Between This Genre, That Genre*

Crossover WritersI’ve started a new manuscript (an occupational hazard for writers). This one’s not a Joel Williams mystery; in fact, it’s not really even a traditional-style whodunit, ‘though it is a crime novel. I’m pleased about the idea, but it’s still in its beginning stages, so we’ll see how it goes. The process of getting started on this story has got me thinking about other writers who make an even bigger leap with their stories than I am with mine.

Some authors have even written in different genres. Or, they’ve written both fiction and non-fiction. Or they’ve written both poetry and crime novels. That sort of ‘branching out’ is risky. After all, many people write what makes them comfortable, and perhaps even get a reputation and a following. Trying something new means building up a new audience, using different skills, and so on. To move on to something different isn’t always easy. But it can result in some excellent work. And it gives the author the chance to experiment and ‘stretch’ creatively.

As you’ll no doubt know, Edgar Allan Poe is often credited with pioneering the detective story. Works such as The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter are frequently cited as examples of detective fiction. But as you’ll also know, Poe was a master of the horror story, too. The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Black Cat are just a few examples.

More recently, Alan Orloff has done a similar thing. Under his own name, he’s written Diamonds for the Dead, Killer Routine and Deadly Campaign, all crime novels. Under the name Zak Allen, he’s written The Taste and First Time Killer, both of which are horror novels. You might argue (and you’d have a well-taken point!) that horror novels and crime novels are close cousins. But they do require different sorts of storytelling skills, and they appeal to different audiences. That sort of flexibility takes skill.

Agatha Christie, of course, is renowned for her mysteries. She wrote all sorts of plays, short stories and novels featuring crime and its investigation. And if you’re kind enough to read this blog with any kind of regularity, then you know what a fan I personally am of her crime fiction. But she also wrote novels that explore characters and trace their lives. Under the name of Mary Westmacott, she wrote stories such as Giant’s Bread and A Daughter’s a Daughter, that explore love in its different forms, and provide interesting character studies. In those novels, the focus is on psychology and relationships, rather than on crime. And she’s by no means the only one to write both romance and crime fiction (Am I right, fans of Georgette Heyer?)

More recently, Paddy Richardson has written both well-regarded literary fiction (such as The Company of a Daughter) and well-regarded crime fiction (such as Hunting Blind and Swimming in the Dark). And she’s not only one who’s made that ‘literary crossover.’ Many other literary writers have also written crime fiction.

Some of them have been poets. For instance, Cecil Day-Lewis was the UK’s Poet Laureate. His collections are extremely highly regarded. Under his own name, he also wrote some literary novels. As fans will know, he also wrote a series of crime novels under the name of Nicholas Blake. His sleuth in those stories is Nigel Strangeways, who is, like his creator, a poet. And that’s an interesting example of the ways in which one’s writing in one genre/type of book can influence one’s writing in another.

Isaac Asimov gained a worldwide reputation as a scientist and an author of science textbooks. He was also a skilled writer of science fiction, such as the Foundation series. With his name made, as the saying goes, in that field, Asimov also created a short series of crime novels featuring Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. Baley is a homicide detective in a futuristic New York, which bears all the hallmarks of Asimov’s background in science fiction. But the stories (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, and the short story Mirror Image) are distinctly crime fiction.

There’s also Ausma Zehanat Khan, whose novels The Unquiet Dead and The Language of Secrets are crime novels featuring detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. They take place in contemporary Ontario, and focus on crimes and their investigations. Khan is also writing a fantasy series (at the moment, it’s scheduled as a quadrilogy). The first in this series, Bloodprint, is due to be published in 2017.

Elizabeth Spann Craig has written three mystery series. Under her own name, she writes the Myrtle Clover series; under the name of Riley Adams, she writes the Memphis Barbecue series. She also writes the Southern Quilting Mysteries. Recently, Craig has also ‘branched out’ and written a post-apocalyptic novel that includes zombies. It’s a big change from cosy mysteries to post-apocalypse, but Craig has made it successfully.

Of course, there are plenty of other authors, too, who have used their skills in more than one genre or type of writing. J.K. Rowling, Sara Paretsky, and before them, Charles Dickens, are just some examples. I know that you’ll have lots more in mind to share.

Have you read the same author in two different genres? What have you thought? Can authors do that effectively, so that you, as a reader, enjoy their work? If you’re a writer, have you experimented in different genres, or with a literary-to-genre move (or vice versa). What was it like for you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Utada Hikaru’s Crossover Interlude.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Cecil Day-Lewis, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Isaac Asimov, J.K. Rowling, Mary Westmacott, Nicholas Blake, Paddy Richardson, Riley Adams, Sara Paretsky, Zak Allen

50 responses to “Between This Genre, That Genre*

  1. Well, there’s the granddaddy of detective fiction, Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, who felt Sherlock Holmes was a distraction from his better and more important works – historical fiction and also science fiction featuring Dr. Challenger. (Sort of the same way Sir Arthur Sullivan felt those popular operettas with W. S. Gilbert were distracting people from paying attention to his serious compositions!)

