Five Essential Lessons from Seven Crime Fiction Masters
By W.A. WinterSeptember 9, 2022
Good crime-fiction writers don’t learn their craft in school or via online programs. We learn from other good crime-fiction writers—that is, from their books and public comments. We learn to write fiction the way we learned to tie our shoes: by watching and then doing. It’s always more difficult than we expect, but there’s no other way.
Fortunately, we come to our craft with accomplished writers and their books all around us. Even the most avid readers among us will go to our graves having only scratched the surface of our educational opportunities. Many of us have been developing and honing our literary skills for decades, building careers writing narratives, including crime fiction. If we’re serious about our business, we will read and learn from the masters until we run out of ink.
I’ve jotted down five lessons that I’ve come to embrace as gospel, essential to my fiction-writing craft.
1) Bad people are more interesting than good people.
Consider Charles Willeford’s 1984 gem, Miami Blues. The good people in this terrific novel, including Homicide Detective Hoke Moseley and an unlikely prostitute named Susan, are good people; they’re also eccentric and often very funny. But the book’s bad guy, Frederick J. Frenger Jr., “a blithe psychopath from California,” is the book’s dark star. Freddy grabs our attention the moment he breaks the finger of a pesky Hare Krishna in Miami’s airport. He also murders people, steals their credit cards and identities, and shatters Hoke’s false teeth while nearly beating him to death. You can’t take your eyes off the guy.
In Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and her four subsequent Ripley thrillers, is there anyone who can upstage Tom Ripley? Highsmith created one of the wiliest, most irresistible, and, yes, talented bad guys in contemporary fiction. He’s so bad he’s good.
2) Dialog is usually the best way to move your story along.
Elmore Leonard called George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970) the “best crime novel ever written.” Leonard, of course, wrote an armful of novels that would qualify for the same accolade. Leonard also wrote a little book entitled Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Among his admonitions: Avoid excessively detailed descriptions of persons, places, and things (e.g., the weather). Leonard, as readers of Get Shorty, Freaky Deaky, and Killshot know, relied heavily on dialog to drive his narratives.
It was a rule Higgins obviously subscribed to as well. Dennis Lehane, no mean suspense author himself, noted that swift, pungent, often drop-dead funny dialog makes up 80 percent of Eddie Coyle. Somehow, through that dialog, the reader sees the people, places, and things a lesser writer might have labored unsuccessfully to describe.
3) Humor is essential.
Willeford, Higgins, and Leonard, not to mention every other great crime writer on my shelves, are funny guys, masters of subtle irony and howlers alike. They know, as have writers going back at least as far as Shakespeare, that darkness requires flashes of light to be palatable and convincing.
Few crime writers are as relentlessly brutal and unforgiving as James Ellroy—yet few are as adept with a wry quip or scabrous wisecrack that peppers the stew. The rapid-fire badinage among the mobsters and bent cops in his brilliant American Tabloid trilogy (1990s) is both jagged and hilarious.
4) Location should be more than scenery.
In The Long Drop, Denise Mina’s 2017 novel inspired by an actual 1950s Scottish serial killer named Peter Manuel, deftly uses a dark, dingy, deteriorating Glasgow to mirror the sinister activities of its hoodlums and corrupt businessmen. With two sentences she creates the tone and setting for her gruesome tale of a soulless murderer: “Above the roofs every chimney belches black smoke. Rain drags smut down over the city like a mourning mantilla.” If geography is destiny, Mina’s characters, good and bad, have scant chance to avoid their fate.
Ace Atkins’ rowdy thrillers Wicked City (2008), set in Phenix City, Alabama, and White Shadow (2006), in Tampa’s Cuban-American community of Ybor City, are vivid evocations of wild times (the 1950s mostly) and intractable urban corruption. Their stories are unimaginable in any other locales.
5) Money isn’t the root of all evil. Sex is.
The villains of crime fiction are motivated by many things, but none more powerful than sex and its attendants––desire, lust, jealousy, betrayal, and obsession. Sex in one form or another, usually illicit and frequently graphic, plays an important role in many good crime stories, and is often its driving force.
A legendary example is The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain’s 1934 classic, in which a rootless ne’er-do-well hooks up with the wanton wife of an older restaurant owner. In lesser hands, their torrid affair would drift into cornball comedy or witless porn. Postman was banned in Boston, the genesis of two major movies, and, together with Double Indemnity (1935), another riveting, if slightly less erotic thriller, made Cain one of the most famous writers in the world.
W.A. Winter is the pseudonym of Minneapolis journalist William Swanson. He is the author of Handyman, See You / See Me, and Wolfie’s Game, all available online via Kindle Books and Smashwords, and, most recently, The Secret Lives of Dentists and My Name Is Joe LaVoie, published by Seventh Street Books. For more information, see WAWINTERBOOKS.COM.
About My Name Is Joe LaVoie by W.A. Winter:
Minneapolis, 1953—A wild crime spree stuns the Upper Midwest, leaving a trail of blood and betrayal that terrifies a region and shatters the family at its core.
Thirty-eight years later, the tattered remnants of the notorious LaVoie crime family—sisters, brothers, and children too young to remember or understand—gather for an edgy reunion in a Minneapolis suburb. Among the guests is Joe LaVoie, sole survivor of the fraternal gang behind the ’50s bloodshed, a convicted cop-killer crippled by a police bullet during the final shootout. Now, an old man facing his own death, Joe is both desperate and terrified to learn the cause of his family’s demise. Was it the abject poverty they were raised in, their abusive, alcoholic father, some kind of inexorable curse . . . or the unthinkable treachery of one of their own? Only by confronting the family’s tortured ghosts—and reckoning with the part he played in its violent past—will he ever learn the truth.