Monday, 17 December 2007

The Craft of Crime Writing

My telephone interview with Minette Walters last week ranged over a variety of interesting topics. A writer like me can learn a lot from someone like Minette, whose worldwide success is founded on a mastery of craft. One of the most interesting technical aspects of her books is her use of documentary materials within the text. Her very first book, The Ice House, began with a series of newspaper reports about a missing man, and her latest, The Chameleon’s Shadow, follows the pattern she has established over the years. By including in the text internal police memos, emails, witness statements, newspaper clippings and so on, Walters manages not only to convey a great deal of information economically, but also to offer a variety of ‘voices’ to the story-line, a technique which, when well-handled, adds considerable depth. Even such a simple thing as varying fonts and typeface on the page can keep the reader engaged with the story, she argues. She was not the first writer to adopt this approach (Ed McBain was one of the others) but she has developed it into a fine art.

She reminded me that she has even used photographs within her books, in The Shape of Snakes. This too is something that has been done before. A very clever example is to be found in The Norwich Victims, by Francis Beeding. The photographs of the principal characters cunningly address an important element of the plot. It’s a very well crafted Golden Age detective story by a writing duo I've mentioned before. They are best known for their thrillers, but it's their whodunits that appeal to me. The House of Dr Edwardes was turned by Hitchcock into that tremendous movie Spellbound, but my favourite of their books is Death Walks in Eastrepps, one of the finest whodunits of the Golden Age. The Francis Beeding books weren’t as strong in characterisation as those of Minette Walters, but the best are well worth seeking out if you like 1930s mysteries. I'm currently in search of some of their more obscure titles.

4 comments:

Liesbeth said...

The documents in the Case. Dorothy L.Sayers and Robert Eustace?

Martin Edwards said...

Liesbeth, it's a fascinating book which I think tends to be under-rated in comparison to Sayers' other work. For those who don't know it, it's a novel composed largely of letters, and Sayers quite often utilised letters in her fiction. She didn't use documents in such a wide-ranging way as Minette Walters, but The Documents in the Case was an intriguing and somewhat experimental story that remains worth reading today.

Xavier said...

Dennis Wheatley too, perhaps?

Martin Edwards said...

Xavier, I guess you have in mind the 'crime dossiers' that Wheatley compiled with Joe Links. Very interesting pieces of work. More like a game than a real novel - and I'll be posting about detective games in the Christmas period. There's an article of mine about the dossiers on my website, which mentions an early article about them written by Reg Gadney, now better known as a spy writer.