The Godfather: Peter Corris on an ABC of crime writing
A year or more ago, in an idle hour, I came up with the idea of writing an ABC of crime fiction. It wasn’t intended as a ‘how to’ exercise, there are enough of those around, but as a survey of the elements, themes and ideas central to crime fiction.
I wrote a light-hearted introduction (I intended the thing to be entertaining) and recruited my friend, the artist Michael Fitzjames, to do some drawings to illustrate the text.
I set to work and had fun for the couple of weeks it took to do the job. Here are two sample entries:
A is for adultery. This has lost its potency as a force in crime fiction. In the past, concealment of it could be a prime motive for a murder. Once the chief ground for divorce became ‘irretrievable breakdown’, adultery was sidelined. It may still play a part if a pre-nuptial agreement comes into the picture (see L for lawyer).
D is for doctors. Very useful characters, doctors. Absolutely essential in police procedurals where one is needed at a crime scene and a pathologist is needed to perform an autopsy at which some investigators, like Chief Inspector Morse, feel queasy (see S for squeamish) and others, as in Stuart McKenzie’s books, for example, indulge in mordant humour. Doctors may be good guys, family friends, the possessors of knowledge like hidden abortions and secret children, or bad guys – Dr Feelgood drug providers, dodgy plastic surgeons and torturers. Thomas Harris’s Dr Hannibal Lecter of course is in a class of his own.
Michael provided six graphic black and white drawings illustrating such topics as ‘Tobacco’, ‘Trench coats’ and ‘Mean streets’. Anyone familiar with his work could imagine how atmospheric and impactful the drawings were.
A problem immediately arose; try as I might I couldn’t get the text beyond about 20 000 words – too long for a magazine article, too short for a book. Nevertheless, my industrious and efficient agent took it on and sent it, along with the Fitzjames drawings, to a couple of the most likely publishers.
One by one, expressing admiration, they rejected it. So she sent it to some less likely publishers, those who might be interested in something out of the ordinary. A couple came close to biting but withdrew. Their marketing people could not see how to sell it, either as a collector’s item, a limited edition bijoux production or anything else. Most, reasonably, wanted it to be longer. The duller ones wanted it recast as a ‘how to’.
So, to my disappointment and with the feeling that I’d let Michael down, the idea lapsed and the file remained homeless on my desktop. From time to time I tinkered with it, trying to expand it, but conscious that, as it was conceived as snappy, extra weight wouldn’t do.
Not long ago I was browsing through Gleebooks’ excellent monthly book catalogue, The Gleaner. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction these days, biography, history, historical novels are more my go, but I was surprised at all the names I didn’t know – Lauren Beukes, CC Humphreys, Julia Crouch – who were these people?
Not one of the publishers who rejected the ABC said that I was off the pace, out of date regarding crime writing, but that was clearly the case. I should have had the idea ten years earlier. Rejection saved me from embarrassment and I’m grateful, sort of.