    • Well, that’s quite true, Les, on both counts. Thanks. Interesting, isn’t it, how the things we focus on (or want to focus on) don’t turn out to be what really ‘make’ us, if I can put it that way.

  2. I think that for a writer it can be very interesting and stimulating to extend your range. I was asked to try my hand at a horror story for an anthology – something I would never otherwise have thought of doing. After being doubtful about whether I could pull it off, I really enjoyed it doing it – it flexed different writing muscles.
    Having said that, crime and horror are not so far apart: Conan Doyle wrote some good horror stories and Agatha wrote a few that might be classed as such.

  3. Well, I’m glad to hear you are working on something new and wish you the very best of luck and joy with it! I loved Lauren Beukes’ thoughts about genre: ‘Writers should be allowed to be promiscuous when it comes to genre: have passionate long-term love affairs, one-night stands, and stable marriage.’

    • Beukes’ words are fabulous, Marina Sofia – thanks for sharing them. And thanks for the kind words. I’m only just getting started, and you know how that is. But so far, I’m happy with the way the story has begun. We shall see how it goes.

  4. Tim

    Sublime: Isaac Asimov is also the author of a superb two book project in which he summarizes and analyzes Shakespeare’s plays and poems.
    Ridiculous: Gypsy Rose Lee, not known for being a writer, penned a not too bad crime/mystery novel back in the 40s (I think) when she was friends with (and occasional roommate with) the eccentric tribe at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn (i.e., Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, George Davis, Richard Wright, and more).

    • Those are two excellent examples, Tim, of exactly what I had in mind with this post, so thanks. It is interesting to see how many authors turn their hands to different sorts of writing, and how people in other fields also write crime fiction.

  5. kathyd

    I am fascinated by the different series written by Rebecca Cantrell. First, she wrote the four books starring Hannah Vogel, journalist in 1930s Germany. Next, she co-wrote a series of Gothic thrillers, then a light, witty mystery series and then a series about an agoraphobic disabled detective.

  6. Yes. In fact, I’m reading a fantastic book by Larry Brooks unlike anything he’s ever written. It’s about relationships, the pitfalls, the joys, the compromises, and how to find bliss and harmony in marriage or any loving relationship. I admit, I had my doubts when he first told me about it. But after reading three-quarters of it, I’m blown away.

  7. First off all the best wishes on your new project Margot 😊 Always interested in genre cross-pollination with Bester’s THE DEMOLISHED MAN a special favourite. It is interesting to me that some pseudonyms like Vine / Rendell or Banville / Black are just about letting the audience know what the type of story will be, rather than really make readers think that there was a different author at work.

    • Thank you, Sergio 🙂 – You know, I was thinking of that same thing – about names – when I was preparing this post. It is interesting, isn’t it, how some authors have done that. Rendell/Vine is definitely one example. And so is Rowling/Galbraith, now that we all know who ‘Robert Galbraith’ is. Hmm…that’s post-worthy in itself, so thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  8. Keishon

    Yeah, this is tricky business. I’ve enjoyed JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series but for some weird reason can’t finish her detective series with Cormoran Strike. She’s a brilliant writer but….different tastes and so forth.

    I’ve enjoyed Heyer’s work, mysteries only but she’s no Agatha Christie by no means. I’ve never read her romances either. There are authors who do that a lot though – write mysteries and romances. I liked Alina Adam’s skating mysteries but didn’t care for her romances. Loved both Penn Williamson’s mysteries and her romances under Penelope Williamson. Naturally, it just boils down to the talent of the writer.

    Good luck on your new manuscript Margot! Happy Fourth to you and your family.

    • I think you mentioned the key to the whole thing, Keishon: the way the author makes the switch between genres. Of course, it is also a matter of reader taste, too. Some readers like Heyer’s romances, for instance, but not her detective stories. Some like Rowland as Robert Galbraith, but not the Harry Potter mysteries. I also think it’s interesting to see the direction that authors choose. Some go towards romance, some towards horror, some towards sci-fi, etc..

      Thanks for the kind words about my manuscript. We shall see how it goes.

      • Keishon

        I remember when YA was the hottest thing and several authors like Harlan Coben, Kathy Reichs and others dived in. I can’t imagine that transition being that simple but it might be. Who knows.

        • I know a lot of authors did that, Keishon. Jane Casey was among them, as were the authors you’ve mentioned. It’s not an easy transition, I would guess. But they seem to have made it successfully.

  9. kathyd

    I never read the Harry Potter books, but have read the three by Richard Galbraith/J.K. Rowling. The protagonists are very interesting, but the brutality turns me off. Also, one book concludes with quite a sexist premise, which surprised me. The most recent book, “The Career of Evil,” has those earmarks of a serial killer, the chapters in italics. Brrr. Not a good trait, but
    I’ll still keep reading her books as some of the writing is very good.
    I’ve read the V.I. Warshawski series and stand-alones by Sara Paretsky. I liked “Bleeding Kansas,” quite anti-war, but I’m partial to the Chicago detective. I’ve known her since she became a detective in my hometown.
    Best of luck and good wishes on your new endeavor. Hope all goes well.

