-dimensional characters in a narrative if they’re only passing through. And, there’s much to be said for an uncommunicative monster relentlessly pursuing the innocent: no one much cares about the feelings of a shark, dinosaur or orc in Jaws, Jurassic Park and The Lord Of The Rings. But, if your characters are hanging around for a while, then they need some backstory or a current predicament that explains their behaviour.
I write in the Crime genre, which provides quandaries about getting the correct balance between internal thoughts & external action. It could be argued that one of the differences between literature and ordinary fiction, (including genre writing), is that literature portrays characters, but ordinary fiction is more plot driven.
I’ve read some crime novels where the protagonist and antagonist showed no doubt or emotion about a fatal conflict they were involved in. Such unrealistic writing doesn’t even qualify as hardboiled, which might be tough and unsentimental, but usually features a complex lead character who’s endured some tragedy that affects his actions; just think of Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca.
Leo Tolstoy observed that “The best stories don’t come from good vs. bad but good vs. good.” If your antagonist, the baddy, has elements of decency, then they’re a lot more interesting than being evil through and through. The same applies to any protagonist who struggles with character flaws. Jo Nesbø’s detective Harry Hole is a weak-willed recovering alcoholic, not averse to drugs, who’s wildly disorganised with a chaotic love life that leads him into risky sexual encounters. His determination and desire to see justice done sees him through. For all of his weaknesses, it’s his love of his fellow man that endures.
The title of this post comes from radio journalist Herbert Morrison‘s coverage of the Hindenburg disaster, the conflagration that destroyed a zeppelin of that name in 1937, which killed 36 people as it tried to land in New Jersey. Surely, one of the most emotional commentaries recorded, with Morrison’s own humanity shining through:
Having your faith in humanity restored by reading a story is one of the abiding strengths of fiction. Remember the struggles of the characters in To Kill A Mocking Bird, The Lord Of The Rings, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter saga? The protagonists and antagonists were all confronted with challenges that damaged their bodies and exposed their souls. A lesson taught by all of these stories is that one’s destiny isn’t set in stone and that we shape our moral characters by clinging on to humanitarian beliefs.
I jerked around my Cornish Detective’s belief system in the last novel, for he was almost stabbed to death in the penultimate chapter and still in a coma at The End. This experience will make him mistrustful and more aggressive. His basic decency survives, as he’s a generous man with his time and money, and does what he can to protect the wilderness, but he’ll have an unpredictable edge in the future.
Do you have any favourite characters in your own writing and famous books, who show their humanity in inspiring ways?