Category Archives: Daphne du Maurier

But You Just Keep Me Hanging on Again*

Building Tension Without GoreI think most of us would agree that a high-quality crime novel builds tension and suspense without resorting to a lot of gore and gratuitous violence. Everyone’s idea of what ‘counts’ as ‘too much’ or ‘gratuitous’ violence is likely to be a little different. But all of us have our limit. And there are ways to keep people turning and swiping pages without a bloodbath.

How, exactly, does a crime writer go about that, though? How can an author keep the tension strong in other ways? Here are just a few of my ideas. I’m sure you’ll have your own, too, and I’d love to learn from them.


Creepy Settings

Eerie settings can take on a life of their own, as the saying goes. When they’re depicted well, they can add quite a lot of suspense to a story. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle uses Baskerville Hall to good effect in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In that novel, Sherlock Holmes sends Dr. Watson to Baskerville Hall on Dartmoor to help investigate the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville. Legend has it that the Baskerville family is cursed by a phantom hound, and that’s the reason for his death. Holmes isn’t sure that’s true, though. In any case, family friend Dr. Mortimer wants to prevent a similar fate for the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville. As you can imagine, Sir Charles’ death has a much more prosaic explanation than a curse. One interesting thing about this story is that there isn’t a lot of violence in it. The tension and suspense aren’t built that way. The setting, though, is eerie. First, there’s the bleak moor, which at night is not exactly a warm, welcoming place. There’s the house itself, too, which

‘…was a heavy block of building from which a porch projected. The whole front was draped in ivy, with a patch clipped bare here and there where a window or coat-of-arms broke through the dark veil. From this central block rose the twin towers, ancient, crenelated, and pierced with many loopholes.’

It’s certainly not a cheerful, bright place.

Neither is the eponymous lodging that features in Daphne’s du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Also located on Dartmoor (hmm……), it’s owned by Joss Merlyn and his wife Patience. Their niece, Mary Yellan, goes to stay with them when her mother dies. Before she even arrives, she’s warned about the place; and when she arrives, she finds that the warnings have been more than justified:

‘She [Mary] went out of the room and into the dark passage, bumping against the settle in the hall, and so upstairs, feeling her way with her hands, judging her whereabouts by turning round and facing the stairs again. Her uncle had told her the room over the porch, and she crept across the dark landing, which was unlit, past two doors on either side – guest rooms, she imagined, waiting for those travelers who never came nowadays, nor sought shelter beneath the roof of Jamaica Inn – and then stumbled against another door and turned the handle, and saw by the flickering flame of her candle that this was her room, for her trunk lay on the floor.

Not the sort of place that suggests a happy, warm story. Like The Hound of the Baskervilles, the violence is more implied than depicted in detail (although there is more of it in this story). The setting builds the tension as much as anything else does.


The Elements


Along with physical setting, authors can also use the elements to build tension without getting gory. In Nevada Barr’s Firestorm, for instance, US National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon has been sent to Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. She’s to serve as a medic for those fighting a wildfire – the Jackson fire – in the area. Weather predictions are for colder air and snow to move in, so the hope is that the firefighters will soon be able to leave the area. Pigeon and a small group remain behind, though, to help an injured comrade. That’s when a freak thunderstorm forms and changes everything. A firestorm is whipped up, and all of the team dives for cover in individual shelters. When the storm passes, the firefighters check on each other only to find that one of them has been murdered. Now, Pigeon has to help the other exhausted firefighters, and at the same time find out who the killer is. This novel uses the quickly-changing and dangerous elements to add suspense to the story, rather than a very high ‘body count,’ or a lot of brutal gore.

That’s also true of Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, which introduces his sleuth, Sheriff Walt Longmire. In this novel, Longmire and his deputy, Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti investigate two murders, both of young men who were involved in a previous rape. There are a number of possibilities, including that the family of the rape victim has exacted vengeance. Although the story has some dark elements, it’s not a really gory novel. And the violence that there is, is not extended. Part of what builds the tension here is a snowstorm that moves in during a trek that Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear make to try to prevent a third murder. The weather is brutal, and the two men are at serious risk. That’s what adds to the suspense, rather than a lot of violence.


