Crime has become the most popular fiction genre in the UK. Book shops and libraries are bursting at the seams with decent page-turners. But it takes something special for a novel to stand out, to tell a tale which doesn’t just pull readers through to the end, but leaves them pondering stories and characters for days afterwards.
Crime fiction has many powers. There is nothing – no moral or political issue, no character type, no philosophical query – which cannot be served by a good crime story. Dostoevsky used crime to investigate the parameters of morality, Raymond Chandler to showcase his remarkable ear for dialogue, Agatha Christie to tie readers up in twists and turns, Ian Rankin to explore the dark corners of a historic, shadow-ridden city. Really, ‘genre’ is a lazy catch-all term for a subject matter which has been utilised by writers as diverse as Robert Louis-Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Muriel Spark, Patricia Highsmith, Douglas Adams, Henning Mankell, Val McDermid and Paula Hawkins.
It goes without saying that a good crime novel needs a compelling story to drive it, one which forces the reader to do a bit of work and put his/her imagination to the test. My favourites usually make big demands not just on my powers of mystery-unravelling and puzzle-solving, but also of human empathy. I feel satisfied if the story makes sense not just logically, but in terms of character consistency.
My favourite crime fiction leaves me feeling like I’ve had my eyes opened in some way,
I’m happy to suspend belief for even the most fantastical tale, but if I sense characters being shoehorned into plot twists I begin to lose interest. And that’s another crucial element for me – protagonists I can invest in. Any hint that the characters are mere cyphers for storylines sees my mind drift from the pages. I need to care and I need to believe.
Many of the best crime novels are written by authors with a delicious, dark sense of humour and I must admit I’m a sucker for a great laugh out loud line. My favourite crime fiction leaves me feeling like I’ve had my eyes opened in some way, or been privy to a vision so original that it casts a new light on the world around me, at least for a day. If I’ve also suppressed a little sob along the way, even better. That takes proper writing.
When it comes to looking for a new voice in crime writing, there are no rules or boxes to be ticked. But in the potentially life-changing competition just launched by The Big Issue and Harper Collins imprint Avon we’re searching for just that – a unique new voice. One which may be inspired by great writers, but which has the confidence to sound different to the rest. This isn’t an easy thing to pull off. On top of talent, it requires audacity, self-belief, a bit of derring-do. But for me, the thing to remember – to paraphrase Scottish novelist AL Kennedy – is that ‘It may be true that every story under the sun has already been told. But not by me.’
Go for it. And be brave.
Jane Graham is The Big Issue’s Books Editor. Jane will sit on the judging panel for the competition alongside Julia Silk, agent at Kingsford Campbell, Sunday Times best-selling author of The Teacher Katerina Diamond, and editor and author MJ Ford, who launched his debut crime novel Hold My Hand with Avon last year.