25Jun

A Few Thoughts on Crime Fiction

Hidden Depths, by Ann Cleeves wouldn’t have been the most likely novel for me to pick up recently, but over the past few years I have been (on and off) trying to become more familiar with different sorts of crime fiction. I’ve come across some wonderful reads such as G.I. Bones by Martin Limón, Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto, and Nightfall by David Goodis. This genre every bit as diverse as science fiction and fantasy – and is not merely the cliché of noir that gets mentioned so often. I imagine the overuse and incorrect use of that word must really piss-off crime readers much in the same way that those who say all fantasy fiction is like Tolkien would piss-off fantasy fans. Anyway, I thought I’d give one of the more modern, traditional crime novels a go – so I picked up Hidden Depths. Well that, and my editor, Julie, keeps banging on about this series on Twitter.

It was actually pretty good. There’s no new territory here. I imagine that’s far more difficult to achieve in crime fiction. To me, the crime itself is merely the engine of a novel: it’s what keeps readers interested, driven to turn pages. Sometimes I think too little attention is given to the mechanics of the crime; sometimes it isn’t cerebral enough, but then again how many crimes are that well thought through? I don’t know the answer to that, but this feeling probably explains why I really appreciated Jonathan Creek mysteries. As a writer who, in a forthcoming series, is dabbling directly in crime fiction, I’m very much interested in the how-dunnit, as much as the who-dunnit.

I get the impression that what distinguishes crime novels from each other, for the most part, is the setting and the characters. Setting is more important than you’d think – you only have to go into a large bookshop, or on Amazon, to see that, for example, there’s a healthy Scandinavian crime section. You don’t really get that for any other fiction genre. When you think about it, that’s remarkable. I’d like my fiction arranged by location, please. And a detective is the perfect vehicle for introducing readers to a particular location, since such characters will have good reason to visit all sorts of people and places without it feeling inappropriate or shoe-horned in.

As for character – well, we all must know that it’s the detective or investigator in question that lends a series its name. When a book makes the transition to TV, people understand it by the detective more so than the plot. We’ve all got our favourites, too – for me, it’s most definitely Kurt Wallander. Nothing much needs to be said on that front.

Anyway, back to Hidden Depths: at first this came across as something of typical cosy crime novel set in Northumbria (for anyone not in the UK, that’s in the far north of England). A woman called Julie Armstrong gets back from a night on the town and finds that her son, Luke, has been strangled, and left in the bathtub – but the body is arranged in a way so that it has been covered with flowers. Later there’s another murder – Lily Marsh, an attractive young teacher is found dead in a rock pool along the coast, again surrounded by flowers. The victim had previously linked a few of the characters together and things get a little more exciting.

Inspector Vera Stanhope comes on the case to investigate. Stanhope is a strong character and takes no shit. Probably not your average detective, she is (as my grandparents might say) broad about the beam, middle-aged, a little miserable. She likes a drop or two (basically, an alcoholic without portraying it as such). There’s a good heart under all her bluster.

The rest of the cast are varied, the types you’d get from any northern town, each of them with enough to make them vaguely credible suspects. I suspect when you prise open any remote community, one finds plenty of unusual behaviour. The task for Stanhope is to link everything together, to find out who’s not telling the truth – and whether or not such lies matter. There’s a wide range of human emotion on display, too, from bereavement to lust.

Cleeves’ prose zips along, though doesn’t opt for much in the way of flair. I do like the way that the third-person really takes on the thoughts of characters with gusto – not many authors do that. The pace is well controlled; it’s a well-engineered book from that respect. Crime is certainly a genre where the trained eye can really see the cogs in motion, and in Hidden Depths, the cogs were functioning perfectly. So, nothing new here. It’s a very traditional crime novel and there’s nothing wrong with that, and ultimately it’s a very satisfying novel.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

2 comments

  1. It’s so nice to meet another Wallander fan!  I only watched the Swedish series, but it was really nice to see a crime series that wasn’t steeped in misogyny.

  2. Yeah, Henning Mankell is a great writer isn’t he? Not seen the Swedish series, but I did enjoy the British one that came out recently.