Friday, 12 August 2011

A Fresh New Voice in Crime Fiction

The Plaid Raccoon Press has begun an advertising campaign for Blood Passage that features the slogan “A fresh new voice in crime fiction.” It’s popping up in Google adwords, street posters and other places.

I’m a voracious reader, myself. I read nonfiction during the day, including American history, criminology, and whatever else pops up (I still say that Candyfreak by Steve Almond is a very cool book), but at night I read fiction to get the brainwaves regulated for sleep. Genre fiction, to be specific.

My favorite genre is crime fiction. I have a lifelong addiction to science fiction and I also read sports juveniles, westerns, horror, historic naval fiction (Hornblower, Ramage, Bolitho, Drinkwater, etc.) – really, anything with a good storyline and a strong protagonist. But police procedurals are my favorite. However, I’ve found that I’m turning more and more to old Louis L’Amour novels these days than I am to the leading authors in the mystery/thriller/crime genre.

Why is that?

Frankly, I find that the big guns have gotten tired and seem to be writing more to fulfill contract obligations than from genuine inspiration. Even – and I hate to say this, because Reacher is The Man – Lee Child’s last two novels have been a little disappointing. (Don’t hit me! Please!) Having him stuck in the American Midwest in winter over the last two books has been almost symbolic of the cold, desolate, empty state of the author’s inspiration. It’s as though the constant sub-zero temperature has completely drained Lee Child’s battery. Time for a jumpstart, my friend.

The same can arguably be said for most of the others: Patterson, Burke, Lehane, even Connelly. Some titles are better than others, but many are just a little bit lifeless.

When I began the Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel series, it was because I wanted to write the kind of stuff I like to read. With that in mind, I want to take a moment to explain a couple of things you’ll find in every Donaghue and Stainer novel.

First, a strong protagonist. To me, this is a must. I’m well aware that there’s a school of fiction that favors taking the main character and turning their life into a living hell before leading them gradually back to the light. Many chase books use this trope. It’s a good formula that’s very, very popular. Readers can imagine themselves fighting for their life and their reputation against overwhelming odds. I don’t like this type of story, though, when the protagonist is weak or stupid and can’t survive without the help of a beautiful woman/handsome man. I tend to identify with the main character and I don’t feel comfortable identifying with someone who’s just plain dumb or cowardly or really, really slow to figure out what’s happening to them. Arrrrgh. I want to identify with someone who’s strong, in charge, aware of their weaknesses and shortcomings and able to compensate for them throughout. That’s why I’m such a big Reacher fan. (Even when Reacher gets thrown in jail it's cool, right? He's got it under control.)

Second, I can’t stand reading prologues at the beginning of a novel, and I vow never to write one. I promise. Ever. Period. Why? Prologues often start with the point of view of a victim. I absolutely hate beginning to read a book from the point of view of someone who’s about to get killed. Waste of time. Fake pathos. Obvious manipulation of my feelings as a reader.

If not a victim, then it’s usually going to be the point of view of the villain. A taste of evil to whet the appetite for law and order. A few clues to help you understand the direction the good guys will have to take in their investigation. I don't mind if the story gives me a few looks through the killer's eyes. Sometimes this is good. But I absolutely do not want to start a book that way.

Why not? Because I feel very strongly that a good story starts and finishes with the point of view of the hero. Nobody else. It’s crucial to me. It’s like imprinting in baby ducks. I’m going to latch onto the first point of view I encounter in a story, and it better be the hero because I want to know right up front whose point of view I’m expected to share for the duration of this book. I don’t mind if point of view moves around as the story progresses, as I say; that’s fine. But I insist on beginning with the protagonist.

For this reason every Donaghue and Stainer story will begin with Hank Donaghue. His is the central consciousness of the series. Karen Stainer’s point of view will also be shown to the reader with regularity because I’ve got a lot of work to do with her, a lot of time to spend developing her story. I will also spend time with Peter Mah and other secondary characters, because I’m not afraid to alternate points of view when it serves the overall story and the development of these characters. But when you start each book, you’ll start with Hank.

And no prologues. Often the novel will begin at the crime scene of the homicide that will be central to the story. Not always, but often, because these novels are police procedurals and Hank and Karen investigate homicides. In the case of Blood Passage, the novel begins at the crime scene of Martin Liu, even though it’s four years before present time, but that’s because the Liu cold case is central to the story. I suppose it comes from watching all those CSI episodes where Mac, Horatio et al. show up at the crime scene, take a look at the body, and toss off a zinger to hook the audience.

A fresh new voice in crime fiction? Start with Blood Passage and judge for yourself.

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