Psychological Tension


Authors can also use the buildup of psychological tension to invite readers to stay engaged in a story. That’s what Agatha Christie does in And Then There Were None. In that novel, ten people visit Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. They’re all there for different reasons, but as we learn early on, they’ve all been deliberately brought to the island. After dinner on the first night, each is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Shortly afterwards, one of them suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, another dies. Soon enough, it’s clear that someone is trying to kill all of them. The survivors have to find out who that person is, and stay alive themselves. Admittedly, there’s a higher ‘body count’ here than there is in some of Christie’s other work. But the deaths are not described in ugly, gory detail. The real tension lies in the growing paranoia and the knowledge that someone in the same house is a killer.

Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train also uses a solid buildup of psychological tension. The real action in that novel begins when Guy Haines travels across country by train to visit his estranged wife Miriam, from whom he’s hoping to get a divorce. While he’s en route, he meets Charles Anthony Bruno. The two men get to talking, and before very long, Bruno proposes that each man commit the other man’s murder. He will kill Haines’ wife if Haines kills his father. At first, Haines doesn’t take Bruno seriously. But then, Bruno actually kills Miriam, and demands that Haines fulfil his side of the bargain. Now Haines has a terrible dilemma. In this novel, the violence isn’t the main part of the story, really. It’s the buildup of psychological tension as we slowly see the kind of person Bruno really is, and as Haines tries desperately to get out of his situation.

There are a lot of other ways, too, to ramp up the suspense in a story without a bloodletting. Which keep your interest the most? If you’re a writer, how do you build suspense without gore?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hooters’ Hanging on a Heartbeat.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Daphne du Maurier, Nevada Barr, Patricia Highsmith

In The Spotlight: Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s sometimes quite an overlap between what we think of as the Gothic novel, and what we think of as crime fiction. It’s not surprising, either, when you consider what makes these genres ‘tick.’ To show you what I mean, let’s turn today’s spotlight on an interesting example of crime fiction that also ‘counts,’ I think, as Gothic fiction. Let’s take a closer look at Daphne du Maurier’s historical novel Jamaica Inn.

As the novel begins, it’s 1820 in Cornwall, and twenty-three-year-old Mary Yellan is in a coach on her way from her home in Helford to Jamaica Inn, between Bodmin and Launceston. The weather is horrible, the road is lonely, and several people have already warned Mary about Jamaica Inn, but she has an important reason for going: she’s keeping a promise she made to her now-dead mother. Mary’s Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn run Jamaica Inn, and it was her mother’s last wish that she should go to them.

When Mary finally arrives at the inn, she sees right away that it’s a cold, forbidding place. From the first moment, her Uncle Joss is boorish and abusive. He treats Mary badly and Patience even worse, and he’s physically strong enough to do far worse damage than verbal insults. Patience is, as you can imagine, frightened and passive, doing everything she can to keep her husband from having an outburst.

As if the domestic situation weren’t bad enough, the inn itself is not hospitable. No-one ever stays there. Mary’s been told it’s because the inn has a bad reputation, but it’s never been made clear to her exactly why. It seems that the locals are too afraid of Joss to talk about it. For another thing, the place is old and in need of repair and refurbishing. It’s not in the least bit comfortable.

Mary is lonely and unhappy at the inn, disgusted by her uncle, and homesick for Helford. But she is also worried about Aunt Patience. She is sure that her aunt won’t survive long without her presence. So she grits her teeth and stays. It’s not long before she learns that something eerie is going on at the inn. Strange people come to the inn at night, seem to leave boxes there, and then go away again. When she asks her aunt about it, the only response she gets is fear, and the admonition to say nothing and do nothing.

