What is the difference between a crime novel and a thriller? Indeed, does the difference matter to anyone beyond the bookseller or librarian trying to decide which book to put on which shelf? The question didn’t bother me when I started my writing career with a novel called Free To Trade. My publishers marketed this as a ‘financial thriller’, trying to ride on the coat-tails of ‘legal thrillers’. That was fine with me. That same year I applied for membership of the Crime Writers’ Association. That was fine with them. Indeed, it seemed to me that there was little difference between the two genres, and what differences there were didn’t matter.
But the more I have thought about it, and the more novels I have written, the more the differences between the two do seem to matter. They are important to the reader and her expectations. But, as I changed subject matter from financial thrillers to a series of crime novels set inIceland, I realized that they were much more important to writers. Or at least this writer.
First let’s try to define the two genres from the point of view of the reader. At one extreme, an out-and-out thriller like the James Bond books, for example, thrills. It excites the reader, scares her, even, keeps her in suspense to find out what happens next. At the other extreme, a detective mystery like one of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marples stories intrigues the reader. It gives her a puzzle, which she should be able to figure out for herself. Most books inhabit a point somewhere between these two extremes: John Grisham, Dick Francis and Lee Child, probably sit right in the middle.
So what different problems did I experience creating these two types of stories? And which is easier to write?
Let’s start with the protagonist: the heroine, the detective, the spy, the sleuth, the poor sod who wakes up one day a normal man, and has his life turned upside down by teatime. Here detective novels favour the series and thrillers the one-off hero. It’s difficult in a detective story to come up with a good reason why an amateur sleuth should solve the crime and not just dial 999, whereas it is very easy for a professional policeman to go into work in the morning and find he has a murder to solve.
It’s much harder to come up with a series for thrillers. Spies are obvious professional heroes, but even they are tricky. Jack Reacher and James Bond both work well as series protagonists, but they require some suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. However thrillers have the advantage over crime in the ‘one-off’. It is easy to build sympathy quickly for an innocent who stumbles into a conspiracy or a crime, and finds himself in danger – or if not himself then his family, his spouse, his country, his principles. This quickly gives the hero and the reader a huge emotional stake in what will happen next. The pages turn. Paul Murray, the bond trader in Free To Trade, whose colleague Debbie dies mysteriously, is such a character, as are most of the characters in my financial thrillers. But of course, almost by definition, you can be an innocent only once.
One of the many things I enjoy about writing a novel is creating and revealing my characters. In crime novels by writers such as Minette Walters, the question is: who are all these characters really? The detective is trying to find out, and more importantly, so is the reader. So time spent exploring character, asking those probing questions, teasing out the contradictory strands of a character’s past life is time well spent. Sadly, in a thriller, such background exploration often slows things down. I could not count the number of times, when writing my thrillers, I have cut out paragraphs of character exploration in order to tighten things up. In my detective novels, it hasn’t happened yet. Indeed the opposite has occurred, I have added new facets to characters in subsequent drafts.
Pace is a hard taskmaster when you are writing a thriller. There is nothing worse than a thriller that drags. A dull thriller is not just an oxymoron, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. I find keeping the pace up and maintaining the tension the hardest single aspect of writing thrillers. Of course, it’s one of those things that when it’s done well, seems effortless. My first drafts often appear dense and carefully considered. My last drafts look like they have been written in a hurry. Unfortunately in all that polishing, digressions, explanations, colour, descriptions and even characterization can be smoothed or chipped away.
The unexpected joy of writing the crime novel is that there is a natural structure of the detective moving from one witness or suspect to the next and asking questions, answering them and then raising new questions. The pages will turn. Whatever sub-plots a writer squeezes into the story, she can always switch back to the central question: whodunit?
I like to cram my novels with interesting settings. By these I mean not just interesting geographical areas: my thrillers were set in Brazil, South Africa, Prague, Nice, New York, Boston and Glenrothes – and what could be more exotic than Glenrothes? But I also introduced different financial and business settings: bond trading, internet companies, biotechnology, virtual reality, newspapers and hedge funds. Thrillers are a perfect way to guide the reader, and the writer, through these places and milieus.
It’s not impossible, but it’s a bit harder, with detective novels. I have tried to deal with the problem by placing my detective in a seriously weird country, Iceland, which fortunately has thrown up all sorts of interesting events in the last few years: volcanic eruptions, Wikileaks visits, the pots-and-pans revolution after the financial crash. Also, the country looks just like Mordor, so it’s easy to squeeze in some Tolkien.
For most crime novels set in ordinary cities, this is more difficult. Yet the best crime novelists do manage to show their detectives’ habitats in real depth. Examples abound: James Lee Burke and Louisiana, Raymond Chandler and Los Angeles, Sara Paretsky in Chicago, Henning Mankell in southern Sweden, Georges Simenon in Paris, Alexander McCall Smith in Botswana, the list goes on. Each story, each new character created by these masters, reveals a new perspective on these places.
So there are differences, and they matter, at least to me. But for the moment, I like writing crime, and I’m sticking with it.
Michael Ridpath’s latest novel, Meltwater, is published by Atlantic on 1 June.