I recently followed a link circulating on Twitter to an article by Ian Rankin in The Daily Mail.
Rankin was giving ten tips on crime writing, and since he’s one of my favourite authors, I thought they’d be well worth a look.
I was interested to learn that Rankin never set out to be a crime writer, but rather to write novels about contemporary Edinburgh (which of course he does). He specifically says: “The ‘whodunit’ aspect of the story is the least interesting part for me – and it doesn’t bother me if people work it out on Page One.” He also mentions he still had no idea who the murderer was going to be, 20 pages from the end of the first draft of his latest novel. What really matters to him, he says, is what the crime tells us about ourselves and society.
I have always loved the sense of time and place Rankin evokes in his novels. And I certainly agree that exploring the aspects of society/humanity which underlie criminal behaviour can be fascinating. But when I pick a book of Rankin’s, I pick it from the crime fiction shelf – even if Rankin doesn’t see himself as a crime writer. For me that sets up an expectation that the mystery will be important – as well as other aspects of the book. Although I find Rankin’s novels very satisfying on many other levels, I always have a feeling of anticlimax when I get to the resolution of the mystery. The Daily Mail article explains why.
I also find it hard to marry Rankin’s last-minute allocation of the role of murderer with his interest in what the crime tells us about society. If the identity of the killer is uncertain when the story is drafted, won’t this also be true of the motive behind the crime, and therefore what it tells us about the world we live in?
One of my other favourite crime writers, Minette Walters, takes a totally different approach to Rankin. In this interview with Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen Press and Bookstore, Arizona (around 1 minute 16 seconds in) she talks about taking a reader on.
She throws down the gauntlet and sets the reader the challenge of working out the answer to her mystery before she chooses to reveal the truth.
Walters’ books certainly look at the way society works. However, she still clearly minds deeply about the puzzle element of her novels.
Obviously, writers make their own choices about the makeup of their work, and publishers and booksellers decide how to label them. But for myself, I feel there’s something missing if the challenge to solve a mystery isn’t part of the deal in a novel that’s delivered as crime fiction.
In this Independent article several commentators conclude that the mystery and the challenge are still central to the detective story in particular. However they say that society and psychology are now essential, in a way that they weren’t in Golden Age crime fiction. As far as I’m concerned this modern mix is the perfect combination.
What do you think? How important is the mystery to you in crime fiction? Are there other elements that are crucial for a book to be satisfying? Please do leave a comment.