With Aunt Patience unwilling or unable to help, Mary can’t resist trying to get some answers for herself. Her determination to take care of Aunt Patience as best she can, and to find out the truth, get her into very grave danger, especially when Joss discovers that she’s found out more than she should. Matters only get worse as Mary learns more and more of the Merlyn family history, and even more so when she learns what the inn is really hiding.

Then, there’s murder. Now, Mary is in peril not just because of what she knows about the inn, but because the killer may strike again. She’ll have to get to safety if she’s to stay alive.

This story has several elements of the Gothic novel in it. For one thing, there’s the crumbling and truly creepy inn. Here, for instance, is a description of Mary’ room:

‘The walls were rough and unpapered, and the floorboards bare. A box turned upside down served as a dressing-table, with a cracked looking-glass on top…The bed creaked when she [Mary] leaned upon it, and the two thin blankets felt damp to her hand…A noise came from the far end of the yard, a curious groaning sound like an animal in pain. It was too dark to see clearly, but she could make out a dark shape swinging gently to and fro. For one nightmare of a moment…she thought it was a gibbet and a dead man hanging. And then she realized it was the signboard of the inn, that…had become insecure upon its nails and now swung backwards, forwards, with the slightest breeze.’

It really isn’t a pleasant place. The terrain is inhospitable, too, with rain, chill and fog. It’s bleak and blasted.

Also present here, as in many Gothic novels, is the element of horror and fear. A few times in the novel. Mary is in very real danger, and we feel her vulnerability. There’s one scene, for instance, where some of Joss Merlyn’s compatriots come to the inn for drinks and food. When they meet Mary, they make no secret of what they’d like to do with her, and it is scary. There’s also a sense that she has nowhere very much to turn. There’s also an element of murky history in the novel, as we learn how the Merlyns came to own the inn and why everyone dislikes the family so much. And there’s real horror when Mary discovers the truth about the inn.

Mary is the central character in the novel, and her battle of wits with Joss forms an important thread of tension and suspense. But there are other characters who figure in the story. For instance, there’s Joss’ brother Jeremiah ‘Jem.’ He’s a self-admitted horse thief and opportunist who dislikes his brother almost as much as Mary does. And there’s Francis Davey, the Vicar of Altarnun. He’s an enigmatic man who has a way of being unnerving, even as he remains soft-spoken and calm. At the same time as Mary depends on his help, she also is anxious about him. There’s also Squire Bassatt, from whom the Merlyns bought the inn. He, too, has a history with the family.

As to Mary Yellan herself, she’s smart, resourceful and brave. She’s badly frightened by what happens at the inn, and sickened when she finds out the real truth about it. And, like anyone else in a similar kind of danger, she is both vulnerable and anxious. But at the same time, she is doggedly determined not to give up. She is faced with some difficult choices and situations, but she doesn’t shrink from what she has to do.

The story takes place in 1820, and was published in 1936, so as you can imagine, there are a lot of attitudes that we might find offensive today. And there’s a great deal of sexism, and even some misogyny. Mary herself is a product of the times, and sometimes behaves in ways that today’s young women would eschew. In that sense, the novel is a period piece, if you can use that term for an historical novel.

The mystery itself – what is really happening at Jamaica Inn and why – makes sense given the context, and the truth is very sad. The solution to that and the murder case is at the same time sad and quite scary. Like other Gothic novels, this one has a hint of otherworldliness about it, but it isn’t a supernatural sort of story. Rather, it’s the spooky feeling that the old, creaky inn, strange characters, layers of lies and bleak setting give to the story.

Jamaica Inn is the story of what happens when a young woman tests her limits in a truly eerie place. It features a harsh setting, a tragic case of mystery and murder, and some enigmatic characters. But what’s your view? Have you read Jamaica Inn? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 27 July/Tuesday 28 July – The Blackhouse – Peter May

Monday 3 August/Tuesday 4 August – Working Girls – Maureen Carter

Monday 10 August/Tuesday 11 August – Massacre Pond – Paul Doiron


Filed under Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn

And All the Sinners Saints*

Interesting CriminalsIn an interesting post at Col’s Criminal Library, Col makes the point that criminals can be interesting, even engaging, protagonists – at least as interesting as ‘good guys.’ I think he has a well-taken point. There are plenty of cases where a criminal is the protagonist, or at least a strong main character, and is appealing, even sympathetic. It takes a lot of careful work on the part of the author. Most of us aren’t primed to like people who commit crimes. But when it’s done well, having a criminal as the protagonist or a main character can add an interesting innovation to a story.

