I like to think I’m relatively catholic in my reading tastes, but I find myself reading more and more crime fiction these days. I suppose that is why I write it.
The great thing about crime fiction is that it has so many sub-genres that you can constantly ring the changes. I love them all – from the gentle classic crime of the Golden Age (Agatha Christie is one of the few writers I reread over and over again), the police procedural (especially Anne Cleeves’ Vera), historic crime (Lindsey Davis’ first century detective Roman detective, Falco novels), comic crime (Simon Brett’s actor-cum-sleuth, Charles Paris), the whodunit (Dick Francis), literary crime (Robert Goddard), fantasy crime (Jasper ffjorde’s Thursday Next novels) to Scandinavian noir (Steig Larson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
Then there’s the private investigator (Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Malone), the amateur detective, the American hardboiled detective (Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series), the legal thriller (John Gresham), the financial thriller (Michael Redpath), the medical thriller (Tess Gerritsen), the forensic thriller (Patricia Cornwall), the spy novel and the howdunit. There’s a growing number of paranormal crime novels and crime novels with a hint of romance plus a rise in what is now classified as domestic-noir (Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl) now being published.
One of the most popular is the cozy mystery, but as with all subgenres, they can vary considerably from what I call the cupcake cosy, the locked room mystery to those with a touch of edge. The only thing that links these together is the absence of gratuitous violence, sex and bad language.
I love the variety. Whatever my mood, whether I chose some light and undemanding like an M.E. Beaton, Agatha Raison, or something a little more challenging to test my powers of concentration with a fast moving, complicated plot with a plethora of twists and turns, I can always find something to satisfy it.
A second great attraction of the crime novel for me, is that they often come as a series. If you get hooked by the first book you know there are many more happy hours of reading to come. Picking up the next book is like meeting up with a dear friend again. I love Estelle Ryan’s Genevieve Lenard novels. Genevieve has autism spectrum disorder, extremely intelligent but with poor social skills. Not the easiest of characters to make the protagonist in a series which has now reached twelve books.
Crime fiction is the biggest selling genre in publishing. You only have to go into any public library to see how popular they are. Nearly all fiction is arranged alphabetically with possibly a few shelves set apart for fantasy and science fiction, but crime fiction occupies stack alongside stack. Perhaps the most important reason for that is that they satisfy two or three very basic instincts that most of us have. The need for justice to win out in the end – we know the road will be bumpy, but in the end the murderer will get caught and his or her bad deeds punished. Secondly, we enjoy the thrill of the chase, the sense of danger lurking behind the corner (I love the edginess of many crime novels) and lastly – we love trying to solve the puzzle, piecing together the clues, before the investigator.
When I started writing crime, I was reading a great deal of psychological suspense. I loved Nicci French, Minette Walters and Barbara Vine. A genre that back in those days earned the label of woman in jeopardy. I was attracted to the edginess of their novels – the feeling of the protagonist’s life spinning out of control, taken over by events they can’t explain and the knowledge that if they don’t sort it out, they will end up dead. I suppose it was no surprise that my first novels were in this sub-genre. What appealed to me was trying to capture that fear, that unease, the sense of urgency never knowing what was going to go wrong next.
I was having problems with my third novel – Finding Jade – and to make matters more tricky, the woman in jeopardy type of psychological suspense that I was writing drifted out of fashion. My then agent suggested that I should write about a series character as that was what the publishers were looking for. That meant a change of sub-genre.
I’ve always been a lover of the whodunit mystery and I’d had the idea of a series about a tour manager for a coach company for some time. I thought that her driver would be her sidekick and that the coach would limit by number of suspects. It took a little longer to sort out a location. I knew from the start that the location would be important – that the story couldn’t happen anywhere else. The first Fiona Mason Mystery – Blood on Bulb Fields – began to take shape. Not that it turned out quite as I’d planned. A minor character demanded a bigger part and then went on to insist he came back in future novels. Mr Montgomery-Jones was not a character you dare say no to. He has caused me no small headache ever since. He has his own mission to accomplish in every novel so, unlike most murder mysteries there are two separate crimes to solve that interweave meaning that, at several points in story, he and Fiona are at odds.
Many of the reviews I have been given mention the Fiona Mason Mysteries as being like a modern Agatha Christie. That’s very flattering – she’s one’s of my favourite writers – though I can’t see it myself. Miss Marple never puts herself in danger like Fiona tends to do. Another author who has been a great influence on me is Dick Francis. Although mine are travel whodunits rather than with a horseracing background, I feel Fiona often has the same sense of not knowing quite where to turn that his protagonists always feel.
In all the Fiona Mason books, the location is an essential element. However familiar I am with the area, I always take a research visit. It’s more that just the history and the architecture of the varies towns and places en route, it’s the whole atmosphere and feel of the place that helps to drive the plot. The little things that happen on our holidays end up in the book. At the beginning of last year, with the fifth book in the series – Blood Across the Divide – published, I could not get down to the next book because our holiday was not until April. I could not sit twiddling my thumbs for four months so I began a completely new series based on the holiday we’d had a couple of months previously. Murder in Morocco, the first of my Aunt Jessica Mysteries. Again this is a travel whodunit but at least, although all stories have subplots, the Aunt Jemima Mysteries don’t cause me the problems of trying to interleave two quite separate major threads.
What is the attraction of crime fiction for you?