Monday, April 25, 2011
Putting the Crime in Crime Fiction
Often in crime novels, particularly in mysteries, the reader never witnesses the actual crime that is the subject of the story. Of course, there’s often good reason: showing the crime may very well remove most, if not all, of the mystery. Some mystery writers get around this by writing a prologue and keeping the details of the crime just vague enough to keep readers guessing. But there is a trend in crime fiction toward eliminating prologues – many editors prefer their authors to jump into their story by introducing the main character, usually a professional or amateur investigator.
The fact that the criminal act in crime fiction – usually a murder – takes place off screen may lead some aspiring writers to dive into their stories without first giving much thought to the villain and his villainous deeds. In my experience as both a writer and reader of crime fiction, this is a mistake. The crime itself – what James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Mystery calls “the plot behind the plot” – is one of the most important events in any mystery. Whether you use an outline or write by the seat of your pants, the subject crime of your story should be vivid in your mind before you draft the first sentence of Chapter One.
I recommend writing the scene in which the crime takes place, even if you don’t intend to use it in your story. Why? Well, for one, it’ll help you play fair with the reader. While creating your mystery, you’ll need to insert clues throughout, evidence clever readers will pick up on, even if they don’t figure out the ending. By writing the crime scene beforehand, you’ll be in a better position to map out your story and insert clues in just the right places. The same goes for the all-important red herrings. Misdirection in mysteries is every bit as important as truth.
The crime in my second novel NIGHT ON FIRE is the murder of a newlywed named Trevor Simms. The prime suspect is his new wife Erin. The killer in my novel attempted to cover his or her tracks by setting the crime scene – the honeymoon suite at a popular Hawaiian beach resort – on fire. The fire spread and left eleven innocents dead. The crime of arson complicated my novel more than I ever expected, because arson investigation is extremely difficult. Arson is a crime that destroys its own clues, and arsonists are rarely caught and convicted. Had I not planned the murder and arson in great detail prior to writing my novel, I’m certain I would have run into insurmountable obstacles midway through.
By conducting research and drafting the murder scene beforehand, I was able to plant invaluable clues throughout my story – the fire’s point of origin, the charcoal starter fluid used as an accelerant, and a dozen coins found in the hotel hallway, to name a few. Remember, the method of the crime is every bit as important as the investigation that follows. Save yourself some time and panic, and plan your crime in detail beforehand. (As an author and former defense attorney, I assure you, that advice works as well for crime writers as it does for criminals).