For example, in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, we meet twenty-three-year-old Mary Yellan, who’s grown up contented in Helford. When her mother dies, she fulfils a promise she made and travels to Cornwall, where her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss keep Jamaica Inn. Even during the trip, Mary’s been warned about the inn, and told she’d be better off not going. But, determined to keep her promise, Mary perseveres. From the moment she arrives, though, she learns that all of the gossip about the place seems to be true. Uncle Joss is boorish, dangerous and abusive. Aunt Patience is mentally fragile and frightened into docility. Mostly out of compassion for her aunt, Mary remains and tries to make herself useful. But it’s not long before some frightening things begin to happen. One of the main characters in this story is Joss’ brother Jeremiah ‘Jem.’ Jem is a self-admitted horse thief and opportunist who leads a far from blameless life. He’s gotten into his share of trouble. But he is portrayed as an interesting, even sympathetic character. He doesn’t make light of the things he’s done; at the same time though, there are positive aspects to his personality and choices, so that he becomes a more rounded sort of character.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank is the story of professional thief Mike Daniels and his team mates. They’ve decided to pull off a major heist – one that will set them up for life. Their target is the City Savings Deposit Bank. The problem is that the bank is of course equipped with the latest in surveillance and security. So in order to so the job, they’ll need to work with an architect. Daniels finds such a person in Stephen Booker, who’s recently been let go, and has taken a job as a night cab driver. One night, Daniels happens to be in Booker’s cab, and the two get to talking. As time goes by, they talk more and more; finally, Daniels lets Booker in on the scheme. At first, Booker is reluctant; he has stereotyped views of criminal, and certainly doesn’t want to be one. But Daniels slowly persuades him otherwise. The team now makes its final plans, and the heist proceeds. But then a sudden storm changes everything. In this novel, Daniels and the other thieves are portrayed as friendly, sympathetic characters, whose profession just happens to be illegal.

Stealing is one thing; killing is another. And yet, there are books and series where murderers are portrayed as interesting characters. For example, in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, we are introduced to eighty-year-old George Wilcox. From the beginning of the novel, we know that he has murdered eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. When the killing is reported to the police, RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg begins the investigation. It isn’t very long before Alberg begins to suspect that, at the very least, Wilcox knows more than he is saying. And soon, he is sure that Wilcox is guilty. But he can’t get the evidence he needs to link Wilcox to the crime. What’s more, he can’t find any sort of motive. As he gets to know Wilcox better, he learns more about the man, and we find that Wilcox is hardly the stereotypical hardened and unsympathetic criminal. He is a peaceful, garden-loving, (generally) law-abiding man. There’s a lot to like about his character. And yet, he has committed murder, and he knows he’ll need to outsmart Alberg if he’s going to get away with it. So he also shows himself to be a quick thinker and a shrewd one. He’s an interesting character.

So is Vuk, a Bosnian Serb who was raised in Denmark, and whom we meet in Leif Davidsen’s The Serbian Dane. In the novel, he is hired to kill Sara Santanda, an Iranian author who’s been sentenced to die by the Ayatollahs of Iran. He’s up against Per Toflund, who is a security expert with the Danish national police. Toflund and his team have been charged with protecting Santanda during her trip to Denmark, where she is scheduled to give a newspaper interview. As the novel goes on, we learn a good deal about Vuk, his experiences growing up and later, his experiences during the war in the former Yugoslavia. Vuk isn’t portrayed as a unidimensional ‘killing machine.’ Rather, he is given a solid backstory and some layers to his personality.

