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Genre Dilemmas: In search of the nostalgic comedy killer thriller by Rachel Sargeant

Rachel Sargeant

If ever I’m asked what sort of books I write, I say: “Crime”, knowing that’s nowhere near the full answer. It’s all about the sub-genre. As a reader, I soon notice if a crime book I’m reading veers out of my favourite lane, but as a writer I don’t always steer such a straight course.

Although some writers manage to break through with genre-busting sensations, most of us are advised that the best way to keep getting published is to stick to a pre-defined niche. My police procedural found a home, as have my psychological thrillers, but my northern comedy, featuring a serial killer and set in 1983, beds down every night with only rejection slips to keep it warm.

So before I reach for my laptop again, wouldn’t it save many wasted months of achy wrist and shoulder if I knew which sub-genre I was aiming for?

I’ve read a fair few mystery novels where a heinous crime upsets the cosiness of village life. A St Mary Mead, untouched by the outside world, has its appeal, and I like the idea of a clever clogs who assembles the cast of characters at the end and decodes a random set of clues. Agatha Christie’s brand of crime still has millions of fans and provides fertile ground for many of today’s writers. A recent convert is Clare Chase whose new series features obituary writer Eve Mallam who sleuths her away around Saxford St Peter with her trusty dachshund, Gus.

The cosies often contain a good dose of humour so that would fit with my plans for a northern comedy. Or I could go the whole hog on the laugh-out-loud front along the lines of Derek Farrell’s Danny Bird Mysteries or Jonathan Whitelaw’s crime capers that feature the Devil as the sleuth.

Maybe it’s time to swerve the amateur sleuths in favour of a professional. A modern-day Mike Hammer perhaps. C.S. McLean writes hard-boiled private eye novels set in a world where the undead have risen. Who can resist a book called The Ghoul with the Dragon Tattoo. Zombie Noir, anyone?

Or should I call in the technical experts? The legal thriller genre, made famous by John Grisham, gives the reader nail-biting stories of what happens after the arrest.  Writers currently making names for themselves in the fictional courtroom include Steve Cavanagh and Kia Abdullah. Similarly, medical thrillers of the Tess Gerritsen type feature tense dramas in hospital settings that call on the expertise of healthcare professionals to resolve. And Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta has spawned an entire subgenre featuring the forensic pathologist.  The clinical psychologist is muscling in on the act too, for example, in A.J. Waines’s Samantha Willerby series. Another expert joining the fray is the journalist sleuth like Mary-Jane Riley’s Alex Devlin. Then there are all those action experts found in action/military/spy novels. Big hitters by Lee Child and David Baldacci spring to mind. Not sure how I’d fit into these writerly gangs as authors in “expert” sub-genres often fall back on skills they picked up in a previous occupation. I suppose I could have a go at a librarian sleuth, except Helen Cox got there first with Kitt Hartley.

Of course the most frequently featured professional in crime fiction is an officer of the law. The police proceduraltakes the reader to crime scenes, interview rooms, post-mortems and CID offices populated by often troubled lead detectives and ensemble casts of bantering colleagues. Successful newcomers include Michael Wood’s DCI Matilda Darke and the Sheffield CID team; Jackie Baldwin’s Scottish priest turned police detective DI Frank Farrell; and A.A. Dhand with his gritty Detective Harry Virdee series set in Bradford.

I can’t go too far with my genre planning without considering where and when to set my novel. A fan favourite is the locked room mystery where the crime is committed under apparently impossible circumstances, such as on a remote island or in a locked room. Modern proponents of the art include Lucy Foley, Chris McGeorge – described by his publisher Orion as the King of the Locked Room Mystery – and Abbie Frost, who scored a recent hit with The Guesthouse.

As to when, I could do worse than write an historical mystery. Who can forget Cadfael, the sleuthing mediaeval monk created by Ellis Peters? Past times still provide rich pickings for today’s writers. Abir Mukherjee, for example, sets his bestselling police procedurals in 1920s India. Anne Coates puts her journalist sleuth, Hannah Weybridge, to work in early-1990s London and avoids all those nasty things like mobile phones and social media.

Maybe the future could hold the key to untold writing riches. Even before the current pandemic we had dystopian noir – crime novels set during an apocalypse. In Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way to Burn, a shopping channel presenter attempts to solve her boyfriend’s murder while all around her people are dying of the Sweats and society disintegrates. In Matt Brolly’s Zero, Detective Kate Swanson investigates in a world where a major financial collapse has led to a policy of the death penalty for all crimes. My personal favourite is Lesley Kelly’s hilarious The Health of Strangers books, featuring Edinburgh’s hapless Health Enforcement Team with their own brand of crime-busting Track and Trace. The series started in 2017, but so much of Lesley’s pandemic pandemonium has become a reality. Talk about life imitating art…

In the past, mystery novels were plot-led with a focus on solving the puzzle but they left victims and suspects underdeveloped. Crime novels these days are more character-driven. We want to see characters’ behaviours, traits and anxieties before and after evil strikes. Perhaps I should have another go at detective fiction where the main character is fully formed, warts and all, and the reader roots for her/him to solve the case. Ali Harper gives a feminist spin to the subgenre with her fresh and fearless duo of female private investigators, wise-cracking their way along the mean streets of Leeds in The Disappeared. Kate Atkinson’s wonderful Jackson Brodie is a world weary retired action hero who can’t stop rescuing people. It is down to the dependability of the detective to provide security and meaning in an unsafe, confusing world. As in the traditional mystery novel, the sleuth restores order at the end.

