Learn Crime Writing with 5 Novels

Read Lori Rader-Day's essay on novels to read to help learn crime writing, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a paperback copy of Under a Dark Sky!

My friend Susan, an aspiring novelist, recently told me she struggled with the concept of voice until she read one of my books. Isn’t that nice? Wouldn’t it be great if you could read one book and have some writing concept click into place for you?

Of course, that’s not entirely the way it works. Learning how to write well and finding your voice takes a lot more than a single read of someone else’s work. But some books have specific lessons. Here are five crime novels from which we can all learn a thing or two.


Lee Child once wrote in the New York Times that asking how you create suspense is like asking how you bake a cake. “‘How do you bake a cake?’ has the wrong structure. It’s too indirect. The right structure and the right question is: ‘How do you make your family hungry?’ And the answer is: You make them wait four hours for dinner.”

There are other ways to create suspense, but Child does get to the basic problem. How do you keep people flipping the pages? How do you make them miss their trains and bedtimes?

Read The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.

Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay, and get out.

Who’s not going to turn the page to see why Tom seems so jumpy?


W.H. Auden, a self-described “addict” of detective stories, once wrote in Harper’s Magazine: “In the detective story … Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder.” Not all crime novels rely on that contradiction, of course, but now you understand the draw of Agatha Christie.

In a setting, readers aren’t looking for a travelogue, says William Kent Krueger, a writer well known for his evocative settings. In the book Write Now! Mysteries, he writes, “In the same way that character is best established gradually and through pointed, well-chosen observations, setting is evoked by capturing succinctly the essence of a place.”

Read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkempt, not the drive that we had known. At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realized what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church. And there were other trees as well, trees that I did not recognize, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered.

You can see this image, but you can also feel the kind of story it’s going to be: tangled and not what you expected.

Point of View

Point of view is a tough concept to learn, and rightly so—so much hinges on it. What will your reader see and through whose eyes? How will your character’s lens warp the reader’s understanding? No one book can instruct in all the ways you can use point of view, but here are a few to consider.

First person

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

In one chapter, we go from “I have a meanness inside me, a real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it,” to being on the dark narrator’s side. #TeamMean

Third-person close

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

You already read The Talented Mr. Ripley, right? Now, pick apart how Highsmith uses the intimacy of third-person close to get you to root for Tom’s success, no matter how criminal that success is.

Third-person omniscient

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollack

Read this (admittedly difficult) story for how a roving point of view can still be grounded in detail and characterization.


You can read and read and never internalize how certain tools of fiction do what they do, because the best stories suck us into the narrative until we’re no longer reading but living the life of that character. The better the writer, the more invisible the tool.

That’s why it might be instructive to have the tools waved in front of you in real time.

Read Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward

A seasoned mystery novelist tells her co-author, a poet, what the story requires—in the snarky back-and-forth conversation of the footnotes.

Reading five novels isn’t enough to teach you all you need to know. Build your own reading list, both classics and contemporaries publishing right now. To write, you’ll need to start reading as a writer does, going back over the lines that resonate or paragraphs where a character you’ve grown to love was revealed to you. Read books a second time, a third. When you find an exemplary passage, go back over it and take it down to the studs. What technique makes that element work? Identify it but then make it your own—because, in the end, writing is how you’ll really teach yourself to write.

Read Kristin Centorcelli’s review of Lori Rader-Day’s Under a Dark Sky!

Comment below for a chance to win a paperback copy of Under a Dark Sky by Lori Rader-Day!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

Under a Dark Sky Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/learn-crime-writing-with-5-novels-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) August 9, 2018. Sweepstakes ends at 12:59 p.m. ET August 21, 2018. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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  1. lasvegasnv

    looks interesting

  2. John Smith

    I like the “Heads You Lose” cover!

  3. Elaina

    An informative and interesting post which I enjoyed greatly.

  4. Nissa

    Looks intriguing!

  5. David Siegel

    Look forward to it.


    This sounds great

  7. M.Munoz

    How awesome!

  8. Lisa Altland

    Interesting article. I would love to win a copy of her new book, it sounds intriguing.

  9. Susanne Troop

    Sounds good.

  10. Kerry Longtine

    Been looking for a good read; this looks like one of those books you read and share with others because its that good of a read

  11. Keeley

    These are excellent suggestions. I am pretty excited to read Under a Dark Sky so I can try to scare myself out of going camping!

  12. Jen

    Add Ruth Ware to this list! <3

  13. MaryC

    Informative post.


    looking forward to reading

  15. Dawn ( BookGypsy) Ruby

    Sounds so Intense. I’d love to read it

  16. Susan T.

    Some of the creepiest books I have ever read have been from the first person perspective. Nothing scarier than being in the mind of a killer!