We also see that with several of the characters in Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy. In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye and The Sudden Arrival of Violence, readers learn about the lives of Glasgow’s crime leaders. We also learn about the paid assassins they hire to take care of their ‘problems.’ These are not mindless brutes, although there is certainly plenty of violence inherent in what they do. They’re people of business, who map out their plans in ways that are similar to those who own legal businesses. And the people they hire to do their killing are just as professional – well, the skilled ones are. This trilogy offers a really interesting look at the lives of those involved in Glasgow’s underworld. On the one hand, they aren’t at all light ‘caper’ novels. On the other, they show these people as interesting, rounded characters.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos. This story’s focus is a woman who’s recently been released from prison, where she served time for murder. She’s given housing and settles in with her companion, a Pit Bull named Sully. For a time, she and Sully do all right. But then, a woman whose child attends the nearby child care facility complains about Sully. Then the local council gets involved and forces Sully’s human companion to give him up, as he’s a restricted breed. As she plots her revenge, we get to know her and her story. And we see that there is much more to this protagonist than just the fact that she killed someone.

It can be a challenge to create a criminal, especially a murderer, who is interesting and sympathetic. But when it’s done well, such characters can add leaven to a story. Which ones stay in your mind?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.


Filed under Angela Savage, Daphne du Maurier, L.R. Wright, Leif Davidsen, Malcolm Mackay, Robert Pollock

There’s a Light Burning in the Fireplace*

Creepy InssIf you’ve ever been on a road trip, you may know this feeling. You’ve been driving for a while, and decide to stop somewhere for the night and start looking for a place to stay. After all, you’re tired and you could use a meal and maybe some TV before bed. Then you see it: a light ahead of you beckoning you to a motel or inn where you can spend the night. Sounds warm and comforting, right? Just the ticket. Well… perhaps not. If you read enough crime fiction, then you know that there are all kinds of inns, motels and B&B’s that aren’t at all what they seem. I’ve only got space for a few examples here, but they should be enough to give you the idea.

In Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…), a man calling himself Enoch Arden arrives at the village of Warmsley Vale. He takes a room at a local inn called The Stag and settles in. A few mornings later he’s found dead of what looks like a blow from a blunt instrument. Hercule Poirot has already gotten interested in events at Warmsley Vale and he investigates to find out who killed the victim and why. It turns out that the dead man was connected to a dispute among the members of the Cloade family over the will of patriarch Gordon Cloade. Cloade always promised his brothers Jeremy and Lionel and his sister Adela that he’d take care of the family. Then he shocked everyone by marrying a widow Rosaleen Underhay. After his tragic death in a World War II bombing incident, it came out that he’d never changed his will. Now Rosaleen is set to inherit her husband’s considerable wealth, leaving her in-laws with nothing. Before his death, ‘Enoch Arden’ hinted that Rosaleen’s first husband is still alive. If so, then her marriage to Gordon Cloade isn’t legal and she cannot inherit. Now Poirot has to sort out what’s going on in the Cloade family to find out the truth about the death. Christie wrote other stories too that are set in dangerous places to lodge (I know, I know, fans of At Bertram’s Hotel).

One of the eerier inns in fiction is Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Mary Yellan travels to Bodmin, on the Cornish coast, to obey her mother’s deathbed wish that she join her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss at the inn they run. On the one hand, she isn’t happy about leaving the only home she’s ever known. On the other, she wants to respect her mother’s wish, and she’s looking forward to a reunion with her aunt, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Even the coachman who takes her there warns her about the inn, but Mary is determined to go ahead with her plan. At first all goes quietly enough, although it seems odd that no-one ever stays at the inn. But then Mary discovers the reason. The inn is really a cover for some sinister things going on. As she finds out more and more about what’s really happening, she also finds that she’s in great danger herself. This is one of those novels that people don’t always think of when they think about crime fiction, but at least in my opinion, it qualifies. There is plenty of crime, including murder, in the story…

