I’m a great fan of detective dramas: Waking the Dead, Silent Witness, Bones, Without A Trace, the Law & Order franchise, I love them all. Yet for some reason when it comes to crime fiction on paper I really struggle. I’ve tried again and again and not once have I come across a novel which makes me yearn to read more.
The characters tend to be one-dimensional, carbon copies of each other with plots full of telegraphed red herrings and a number of strands which realistically will only ever tie up one way. The vast majority of these books are so similar that even I can see the big reveal winging its way towards me. And I’m M. Night Shyamalan’s dream audience; I never see the twist coming. Hell half the time I don’t even know there’s going to be a twist.
So here are my 10 basic rules for writing a crime story:
- Your detective must, I repeat, must have a tragic back story. A missing or murdered parent/sibling/child that’s the reason for their chosen profession. Ideally the case should be unsolved giving plenty of room for angst. This way the character can over-identify with every victim by remembering “that balmy day in August” or the “frosty winter’s morning” which changed their lives forever.
- Whether or not you decide to go with the tragic back story another good idea is to give the protagonist a complicated family life. Obviously no detectives are happily married with a supportive partner and loving children. No. They are all divorced, embittered, crippled by maintenance payments for the children they never see because of the evil machinations of their former partner. But they must have a child so they can muse at least once about how they would feel if it was little Timmy or dear Jessica lying there instead of the current vic.
- Which brings me neatly to my next rule: use copspeak. I don’t know anyone in or even associated with the police so I don’t know if they actually talk the way they do in novels but it jars on me and I suspect there may be discrepancies between fact and fiction. Either way copspeak such as the use of the word “vic” for victim grates on me and has me reaching for a blackboard to run my nails down in a soothing manner.
- Don’t be afraid of stereotypes. They’re there for a reason and that reason is to make your life easier by taking the effort out of characterisation. By that I mean it’s fine to use the fat, smelly,
doughnut eating, coffee drinking cop who’s so sure he’s right that he won’t listen to a word anyone else says. And sure that Lebanese family would beat their daughter and forbid her from leaving the house unchaperoned so why not make them suspects of an honour killing? Hell they’re ten a penny these days.
- Many writers have a female protagonist. This is good because as we all know men and women are not equal so your character will likely be the only one in her field and will constantly struggle to prove herself in the man’s world she inhabits. This will enable you to use a wealth of stereotypes: the piggish cop who belittles her and ignores her opinion, the radical professor who admires her effort in a tone
laced with patronising niceties. Then of course there’s the suave gentlemen who seems to really value her input, appreciates her intellect and is undoubtedly Bad News.
- Your character will have an encyclopaedic knowledge of criminal law, past cases (by which I mean all someone has to do is mention a name and they will instantly reel off all the relevant facts however old the case) and in case of the science based protagonist, the entire field of medical, forensic and theoretical science. All of it. They will have no area of expertise because their area is all encompassing.
- Red Herrings. Don’t go crazy with these but have at least one big break through which leads your detectives running off in the wrong direction waving their hands and popping champagne corks. Your main character will of course realise their terrible mistake in the last ten pages and just in time to save the latest victim.
- About that latest victim, don’t make it just another random person off the street. Much better is to use the protagonist’s child/partner/best friend/cat or for those of you who are serious about this business, the protagonist themselves. No one will ever see it coming. Honest.
- The actual ending itself is always the tricky bit of course. One really effective way of getting round the sticky issue of writing that final confrontation and your hero’s clever take down of the antagonist is to write them out of it. A blow to the head/swift acting poison or any other method of incapacitation (be as creative as you like) should be enough to take them out of the action and thus allow the rest of the team (who followed your main man’s cleverly encrypted clues to the scene of the action) to save the day. Then when they wake up in hospital a couple of days later everyone else can fill them in on how they managed to get there in the nick of time and just how long the bad man is going to serve in jail. Don’t think of it as a cop-out (pun intended); just think of it as a really neat way to tie everything up without having to do any really hard thinking.
- This is the big one. No one will ever believe your central character. Their theory as to who/how/why will be so far-fetched that colleagues, friends and family will be convinced that our hero has finally lost it only to be proved wrong at the 11th hour and turn up at his or her bedside (see point 9) with their tails between their legs and a look of awe in their eyes.
Repeat this format as many times as your publisher will allow changing names and stereotypes sparingly and you have yourself a bestselling series on your hands. No need to thank me, but if you do play this right and get a TV series commissioned I am available for all roles, big or small.
Disclaimer: many of these points were inspired by the two detective stories I’ve read recently which are Malicious Intent by Kathryn Fox and Flash and Bones by Kathy Reichs. Any similarity to their characters and plotlines is entirely intentional.