    • Thanks, Kathy – much appreciated. You bring up an interesting point about both Rowland/Galbraith and Paretsky: reader taste and reaction. Each reader has a different response and reaction do a given author/style. So the move between genres may work for one reader, but not another. Or, a given reader may prefer one or another of the author’s works. That makes it a bit risky for authors, but it does stretch them, as the saying goes.

  10. I think of Elmore Leonard with his crime stories and westerns. I like that he wrote what he felt like without regard for a pseudonym to differentiate his work. Just me and my writing…whatever.

  11. Margot: Among the 45 books written by Canadian author, Scott Young, are a pair of mysteries featuring Matthew “Matteesie” Kitogitak, an RCMP inspector in the NWT. Young wrote fiction and non-fiction. He was one of Canada’s best sports writers and a national sports broadcaster. When I was young I loved his trilogy of a young Manitoban reaching the NHL. As Neil Young’s father he wrote on their relationship in his book Neil and Me.

    • Oh, that is a great example, Bill, for which thanks. I have to confess, I know Young’s Matteesie Kitogitak books more than I do his others. But you are absolutely right that he didn’t just write mysteries. As I think about it, that reminds me a bit of Alison Gordon, who was also a sports writer as well as a crime writer.

  12. I just want to wish you all the best for the new ms, Margot. Enjoy the writing!

  13. Good luck with your new book, Margot!

  14. So glad to hear that you’re starting a new project! And thanks for the kind mention. I found writing in a new genre challenging but refreshing at the same time. 🙂 Hope you’ll be equally rejuvenated!

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. And it’s a pleasure to plug your work. I’ve only just gotten started with this new novel, so as you know, anything can happen. But so far, I’m enjoying it.

  15. A.M. Pietroschek

    When I searched for “zak allen first time killer” today I found your article on the first page of the results. One nice blend I remembered is notorious Jack the Ripper being explained due a murderous ghost possessing people, resulting in a supernatural background with pure crime fiction about each crime scene. Sadly the author name and book title fled from my memory.

  16. I love the idea of genre-hopping and recently advocated the practice in a guest blog post on The Writing Bug. In my humble opinion, writing in different genres stretches our imagination, challenges our writing ability, and gives us a chance to establish where we really belong as writers.

    My next book will release in late 2017, and even though it involves a crime, it’s more of a historical novel than it is crime fiction. In short stories, I’m playing with horror, ghosts, and romance. It’s lovely not to be stuck in a rut.

  17. Good luck with the new project, Margot! I think just about everyone has been mentioned by now, but Conan Doyle is the one who always springs to mind for me. More recently Ken Kalfus, a fine literary writer, branched out into sci-fi in his great book Equilateral – still literary but with a huge nod towards the greats of the sci-fi genre too.

    • Thank you, FictionFan 🙂 – I’m also glad you mentioned Kalfus. I have to confess I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about sci-fi as you are, so I’ve not read his sci-fi work. But it’s good to know he’s written a good ‘un. It’s a great example of the way an author can stretch by trying different sorts of novels.

  18. Excellent, Margot! Authors writing in more than one genre offers much food for thought. Ray Bradbury wrote sf and fantasy as well as mystery fiction and it’s possible he covered many more genres in scores of short fiction.

    • Thank you, Prashant. And thank you for mentioning Ray Bradbury. He did do all sorts of different sorts of fiction, didn’t he? It takes writing talent to be able to do that.

  19. Look forward to hearing more about the new project in due course Margot.
    When I started to hear about the True Blood vampire books and TV series a few years back, I was terribly surprised because I used to read and enjoy Charlaine Harris’s southern mysteries. Change of genre brought her big success…

    • It did, indeed, Moira. And that’s a good example of the impact there can be when an author makes a big change. And thanks for the good wishes; I’ll keep everyone updated…

  20. Col

    I was thinking of Elmore also, though you could argue Westerns are crime novels with hats! I’ve read a few from Dean Koontz over the years and he started as a sci-fi and horror author in his early days, before gravitating to mysteries/thrillers – though it’s hard to identify what’s what or what the difference is to be honest. Ditto Stephen King – he’s tried his hand at crime and mystery fiction.

    • You put that very well, Col, about Westerns. They certainly share a lot of similarities with crime fiction. And thanks for mentioning both Koontz and King. Both are versatile writers, indeed.

  21. tracybham

    Two of my favorite examples: Len Deighton writes mostly spy fiction but has also written historical novels and historical non-fiction. Jo Walton is best know for her fantasy writings but did write an alternate history trilogy (which are also mysteries).

    Glad to hear that you are working on a new manuscript and are challenging yourself to go in a different direction.

    • Thanks, Tracy 🙂 – So far, so good. And you’re right that Deighton’s written a wide variety of fiction (and non-fiction). Walton, too, ‘though I confess I know her work less well.

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