In several ways, a high-quality crime novel is a lot like a successful tightrope act. The author has to balance several different elements and that balance depends on a lot of factors (e.g. sub-genre and the sort of plot the author’s creating). Because of those factors, each author’s balance is likely to be a bit different, and that’s all to the good. Readers are all different and have different preferences, so the variety that comes from “walking the tightrope” in different ways is probably a good thing. One could think of lots of balances authors have to strike; I’m just going to touch on a few of them here.
Narrative vs Dialogue
As with most balances, there is no right answer as to how much dialogue vs how much description there should be in a story. Some authors keep the description to a minimum and use more dialogue. Their spare writing style suggests more than describes and there’s something to be said for that. For example, Håkan Nesser’s writing tends to include less narrative. In The Unlucky Lottery for example, Intendant Münster and his team investigate the stabbing death of Waldemar Leverkuhn, who was killed on the night he discovered that he and some of his friends had purchased a winning lottery ticket. Because Leverkuhn’s friends had gone in with him on the lottery ticket, they fall under suspicion. So do the members of Leverkuhn’s family, since family members are more likely than anyone to have a hidden motive for murder. The other residents of the building where the Leverkuhns live are investigated as well. In this novel Nesser doesn’t rely on long descriptions or narrative although there is some detail. Here, for instance is a conversation Leverkuhn has with his wife Marie-Louise as he gets ready to leave to celebrate the win with his friends:
“‘Where are you going?’ [Marie-Louise]
‘To buy a tie.’
There was a clicking noise from her false teeth, twice, as always happened when she was irritated by something.
‘Why are you going to buy a tie? You already have fifty.’
‘I’ve grown tired of them….
‘You don’t need to cook a meal tonight.’ [Leverkuhn]
‘Eh? What do you mean by that?’
‘I’m eating out.’”
Here Nesser uses dialogue to show not just the state of the relationship between Leverkuhn and his wife but also to let the reader know that Marie-Louise doesn’t know about the lottery win.
Some writers strike this balance by using more description and narrative, and that can work well too. For example, James Lee Burke uses narrative very effectively to place the reader in the Southern Louisiana setting of most of his novels. Here for instance is a scene from The Tin Roof Blowdown, in which Burke’s sleuth Dave Robicheaux investigates the disappearance of his old friend Jude LeBlanc in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. His search ends up being related to another case he’s working: the shooting death of a looter who with two other looters made the mistake targeting the home of a wealthy mobster. Here’s a description of what New Orleans looks like after Katrina:
“From a boat or any other elevated position, as far as the eye could see, New Orleans looked like a Caribbean city that had collapsed beneath the waves. The sun was merciless in the sky, the humidity like lines of ants crawling inside your clothes. The linear structure of a neighborhood could be recognized only by the green smudge of yard trees that cut the waterline and row upon row of rooftops dotted with people who perched on sloped shingles that scalded their hands.”
Both approaches to writing – spare and lean with emphasis on dialogue, and rich in narrative – can be very effective when they’re done well. That’s why this decision isn’t always an easy one.
“Body Count” and Violence vs “Gorebage”
How many murders and how much violence should there be in a well-written crime novel? That’s a difficult balance too for an author. After all, a murder mystery involves, well, murder. That entails violence. There’s also the fact that readers want to remain engaged in the story. They want suspense and a reasonable number of twists and turns. Sometimes, that involves more than one murder. On the other hand, I’m sure we’ve all encountered novels where there was so much gore and violence that there was no room for an actual plot or characters. This balance, like every other balance, depends a lot on the sub-genre, the sort of mystery the author’s writing, and other factors.
Some authors use little or no gory violence in their novels. For instance, one of the most famous of Agatha Christie’s novels is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Hercule Poirot has moved to the small village of King’s Abbott to retire and raise vegetable marrows. His peace and quiet is short-lived though when Flora Ackroyd begs him to find the murderer of her uncle, retired magnate Roger Ackroyd. The most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton but Flora, who is Paton’s fiancée, is sure he’s innocent. And as Poirot discovers, there are several other people in Ackroyd’s life who had a motive for murder. This novel really features only one murder – Ackroyd’s. And although Ackroyd’s been stabbed Christie doesn’t go into any real description of the body or the act. And yet the story has plenty of twists and turns to keep readers turning pages, and one of the most famous dénouements in crime fiction.
Other stories, even those not featuring serial killers, are more violent. There are several murders and they are ugly murders. Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari is like that. Emma le Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to travel with her from Capetown to the Lowveld where Emma’s brother Jacobus disappeared years earlier. When she learns that he may still be alive, she wants to find out the truth about what’s happened to him. It turns out that his disappearance is related to environmentalism, corruption and high-level politics. In this novel, some very nasty people target both Emma le Roux and Martin Lemmer. In order to keep the truth hidden, there are two other murders as well and they are brutal. This amount of violence works in this novel in part because of the sort of story it is and in part because it’s a thriller.
Length vs Brevity
This can be a very difficult balance for an author. Stories that are too short may not allow for enough character development to interest the reader, and their plots may be too linear. But we’ve all had the experience of getting mired in doorstop-sized tomes that could have told the story in less than half the number of pages. I don’t have the right answer for exactly how many pages a well-written mystery novel should have (although I know many publishers have suggested word counts). But I do know that some very high-quality crime fiction novels are short.
For instance, Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone is the story of the murders of four members of the Coverdale family. From the beginning of the novel we know who the murderer is. The real suspense in the story – and there is quite a lot of it – comes as we learn why the murders were committed and what events exactly led up to the killings. This story includes (at least in my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do) well-developed characters and a solid and interesting “fleshed out” plot. Yet it’s not a long book; my edition is only 188 pages.
Does that mean a longer book can’t be really well-written? I don’t think so. Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) is the very well-regarded story of Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck and his assistant Hafez al-Assad, who together comprise the new “Department Q.” That department’s purpose is to investigate cases of “special interest,” and the first such case that this team takes up is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. Everyone’s always believed that she drowned in a terrible ferry accident, but Mørck and Assad discover that she may actually still be alive. This novel, which (in my opinion) keeps the reader’s interest throughout, is just shy of 400 pages.
The balance of factors such as length, kind and amount of violence, and how much narrative or dialogue to use is a difficult balance for any author. And it’s not made easier by the fact that readers’ tastes vary when it comes to these factors. What are your thoughts? Which factors do you think are balanced well in your favourite crime fiction? If you’re a writer, how do you “walk the tightrope?”
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Tightrope.