The crime novel and mystery genre go hand in hand when talking about murder mysteries and detectives. But are they really?
Like most literary genres, there are nuanced differences between a detective story or crime fiction. It’s not all about capturing the bad guy, but more about why he turned to a life of crime.
It’s these nuanced complexities that make the genre extremely popular. But what is it that makes these types of books so interesting? We explore that and more in today’s post.
What is a Crime Novel?
Let’s get started with a definition of what a crime novel is:
Crime Novel: the focus is on the contest of wills between the lawman hero and the outlaw opponent, their differing views of morality, and the aspects of society they represent.Writer’s Digest
I’m not in love with this definition because it’s too simplistic for the type of story we’re looking at. It’s hard to find a cut and dry explanation of what this type of book is about.
However, it’s easy to tell you what it isn’t about. It isn’t a story where we follow the hard-working cop as they meticulously solve a crime.
The major element that most clearly distinguishes the crime novel from the rest of mystery fiction is that there is no mystery. It is a depiction of criminal life, and it is usually told from the criminal’s viewpoint. It is more of a “whydunnit” than a “whodunnit.”
Additionally, crime fiction writers fail to take a stand on a moral issue. Whereas in most detective-based novels, the protagonist makes a moral statement or observation about the crime that has been committed, such as “crime doesn’t pay.”
And these whydunnit stories have a host of subgenres, tropes, and cliches.
There is a lot of overlap between crime fiction and other genres within the mystery genre umbrella. So you’ll still get things, like cozy mysteries, hard-boiled cops, etc.
But remember our definition; the emphasis here is not so much on who committed the crime but why they did. And from there, we have subgenres emerge such as noir fiction, private detectives, psychological suspense, and heists and capers.
Here’s a look at these subgenres in a bit more detail:
Common Tropes and Cliches You Don’t Want to Use
Crime fiction has been around for a long time, which means some tried and true methods that authors use consistently. And that’s not always a good thing. You should always try to put a new spin on something that works.
So let’s look at some exhausted tropes and cliches that need a facelift or early retirement.
Here are seven tropes that you may not want to use in your next crime novel:
- The troubled police detective with a heart of gold. No one really respects the man who drinks excessively and sleeps around on his wife.
- The woman who runs upstairs. A) no one lacks common sense, and B) is ignorant of the horror rules learned in Scream. Please stop making pretty women ditzy, and let her call her neighbor for help.
- The young, mistaken female rookie. She’s young, smart, single, and rubs people the wrong way. But somehow, she always falls into the killer’s hands due to her naivety, and her male coworkers must save her.
- The faceless lady. The dead naked lady greets us within the first few pages before she vanishes. We learn all about her killer but not anything about her or her family. But her naked body is flashed frequently in the autopsy room or when the male protagonist is drinking.
- The victim no one misses. She is a junkie, a runaway, a call girl, and no one cares that she’s gone. These are marginalized people without power. They were someone, and you should honor that.
- Good wives and bad mothers. Good wives have better things to do all day than fold laundry and pick up after their absentee husbands. And just because a woman is a cop doesn’t mean she’s a bad mother.
- Rape—as standard, inauthentic, and written for thrills. Narratives about rape that address survivors and victims as whole humans are well-researched and interrogate why the abuser committed the crime. However, we don’t need rape narratives that dwell on the violence or action of the act for the sake of being “edgy.”
And here are ten cliches that you’ll want to avoid:
- The deep and intense relationship with alcohol. Has there ever been a private investigator or a hard-boiled protagonist who didn’t drown their feelings in a bottle? Bonus points if it’s amber and smoky.
- The deep and intense relationship with music. In crime fiction, it’s almost always jazz or the blues. Give your characters a little range.
- The uptight female character as a potential sex toy. If a prim but pretty woman meets the male protagonist in the first 50 pages of a story, they will have sex. It’ll be liberating for her, a moment of vulnerability for him.
- The Sherlock-type figure.
