Welcome to a new feature for Read @ UTS! Every now and then, we'll be asking professional authors their thoughts on what makes a certain genre of fiction work. What's the stuff that keeps us reading? What makes it memorable? This time, we have Patrick O'Duffy (author of The Obituarist) and Pam Newton (author of The Old School) here to talk to us. Which genre? Befitting a month looking at questions, we're looking at the crime and detective genres.
What makes a crime or a detective story pop off the page? Why do we get involved in these kind of stories, and what makes one work for you?
There's no question that, of course, a big part of the appeal of a detective story comes from the detectives themselves. "You need is a good detective. Well, sometimes a terrible detective works too, or someone who's not a detective but has to act like one. A good character; a protagonist you can get your teeth into," Patrick says, "They don’t always have to be sympathetic or likeable, although there’s nothing wrong with that – well, I say that, but personally I always like my detectives to be at least slightly bastardish. But likeable or not, they have to be interesting."
Pam agrees, "I need to care about the people; not necessarily that I like them... If I'm not involved enough in the characters to be interested in what happens to them, or for them to bother me when I put the story aside then it won't matter how clever or tightly plotted the story is, or how thrilling it is, it won't keep me engaged."
That's where the two authors seem to conflict, though: Patrick puts a lot of emphasis on the twisty fun. "I think that a good detective story is one that works in hindsight – that when you reach the end, you can work your way back through the story and pick out the hints and clues, and not find anything that contradicts the ending... That's not quite the same as a classic whodunit, where the author lays clues often enough and clearly enough that a smart reader can solve the crime first through logic. I can see the appeal of that, but there’s an artifice to it, a bit too much willingness to play nice with the reader.
"I mean, ever read any Sherlock Holmes stories? There's no freaking way to puzzle out the clues to solve things early there! Doyle doesn't give out enough clues, or at least not clues that make sense to anyone outside the story. It's all red-haired men and rare snakes and things you only know exist if you've written a monograph on the topic which, spoiler warning, Holmes totally already did. They only make sense in reverse, but they do make sense and they don’t contradict the crazy-arse solutions Holmes pulled out of thin air!"
He does, however, concur with Pam about the need to be engaged with the detective. "More than anything else, that interest comes from the detective having a personal stake in solving the mystery... The crime puts the detective’s world out of joint in some way, and they has to solve it if they have any chance of their life having some kind of moral wholeness."
By contrast, Pam stresses the way that crime and the investigation of crime allows for exploration of society. "When I talk about place and when I read about place, I'm interested in more than just descriptions of scenery. That sort of use of place feels to me like set dressing, using place as a backdrop. It’s the mix of period, politics and people that creates place.
"When people and place are integrated in such a way that the crime reveals more about the society, the culture, or the times then I am hooked, totally absorbed. If I come away from a book feeling that I have really experienced another time and place, another life, then the book stays with me long after I have finished it."
What are some of your favourite examples of the genre?
My favourite examples of the genre demonstrate that synergy of people place in politics. I don’t read crime fiction to find consolation, I want to be moved, I want to be shown something I didn’t know, or shown something new about something I thought I already knew.
The books of Australian author Malla Nunn are set in apartheid era South Africa in the 1950s. They feature a police detective, who occupies a very liminal space in the colour-coded world of that time and are a gut wrenching experience. Having such an ambiguous character investigate crime in a society that is utterly criminal in the way it regulates the population is really sensational.
Another book I read recently and which has stayed with me is Crooked Letter Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. It explore similar territory to Malla Nunn’s work but in another time and place altogether. The Franklin book is set in the southern states of the USA in the not too distant past and is one of the most achingly sad books I have ever read.
A book I return to regularly is a Graham Greene's The Quiet American. To me this is the perfect crime novel. Through a single act of murder the political and social environment of 1950s Vietnam and American adventurism is exposed. A stunning example of what a crime novel can be.Patrick:
Raymond Chandler, without a doubt, was not just one of the greatest detective/crime novelists of all time but also one of the great American writers of the 20th century. His six Phillip Marlowe novels are my all-time favourites, especially The Big Sleep and The Little Sister.
I also love the literary detective novels of Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte – The Flanders Panel, The Seville Communion and (most of all) The Club Dumas. They all have the elements I’ve been talking about – strange crimes, driven detectives, moral uncertainty – and place them against backgrounds of art, chess and rare book collecting. They’re books about obsession and about mystery, in all senses of the world.
I spoke a bit scathingly about whodunits before, but if there’s one writer who defined the form it’s Agatha Christie. And she’s also the one who utterly demolished its conventions with two killer novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There Were None, which play amazing shell games with the reader yet still make twisted sense at the end.
A big thank you to both of our authors this time around, and hopefully it won't be too long again until we find out how it works!Finally, perhaps my favourite crime novel of this decade is China Miéville’s The City and the City. This won the Hugo Award for Best SF/Fantasy novel in 2010, and okay, it is kind of an urban fantasy novel, but that’s just the twisty strange premise. Once you get into it, it’s an incredible crime story, Chandler by way of Jorge Luis Borges, and the mystery (and its solving) is much more important than the weird bits. But the weird bits are also great.
Pam Newton is a Sydney based crime writer. Her first novel, The Old School, is set in 1992, the year of the Mabo High Court ruling and the Redfern Park speech. When two bodies are discovered in the footings of an old Bankstown building, detective Nhu 'Ned' Kelly catches the case. As she works to uncover the truth, she is drawn into Sydney's dirty past – and the murky history of her own family. Pam is also currently working on a follow-up novel, set in early 1993 in Cabramatta, a period where heroin and violence were starting to devastate the hopes of many of the refugee community for their children.
Patrick O'Duffy is a Melbourne based writer whose range of genres is fairly eclectic. (As are his novels themselves!) His latest novel, The Obituarist, is the story of Kendall Barber, a ‘social media undertaker’. He’s an IT expert who settles accounts for the deceased in the online world – closing down their Facebook accounts, making one last tweet, or (most importantly) scrubbing personal data from archives before it can be stolen. But now Kendall’s past is reaching out to drag him back into the world of identity theft, just as he gets in over his head with a beautiful new client whose dead brother may have been murdered – if he’s even dead at all. It's a detective story about death, identity and redemption. Patrick calls it "my attempt to follow in Chandler’s footsteps while treading paths he never imagined."