  17. Cynthia St. Germain

    Look forward to reading

  18. Luda Doddridge

    Good choices!

  19. Adrien Toro

    Interesting article. I am a fan of Daphne du Marier’s My Cousin Rachel but have not yet read Rebecca. I would love to have the chance to win a copy of Under A Dark Sky. Lori Rader-Day would be a new author for me.

  20. Natalie

    Would love to read this book!

  21. Cara


  22. becky kasper shemeley

    I’ve seen a lot recently about this book on social media~!!! Sounds like a good one to me.

  23. Jean Feingold

    Sounds good

  24. Jackie Wisherd

    Sounds like a book I would enjoy.

  25. Jason Carlson

    Looks like a great read, I have seen it advertised in several places, I will add to my TBR pile. I would love to win!

  26. Shannon Baker

    Rader-Day is a master at all of these elements. Her earlier books are great and I’ve no doubt I won’t be disappointed with Under a Dark Sky

  27. Geraldine Sim

    Excellent essay. I’m going to try these tips in my writing.

  28. Angie Middleton

    Posting a comment for the chance to win a copy of Under a Dark Sky!

  29. Lori P

    Sounds like ‘Under a Dark Sky’ abundantly delivers on all of the above lessons.

  30. Karl Stenger

    I would love to read the book.

  31. L

    Interesting points. Now, I want to re-read these books with her points in mind. With her insights, I’m sure her novel will make a great read!

  32. Terrie

    Looking forward to reading this book! I just found out yesterday that she will be in my area for a discussion of this book in October, so it’s already on my to-be-read list!

  33. Michael Carter

    Yes, please!
    Count me in for this sweepstakes.
    Thanks —

  34. Karen Mikusak

    Sounds great! Would love to win.

  35. Rena

    Can’t wait to read this one.

  36. Paul Gada


  37. Heidi Rude

    I loved Little Pretty Things and would love to read her new book! Thank you!

  38. Sherman H.

    Looks like a good book to read on a hot summer night.

  39. Dawn

    Awe. Would love to win and read this book

  40. Diane Seitz

    Enjoyed the article. Would love to read this book!

  41. Burma Turner

    Love thrillers!

  42. Esther Whatley

    Not familiar with this author. Would love to win this as my first read.

  43. pat murphy

    Sounds great .

  44. Kristy H

    Hearing such good things about this one!

  45. Carole McKinney

    I would love to win this one!

  46. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  47. Erica Stafura

    This one sounds awesome!

  48. Heather Scroggins

    Under a Dark Sky sounds great!

  49. Elena L.

    Sounds a good read, I would love to dive in!

  50. Janet Gould

    I’m ready to write now.

  51. Emily Catan

    I am intrigued to find out the mystery under a dark sky!

  52. Deb Philippon

    I really enjoyed reading the essay. There’s so much that goes into storytelling, to make it look effortless. Wish me luck!

  53. Susan Morris

    I’m not a writer, but enjoy reading how the works are put together.I just enjoy the read!

  54. Rhonda Barkhouse

    Great book for fall reading.

  55. Helen Allman

    Looking forward to this

  56. vicki wurgler

    thanks for the giveaway-love to read the book

  57. Martina Lively

    This sounds like a good book that I hope I will win!

  58. Karen Terry

    Sounds like a winner.

  59. Theresa Casteel

    would love to win a copy of Under A Dark Sky as my husband has just taken up the hobby of astrophotography…. hmm 🙂

  60. Carolyn

    I like the examples given to look at the different styles and types of writing. Under a Dark Sky looks like it will be a great read!

  61. Terry Shames

    Lori, I’m teaching a writing class next weekend (no snarky comments, please) and I flat out stole your last paragraph about reading as writers. I owe you a drink at Bcon!

  62. Saundra K. Warren

    I don’t have enough imagination to write but kudos to all who do!!!!

  63. CarolT

    I love finding new authors – and new ways to teach myself.

  64. kasiakmr

    Sounds great!

  65. Lori Rader-Day

    Thanks for reading, everyone!

  66. susan beamon

    I can do all that except conversation. After three lines my characters start lecturing each other.

  67. Rhonda Stefani

    Wonderful article! I’d already wanted to read Lori’s book, now I can imagine what a truly great read it will be. Please count me in!

  68. Jim Belcher

    I would love to write, but I would rather read those who already write well. Does that make me lazy? Maybe, but I am happy and I have no deadlines!

  69. Karen Hester

    Interesting essay

  70. ravensfan

    Thank you for this blog post! Very interesting.

  71. Patricia Nicklas

    Interesting article. Would love to win a copy of the book

  72. Jana

    This is a great list of books/examples.

  73. Christal Mormann

    Looks like a great read

  74. Marisa Young

    Interesting article for aspiring writers. Love this author’s books


    Thanks for the opportunity to win!

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