But what if I don’t want my novel’s world to be safe again? Where’s the fun in that? One of my favourite crime stories is Das Versprechen (The Pledge) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the post-war Swiss playwright. Not for nothing does it carry the subtitle Requiem for the Crime Novel. Sean Penn directed Jack Nicholson in an absorbing film adaptation. A police officer tracks a serial killer but the plot concentrates on the mental anguish of this thwarted detective. [Spoiler alert.] He pursues the case even into his retirement and sets up an elaborate trap for the killer. The plan fails and he becomes a broken man. Years later he learns that the reason for his failure is that on the way to the trap, the killer was killed in a road accident. There’s no typical detective story closure here because something approaching real life gets in the way.

Maybe what I’m looking for is the type of novel that places the criminal centre stage. There’s great opportunity for unreliable narrators – moments when the reader doubts the protagonist’s integrity or when that protagonist ponders his/her own sanity. Another of Kate Atkinson’s skills as a crime writer is in championing narrators of dubious integrity, e.g. a lonely ex-policewoman who kidnaps a neglected child; a frustrated spinster who may have killed her baby sister; the neurotic wife of a criminal. And let’s not forget those goddesses of gangland crime fiction – the likes of Kimberley Chambers and Jacqui Rose – whose protagonists are members of criminal families.

So what have I got so far? I fancy the closed setting of a mystery, the three-dimensional protagonist of a detective story and the potentially mad, bad narrator of a thriller. It’s all going a bit cross-genre again. According to Paul Cobley, Professor in Language and Media at Middlesex University, the author strives for doxalogical verisimilitude (sic) – i.e. what is “allowed” within a particular genre. In other words, whether innovation in the crime narrative works or not depends on whether readers consider it acceptable within the rules of the genre. And rules change over time. These days we expect our crime stories to focus on murder whereas The Moonstone byWilkie Collins, considered an early crime classic, was about a diamond theft.

Agatha Christie changed publishers when she turned the rules of the genre upside down with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Although it probably helped that it was her seventh book and the fourth featuring Poirot, I can’t help wondering if it was Collins’s willingness to take a risk that prompted them to accept the novel. It was a shrewd move; Christie remained with them throughout her career. Interestingly, reaction to Ackroyd at the time varied between the Daily Sketch declaring it the best thriller ever and News Chronicle calling it “a tasteless and unfortunate let-down”. How many of her loyal readers drifted away for a while? Not for long, though, as her final tally of sixty-six crime novels indicates.

Traditionally, the investigator in a crime novel is an outsider, but I prefer my sleuths to be in the soup. The stakes are immediately higher when a character is forced to turn detective because someone close to them has been killed, or is in danger, or faces a jumped-up murder charge. I think this desire for a protagonist in peril explains the rise of the psychological thriller where we enter the world of unreliable narrators, creeping suspense, toxic relationships and the shattering of trust. According to superstar author Jeffery Deaver, crime novels ask what has happened, whereas psychological thrillers ask what will happen.

But even here, there are sub-genres within a sub-genre. Mainstream psychological thriller novelists, like Diane Jeffrey, Katharine Johnson, Dorothy Koomson and June Taylor, are joined by gothic thriller writers such as Rhiannon Ward – The Quickening, and C.J. Cooke – The Nesting. My personal favourite sub-sub-genre is the Literary Thriller where the writer gives us a stylishly written slow burn. Examples I’ve recently enjoyed include: Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land, The Tall Man by Phoebe Locke, The Poison Garden by Alex Marwood and My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite.

Where does that leave me in my quest for a sub-genre for my next novel? Something retro perhaps, set in the eighties? With a psychopathic narrator? Set in the north with a strong sense of place? And a bit of humour wouldn’t hurt. Now there’s an idea…

The author acknowledges the use of the following in researching this article:

Paul Cobley, “The Reactionary Art of Murder: Contemporary Crime Fiction, Criticism and Verisimilitude”, Language and Literature, 21(286) (2012) p.292

Vanessa Wagstaff & Stephen Pool, Agatha Christie: a Reader’s Companion (London: Aurum Press, 2004)

Carl D. Malmgren, “Anatomy of Murder: Mystery, Detective, and Crime Fiction”, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol.30(4) (1997), pp115-135.

About the Author Rachel Sargeant is a Top-Ten-Kindle bestselling author of psychological thrillers and crime fiction, published by HarperCollins. Her latest thriller, The Roommates, is set at a university during freshers’ week. When a student goes missing, her flatmates must work together to find her, little realising the danger ahead. Four students, four secrets, one devastating lie.