A guest post by Kate Naylor
Authors like Scott Turow, Faye Kellerman, Linda Fairstein and Lee Child have written some of the best crime fiction novels available today. They know exactly how to pick you up by the scruff of your neck and shake you ‘til your teeth rattle. They only let you down to earth once the plot is done and dusted and the perps are put away for perpetuity. But what, exactly, makes an ordinary, everyday crime novel into one of the most popular thrillers to grace bookstores for years? Here’s what floats my particular boat.
1. Whodunnit? A cracking plot that keeps readers guessing
Most thriller fans read crime fiction because we love being mystified. So great plotting is one of the bare-bones essentials for any great crime writer. Whether it’s gritty and gruesome, action packed or thoughtful, set at home or abroad, historical or contemporary, creative plotting is a must, fundamental to a best selling page-turner.
The longer a crime novelist keeps their readers hanging on the edge of their seats without the faintest clue what’s going on, the better. Unexpected twists. Unforeseen turns. Surprises and shocks. If you’ve read all the books by Lee Child you’ll recognize a master craftsman at work. Books by Faye Kellerman have it in spades, too.
As The Guardian says about Faye Kellerman’s best-selling book Cold Case, it’s “Brutal but thoughtful and well-plotted, fast-moving and well told.” That’s the way to do it.
2. Realistic characters you can relate to
Lesser thrillers star characters who act and react perfectly convincingly. But they don’t spring fully to life and you don’t necessarily empathize with them. I find it’s often because they’re far too perfect, consistent, unwavering. As far as I’m concerned the best characters are changeable, flawed, self-doubting, human.
Take Lou Mason, the star of Final Judgment. Boy, he’s a mess, albeit an attractive, believable one. He fucks up regularly, talks out of his ass, makes poor judgment calls, pisses people off. Now that’s what I call the real deal – not some picture perfect all-star smoothie but a real emotional being, a protagonist whose social and personal agonies the reader feels acutely.
Fairstein’s Alex Cooper, Kellerman’s Peter Decker, Turow’s George Mason, Child’s Jack Reacher… they’re all believable, all real. As the New York Times says about Turow:
“Turow has set new standards for the genre, most notably in the depth and subtlety of his characterizations. . . . The kind of reading pleasure that only the best novelists – genre or otherwise – can provide.”
3. Convincing dialogue
I find the dialogue in books by the best-selling crime writers genuinely compelling. The moment it gets stilted, doesn’t flow or just doesn’t feel right, the spell breaks and I’m back on the settee or wherever, reading a book instead of where you should be as a reader: totally immersed in the action.
Good dialogue is one thing. Excellent dialogue is quite another. Joel’s Lou Mason, for example, is a delight to listen to. He’s self-effacing, funny, eloquent. He has a seriously good talent for banter. Through the sheer power of quality dialogue he comes across as a real bloke with real feelings, completely convincing.
4. Getting the facts right
Many crime novel fans are also avid TV crime drama fans with an in-depth feel for what rings true and what doesn’t. We’re not particularly easily fooled. Take any of the books by Lee Child. Or any other top crime thriller writer. They do their research. They get their facts right.
Today’s crime detection tools are more sophisticated than ever. Innovative new technologies are revealed regularly by scientists, covering super-cool developments in crime-related DNA analysis, forensic anthropology, pathology, forensic criminology, psychiatry, psychology and even computer forensics. If you’re reading a crime thriller set in the past, you expect a similar level of historical accuracy.
Library Journal rates the legal thriller writer Linda Fairstein’s best–selling Night Watch highly, saying:
“Fairstein’s extensive prosecutorial experience adds authenticity to this thrilling procedural.”
Fairstein obviously gets her facts right. And her fans obviously appreciate her eye for fine detail.
5. Keeping it real
Millions of people love CSI. But I’d be prepared to bet my last quid (or dollar) that very few crime labs have the spare cash to invest in all the latest technologies and gadgets. In the real world, police forces are limited by strict budgets.
For me, realism is key. Detectives are more likely to work out of shabby, badly-lit basements surrounded by sub-standard legacy technology than in spotlessly clean, high tech, all-singing, all-dancing laboratories with every new gadget in the known universe to hand.
6. Beautifully written
You can create a masterful plot, a little piece of crime thriller magic. You can weave a tale so compelling it’s impossible to forget. You can create characters readers love to love, or love to hate. You can be as accurate as the new optical lattice clocks, tested in the Paris Observatory. But if you write badly, it all falls apart.
Writing beautifully doesn’t just mean having a firm grasp of grammar and spelling. It’s about flow, elegance, beauty, the creative side of crime thriller writing. Take Lee Child, who comes in for some serious praise for his writing style, which is famously pared back and elegant, without a hint of purple prose. As the crime author Sean Black says:
“Like Hemingway, Lee Child stacks one simple declarative sentence on top of the other, building from paragraph to paragraph, chapter to chapter, and in the process creating in the reader a profound emotional shift.”
In other words, top dollar.
Want to read crime thrillers by an author like Scott Turow?
If you’re a dedicated crime novel reader hunting down books similar to Scott Turow, Faye Kellerman, Lee Child and Linda Fairstein, you can’t go far wrong with Joel’s Final Judgment. It’s the fifth in his Lou Mason series and as far as I’m concerned, it’s pure class on a stick.
The top selling crime author Michael Connelly calls Final Judgment, ‘a page turner of the highest caliber’. And he should know. As one of the planet’s best crime authors his dark and haunting masterpieces, starring the LAPD Detective Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch and the criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller, sell like hot cakes.
What about your criteria?
Who’s your favorite crime writer and why? Do they tick all the boxes I’ve mentioned, or have I missed a trick?
‘Final Judgement’ the 5th Lou Mason thriller
Image source: Ian-S