In Ross Macdonald’s short story The Singing Pigeon, PI Lew Archer is heading north from the Mexican border with California. He decides to stop for the night at a seedy-looking motel called the Siesta. When he first arrives, there’s no-one at the front desk although the main door’s unlocked. After a wait, the motel’s owner finally appears and gives Archer a room. The next morning, Archer is wakened by a young woman’s screaming. He rushes out of his room to the room next door to see what’s going on, and almost immediately it’s clear that no-one is going to tell him the truth. There’s blood on the bed sheets and the young woman who screamed starts to say something about it but she’s soon hushed up. The owner, who turns out to be her father, says that one of the guests had a nosebleed. Archer is sure that the man is lying but since there is no body, there’s not much he can do. He checks out of the Siesta and drives off. Not very far away, he finds the body of a man and makes the obvious inference. He returns to the motel and little by little, he finds out the truth about the dead man and his connection to the Siesta and the family who owns it.

And then there’s the B&B featured in Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady. Billy Weaver has just come to London from Bath to start a new job. He plans to stay at the Bell and Dragon, but as he’s on his way there, he happens to pass a small, homey-looking place with a B&B sign. On impulse, he decides to go in. He’s greeted immediately by a pleasant landlady who makes him welcome and assures him that there’s a room for him. The place is clean and comfortable, so Weaver decides to stay there instead of at the Bell and Dragon. Later, his landlady asks him to sign the guest register. As he does so, Weaver notices that two other names in the register are familiar to him. Little by little, he works out why. And by the time he does, well… this is one of Dahl’s creative crime stories. You can read it yourself right here.

Fans of Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret will know that he often stays at inns when he and his team investigate a case. That’s what happens in Maigret and the Yellow Dog (AKA The Yellow Dog), which takes place in the village of Concarneau. In that novel, M. Mostaguen leaves the Admiral Hotel, where he’s been spending time with a group of his friends. Somewhat the worse for wear after quite a bit of drinking, he tries to light a cigar. It’s windy though, so he steps into a nearby doorway. That’s when he’s shot and badly wounded by someone who’s been lurking in the house. Maigret and his team are called in and begin to investigate. They take up temporary quarters at the Admiral and get to know M. Mostaguen’s regular group of drinking friends. On the night Maigret meets them though, someone tampers with a bottle of wine that they’re sharing, and the group comes very close to being poisoned. Now it looks as though someone is targeting the town’s leading citizens. Then, there’s a death. Now it’s clear that the detective team is up against a killer. And part of the truth about the events in Concarneau can be found right at the inn where the team is lodging…

So if you’re planning a road trip this weekend, do be careful where you stay. You never know what might be lurking behind that friendly-looking sign for the motel or inn. It might be better to book your room ahead of time online, after a thorough search of the reviews from previous guests…


ps. The ‘photo is of one of the more famous creepy inns in crime fiction. This is the set of the Bates Motel, which fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s films will know from Psycho.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard O’Brien’s Over at the Frankenstein Place.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Georges Simenon, Roald Dahl, Ross Macdonald

These Days the Edges Are Blurred*

Literary as Crime FictionWhen you were in school, I’ll bet there were a lot of literary novels and plays you were expected to read. Some of them of course are truly fine fiction and deserve to be read. Others…perhaps not so much. This probably won’t come as a surprise, but I think it’s a very good thing that young people are introduced to all kinds of great literary work. There are a number of good reasons for that; I probably don’t have to outline them for you. A lot of young people groan and grumble about being expected to read certain novels. I know I did – and I still grumble about some of them.

I wonder what it would be like if some of those fine literary works were ‘sold’ as the crime fiction they are. What? Literary work that’s about crime? Of course! Sometimes the distinction between what ‘counts’ as literary fiction and what ‘counts’ as crime fiction is awfully blurred. Let me just offer a few examples and you’ll see what I mean.

