Some authors focus on crime fiction right from the beginning and stay within that genre. Others though, write in other genres first (or also), and ‘cross over’ into crime fiction. Writing in more than one genre can add to a writer’s style, lending it a sort of distinctiveness. And it’s sometimes nice to remember that the lines between genres are often blurred, and the distinctions made between them are sometimes a little arbitrary.
For instance, Isaac Asimov was perhaps best known as a writer of science fiction and non-fiction. He also wrote several textbooks on various topics in science. But he also ‘crossed over’ into crime fiction. His Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley series features New York homicide detective Lije Baley, who lives and works in a futuristic megacity, of which New York City is the hub. In The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn, he works with R. Daneel Olivaw, a positronic robot. The two become friends as well as investigation partners. In this series, we see clearly the influence of Asimov’s background as a scientist. We also see of course the elements of crime stories too (i.e. a murder or murders and the investigation).
Elmore Leonard became best-known for his crime novels (e.g. Get Shorty, Cuba Libre and many others). But he actually started by writing Westerns. Fans will know for instance that the 1957 film Hombre is based on his 1951 novel by the same name. Although many of Leonard’s crime novels take place in cities (rather than ‘out West’) one can see the influence of his Western beginnings. There’s the complicated ‘good guy/bad guy’ theme, the ‘showdown’ and other kinds of plot threads that are similar (or perhaps that’s just my interpretation) to what we see in Westerns.
Sophie Hannah has become well-known as an author of crime fiction, starting with 2007’s Little Face. That novel introduces DS Charlie Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse, and the series featuring them continues through the just-released Kind of Cruel. But Hannah wasn’t always a crime writer. She began her writing career as a poet, with 1993’s Early Bird Blues. Hannah’s crime novels focus on crimes and their investigation, but it’s also easy to see the influence of her experience writing poetry. The novels include the kind of imagery that makes the reader think of poetry. Here for instance is a snippet from Little Face:
‘I walk across the cobbled yard and down the mud and gravel path, carrying only my handbag. I feel light and strange. The trees look as if they are knitted from bright wools: reds and browns and the occasional green. The sky is the colour of wet slate. This is not the same ordinary world that I used to walk around in. Everything is more vivid, as if the physical backdrop I once took for granted is clamouring for my attention.’
It’s not hard to see the influence of poetry in Hannah’s crime writing.
We also see the voice of the poet in Qiu Xiaolong’s crime novels. Qiu has become well-known as the author of the Detective Chen series (i.e. Death of a Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer), but he is also a poet (e.g. Lines Around China) and translator of poetry (e.g. Evoking Tang). And it’s easy to see the influence of poetry in the Chen series. The novels include quotes from poems, and Chen himself loves poetry. Here’s just a tiny bit from A Loyal Character Dancer:
‘He [Chen] took a collection of ci out of his briefcase and opened to a poem by Niu Xiji. The mist disappearing / against the spring mountains, / the stars few, small / in the pale skies, / the sinking moon illuminates her face, / the dawn in her glistening tears / at parting… It was too sentimental for the morning.
Poetry is woven throughout these novels.
Paddy Richardson’s crime novels (Hunting Blind, Traces of Red and Cross Fingers) have gotten her very well-deserved attention. In fact Hunting Blind was a 2011 finalist for New Zealand’s prestigious Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. And speaking personally, I recommend Richardson’s crime novels enthusiastically. But Richardson’s writing career didn’t start with crime writing. Her 2000 novel The Company of A Daughter is a literary/historical novel that follows five generations of women in the same family. She’s also written A Year to Know a Woman as well as two collections of short stories (Choices and If We Were Lebanese). It’s not hard to see that literary influence, if I can put it that way, on Richardson’s crime novels. They are of course stories that feature crimes and their investigations. But they also explore relationships, family histories and personal journeys. For example, in both Traces of Red and Cross Fingers, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne takes an interest in cases of murder and uses her journalistic skills, contacts and experience to find the answers. So they are very much crime novels. At the same time, we see the evolution of Thorne’s view of herself, her relationships with family and friends and her exploration of New Zealand life. So in that sense, the novels have the hallmarks of literary novels as well as crime novels.
Wendy James is an accomplished crime novelist; her Out of the Silence won Australia’s 2006 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel. And The Mistake is also (in my opinion) a well-written novel that features a crime (or is it?). In both novels we see the elements of talented crime writing. But at the same time, James is a skilled literary novelist. The Steele Diaries isn’t really a crime novel. Instead, it focuses on families, the choices people make, and what happens when those choices are very different to what others expect. It’s easy to see the influence of that literary background on James’ crime novels too. The Mistake, for instance, is as much about family dynamics and the implosion of a family as it is about a crime. It’s about enduring relationships and those that don’t endure, and why that happens. It’s also about class distinctions.
And that’s the thing about authors who work in other genres but who also write crime novels. Their special experience in other genres adds to their crime novels and makes them distinctive. As ever, there’s only so much room in one post for mentioning examples of this kind of ‘crossover’ writing. Your turn.
ps Thanks to Moira at Clothes in Books for the inspiration for this post!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ Break on Through (to the Other Side).