- All (broken) families are alike. Cops, private detectives, spies have faced the worst of humanity, and it leaves them broken. They push away their families instead of taking comfort.
- Everyone has daddy issues. Daddy issues are an easy way to explain away prickish behavior, making it a storytelling crutch.
- The snitch as cannon fodder. They’re a safe kill—not so virtuous that we really feel bad, not so integral to the main cast that we’re terribly shocked.
- The narrator goes native. How often do you see this? The protagonist needs something and seeks it out of their turf. An elder-type figure or gang leader gives the protagonist a pass because they have a shared history or mutual respect. And we all learn a valuable lesson about equality.
- The bad guy gets captured on purpose. This is especially useful if you want to give the villain more time to talk about their twisted philosophy or dastardly plan.
- The brilliant serial killer. Maybe we should call this one Hannibal Lecter-type figure. Bonus points if the brilliant serial killer is quick to irrational anger or has a personal history with the protagonist.
Something to Ponder
As mentioned above, there are some issues with depicting female characters in crime novels that we don’t see in other genres. And that is the treatment and depiction of women and violence against women (and minority groups).
How we treat women in fiction is a common topic in recent years, but more intense scrutiny has been doled out lately due to the #MeToo movement. Alyssa Mackay wrote an excellent blog post on the subject, which I think deserves a read.
Whether you agree with her opinion or not is not up for me to decide. However, I hope that it makes you stop and think before adding a rape scene or kill another fictional female. If you do go forward with those things, you may want to research the conversations around those issues further or treat them differently than you usually would.
How to Write a Crime Novel
Writing a crime novel doesn’t take a lot of ingenuity or hard work, as many others have laid the foundations for us. However, the times are changing and what is and isn’t acceptable is changing as well.
So how do we craft a crime novel that readers will love? Here are my tips for writing a heart-stopping crime novel:
Know your market.
If you want to get to know your market, then you must read. Read as many different authors as you can with the genre, and don’t forget the classics. You also want to find the debut books as well because they are what editors want now.
As crucial as the fiction side of things are, it’s also essential to brush up on your nonfiction. Some readers pay attention to the tiniest of details, and they don’t mind calling you out on any mistakes. Do the research and save yourself the complaints.
Forget the crime novel cliches.
Do you have a serial killer or a terrorist bomb plot? Be tough with yourself. These tropes are tired. They can work if you handle them in a new or dazzling way, but the old ways are no longer enough. Give us something new.
Craft vivid characters.
The plot of your crime novel might be forgettable, but if you craft a character people can fall in love with, then you’ve got a bestseller. Characters like Elvis Cole and Hannibal Lecter never leave our minds, so spend time on character development.
Ramp up the suspense.
As per our definition, we know who the criminal is and what they’ve done. Now we’re pitting our protagonist against them to bring them to justice. It’s a cat and mouse game, which means that you need to raise the stakes and keep putting your characters in situations where they might fail.
Catch Me If You Can is a great film that demonstrates the type of suspense you want to see in these stories.
Don’t depend on plot twists.
Twists and turns can help grip your reader, but they aren’t always essential. If a brilliant twist occurs to you, then that’s great; use it, but don’t contort the story to provide an out-of-the-blue shock the reader doesn’t need. Crime writing is about plunging interesting characters into a game of life and death.
Honor the victims.
Above all else, honor the victims of the crime. Even though they’re fictional, someone out there knew a victim exactly like the one you’ve concocted in your head. Treat your victims with respect and dignity, and don’t use them for cheap thrills.
Crime novels blur the lines between thrillers and detective stories, but the focus is on why the criminal committed the crime. You still have detectives pitting themselves against bad guys, but the puzzle your readers are trying to solve is why the criminal is wreaking havoc.
There are many great crime novel authors out there that you can learn from, but we also need to change things like how we portray victims and women in these novels. We need to show more empathy for our fictional dead because they are more than just a plot device. They’re real people to the characters in our book, and they deserve our respect.
What’s your favorite crime novel? What do you think of the definition? Anything I missed? Please let me know in the comments below!
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.