Take Shakespeare for instance. I’ll bet we’ve all read The Scottish Play at one point or another. That play is billed, as is much of Shakespeare’s work, as ‘literary.’ But if you think about it, it’s certainly crime fiction. There’s a crime plot, a murder, its aftermath, all sorts of politics and intrigue, and lots more. It’s a veritable crime-fictional feast. I’m no Shakespeare scholar, but I’ve been told by people who know better than I that in his day, Shakespeare actually wrote for ‘the rest of us.’  His plays deal with themes that we can all understand. What’s more, they deal with the very issues (e.g. greed, fear, jealousy, lust, revenge) that are often behind murder, both real and fictional. I think that there’s a solid argument that, although his work is considered literary, Shakespeare’s work is also crime fiction.

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is often taught as a literary novel, and it certainly is one. It’s got solid literary themes, some fascinating characters and the sort of writing style that consistently gets it ranked as a great novel. But if you think about it, it’s a crime novel too. What if Rebecca were ‘sold’ as a story in which an old crime (or is it really a crime…) is discovered. What if it were ‘sold’ as a psychological thriller (which it also arguably is)? It’s a lot more than those things of course, which is why it has the reputation it has. But it’s also a crime fiction novel.

What about F. Scott Fizgerald’s The Great Gatsby? Yes of course it’s all about social class differences, life in America just before the Great Depression, and love. It’s about wanting to fit in and about a lot of other things too. But it’s also a crime novel. There’s an accidental killing, a murder, guilt, a coverup and other elements too that we often associate with crime fiction. There are also the underlying themes (greed, jealousy, etc.) that so often motivate crime. It is indeed a literary novel, and there are very good reasons that it’s often taught as an example of the best in American fiction. But it’s also crime fiction if you look at it that way.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is often included in the list of ‘Great Classic Novels,’ and it certainly has wide-reaching themes and an impressive literary style. It’s all about life in a small Southern US town. It’s about coming of age, fitting in (or not) and the parent/child/sibling dynamic. On that score alone many people consider it great. But it’s also a crime novel. It’s about an alleged rape and the trial that follows that accusation. It’s about perjury, ‘vigilante justice’ and other themes too that are often associated with crime fiction. And it’s widely regarded as an exceptional legal novel. In fact, the University of Alabama has instituted the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. John Grisham won the inaugural prize in 2010, and this past year (2013) the winner was Paul Goldstein for Havana Requiem.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a highly-regarded novel about the coming of European colonials to the Nigerian village of Umuofia during the mid-19th Century. It’s about the clash between tradition and new ways, and about what happens when the things we’ve always depended on don’t make sense any more. It’s also about cultural differences and perceptions. And it’s about family ties and traditional ways and a lot more too. But it’s also arguably a crime novel. Two central events in the story are killings. The novel is about those killings, the guilt and attempt at expiation that follows them, and what ‘counts’ as justice. 

And then there’s Toni Morrison’s  Beloved. You probably know that Morrison is a Nobel Laureate, and you don’t get that award without an impressive body of work. Beloved is arguably one of Morrison’s finest novels. It traces the life of a woman who escapes slavery in Kentucky and flees to Ohio with her children. When she’s found by a posse of slave hunters, real tragedy results – tragedy that would certainly be called a crime. The novel explores antebellum life, the parent/child bond, the effects of slavery, the African-American experience and more. And many people argue that Morrison’s poetic style is extraordinary. But this is also crime fiction. There’s a killing, attempted murder, the guilt that comes from taking a life, and an exploration of the motive.

There’s also more modern work by authors such as Kate Grenville that are highly regarded as literary novels. And they are. But you can also make a very good argument that many of these novels have plenty of elements of the crime novel in them too. I wonder what would happen if they were ‘sold’ that way. It’s one of the reasons for which that line – the line between literary fiction and crime fiction – is so very blurred.

I’m only one person with only one person’s reading history. And there is only so much space in any one blog post. So I’ve only mentioned a very few of the great literary works out there. Which literary novels have you read that really also count as crime fiction in your mind?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Shades of Grey.


Filed under Chinua Achebe, Daphne du Maurier, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Kate Grenville, Toni Morrison, William Shakespeare