Tuesday, October 11, 2016

This Book Is Criminal

I have written a novel, The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman, a comedy-crime story set in 1902. It is available now exclusively as a e-book from the Amazon Kindle Store. There will be posts all this week with extracts, details and, like here, short essays in which I over-explain some of my foolish opinions on fiction writing. In this particular case I talk around this question:

Are There Any New Crimes?

The truth of the matter is that most crimes are petty, sordid, uninteresting. Banal even. Someone takes something out the till and takes it home. Someone snaps and punches someone else. Someone lies to get another person to give them small amounts of money.

It's not that you can't write good, exciting, even great stories from these sort of incidents. Such stories, rooted in the mundanity of life, lean heavily on character, fine description (or production values for TV and movies) and relationships. All good things, needed in every tale. Yet they may not scratch the itch for convoluted plot or clever storytelling. There simply aren't that many interesting crimes, which is why writers keep coming back to the classics.

I've written before about how Dickens describes a very detailed Ponzi scheme in Martin Chuzzlewit (38 years before Charles Ponzi was born). This is a complex crime, and not in the same way as a locked-room murder mystery or an elaborate serial killer's plan. In those cases you have a dead body and need to find out who killed them (also, sometimes, how, why, where etc.) With fraud you need to explain what has happened and how it is a crime. At one edge fraud looks a lot like incompetence, at another edge like hard bargaining. Proving that it is neither of those is not always a simple matter.

Which is not to say that such schemes don't make satisfying reading. But there's a reason I put the usual heists, murders, blackmail and weird mysteries to the fore, and cons and frauds on the sidelines of my story. If I fail to explain properly, or the reader doesn't want to bother to figure out the details, then they can still follow the clear path in the middle. Someone has done this bad thing and we will try to deal with it.

This is why, if you spend a lot of time following crime drama, you see the same ideas coming back again and again. Although there are a lot of interesting crimes to use as models, there are so many stories being written that they all get used multiple times. So they are reworked into new settings and backdrops, new characters, and new twists as they are turned inside out and upside down.

It's also why crime writers get excited when there's a new and interesting crime; see in this post where John Rogers talks about how the Leverage writing team reacted to the Wired report on the Antwerp Diamond Heist. It's worth noting that bits and pieces from that story showed up in at least half a dozen different shows I saw over the next two years.

Every time there was a new sensational report about the Hatton Garden Robbery I could imagine TV writers (especially those on American networks, churning through 22 episodes a year) rubbing their hands with glee.

None of this stops me or anyone else from reading, watching, listening and sometimes even playing in the crime backyard. Still, a genuinely new take is a rare thing, and, sadly, that's not really what I've done. But I hope that by taking modern ideas, projecting them back into the past and giving them a few subtle (and some not so subtle) twists there's at least a little novelty in my novel.

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