When Vicki Doudera called to ask me to contribute to the blog this week, I was in the middle of cataloging unpublished papers about archaeological digs. So my first reaction, through the tech services haze, was: “…Me, write? I…blog? What’s a blog?”
Once I recovered enough to switch on the non-cataloger part of my brain, I was flattered! Then I panicked, thinking, “Oh dear, crime fiction? Do I read crime fiction? More importantly, do I have anything to say about it?”
Lucky for me, I did manage to think of some things to say! Because the more I thought, the more I realized how much I love Crime Fiction. I also relish any opportunity to geek out about the things I love, particularly when it comes to books. Put those two things together, I figured, and hey presto! A blog post for Maine Crime Writers.
My name is Marie Stickney, and I’m a librarian at the Camden Public Library in Camden, Maine. I’ve worked here for nearly a decade, which is pretty much all of my grown-up working life. A big part of my job is Readers’ Advisory–that delicate and intricate art of connecting the right reader with the right book at the right time. While I have many different and rewarding tasks at the library, RA is hands-down my favorite part of being a librarian. So naturally, when I think about Crime Fiction, I think about it from the point of view of a Readers’ Advisor.
Crime Fiction is a gritty and dark region somewhere in the murky wilds of Mystery. Thriller and Suspense border it on either side, and the borders are crossed quite often. Horror can be seen off in the distance. Most of the time the terms Crime and Mystery are used interchangeably, but I think there’s a difference. Perhaps a subtle one, sometimes, but still a difference.
When I think Crime, I think dark. I think atmospheric. I think grisly murder. I think mounting suspense, a few violent scenes, and maybe an antihero. Those all come to me before I think sleuth, puzzle, investigation, or clues, which are all hallmarks of Mysteries. If you take a look at the Crime Writers’ Association list The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, you’ll see how broad the definition of a Crime novel is. Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is on there, as is
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. There’s Noir, there’s Cozy, there’s Classic, there’s Amateur Sleuth, there’s Secret Agent. All that and more moving through the ever-changing lands of Crime. Do check it out—the full list is on Wikipedia.
From an appeal point of view, the most important distinction between Crime and Mystery is that, in Crime, you don’t necessarily have to have a solution. Sometimes you don’t even have a proper investigation into crime. In a Mystery, there’s a formula. The Mystery Formula is: Crime + Detective + Investigation with Clear Clues = Solution. In the end the bad guys go to jail and the good guys are triumphant. In Crime, you don’t always have that kind of ending. What’s important is the criminal element, not necessarily the investigation and its outcome. That’s why Crime’s borders with other genres are so fluid—the hunt for a killer is a great set-up for stories of suspense. Whether the killer is caught or not is a different story. Hey, maybe the killer is our narrator. In Crime, unlike straight Mystery, that can happen.
Me, I love Thrillers. Those, though, have a tendency to tip over the line into Horror fairly often. Horror isn’t always what I’m after. I don’t want to be terrified or disturbed so much as I want an adrenaline hit and a nice big payoff. I like the intellectual appeal of a well-crafted mystery. As my reading has grown and evolved, and as I’ve worked with other readers at the library, I’ve found that what I enjoy most is a nice dose of the Mystery element in my Thrillers. I’m not so much for solving a puzzle as I am for a nice big juicy twist right at the end. Or a big thrilling reveal. Each of these elements prefaced, of course, by a nonstop cavalcade of ever-intensifying twists and turns.
Crime Fiction, then, often suits me perfectly. Crime has that perfect heady blend of mystery, suspense, and atmosphere. It’s not quite a puzzle, it’s not quite an adventure, it’s not quite dark fiction, it doesn’t have to play by a straight-up mystery’s rules. It’s Crime, man, and it’s fantastic.
I’d be remiss in my duties as a Readers’ Advisory librarian if I let you get away without suggesting a few titles. I poked around in my reading journals and past reviews and came up with a couple of novels which reflect the kind of Crime I’ve been talking about:
**Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. Flynn got a lot of attention a couple of years ago with her latest, Gone Girl, but her first novel is my favorite. It’s disturbing and creepy and utterly compelling. Camille is a journalist who returns to her hometown to cover the investigation into the murder of two young girls. The reveal is unexpected and horrifying. If you like a healthy dose of Horror in your Crime, do give Flynn a try.
**The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. A classic of Psychological Suspense from a
writer who always liked to be dark and disturbing, this is a Crime novel where the criminal is our protagonist. Tom Ripley is striving to make a name for himself in 1950’s Manhattan when he is befriended by a wealthy young man named Dickie Greenleaf. Friendship soon turns to obsession, and shortly thereafter obsession turns criminal.
** Help for the Haunted by John Searles. This recent novel is an example of a Crime novel which has a wonderful blend of Mystery and Dark Fiction. The story centers on Sylvie, whose parents (who make a living by providing pseudo-exorcism services to “haunted” people) have been murdered. The storyline moves back and forth in time as Sylvie struggles to uncover what happened to her parents, and who the true murderer is.
** Night Film by Marisha Pessl. Pessl’s work is truly remarkable for how multi-layered it is. She creates an entire world in this novel, and the reader is completely drawn in. The story centers on disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath and his probing into the apparent suicide of one Ashley Cordova—daughter of the legendary horror film director Stanislas Cordova. Secrets are uncovered and mysteries are unraveled as new ones appear in this eerie and hypnotic book.
Thanks for the opportunity to book chat about Crime Fiction! It really is an honor to blog along with some of the best in Maine. Do come by the Camden Public Library this week if you’re in town to help us celebrate National Library Week. Maybe check out some Crime novels while you’re here! I’ll be here with suggestions for you.