For students on our creative-writing courses, the possibility of one day having their novels reviewed in a national newspaper or magazine is a thrilling prospect. We thought it would be useful to get to know a little more about the process behind book reviewing itself, so we got in touch with Mail on Sunday crime fiction reviewer John Williams to ask him a few questions about his role.
As well as reviewing books, John has also published a series of fiction and non-fiction books. These include his ‘Cardiff Trilogy’ of contemporary crime novels set in his home town, as well as biographies of Shirley Bassey and Eartha Kitt. He also organises the Laugharne Weekend, a music and literary festival in West Wales. I caught up with John to find out about his tastes in crime fiction, and some of the new authors he’s excited about in the new year.
You’re currently the crime fiction reviewer for the MOS, but where did you start? Where did you write your first reviews?
I started book reviewing way back in the 1980s. I began, oddly enough, by writing book reviews for the New Musical Express. From there I went on to being the books columnist for various magazines – The Face, Arena, GQ etc – as well as reviewing for most of the broadsheets at one time or another. I’ve been a regular reviewer for the Mail on Sunday for 20 years, and for the last five years I’ve been their crime fiction reviewer. Since childhood I’ve had a passion for crime fiction and it’s a pleasure and a privilege to have a constant supply of all the new books.
It was also the way I got into reviewing. If you’re interested in becoming a book reviewer it’s very important that when you start out there is an area you can specialise in – one that you love and have a depth of knowledge about. For me that was crime fiction
There’s an enormous amount of new crime fiction coming out all the time – what’s the process behind how a particular book gets singled out for review?
Obviously I am sent far more books than I can possibly review. For the Mail on Sunday I have to pick a crime novel of the week and each week I will be choosing between 20 or 30 possible titles. Writing for a mass-market newspaper I try and balance my own particular taste in crime fiction – which tend towards the noir and the offbeat – with an awareness of the novels my readers are likely to actually buy. That’s to say that for each personal favourite I review – like Megan Abbott or Cathi Unsworth – I will also review a Lee Child or Sophie Hannah.
Are there any current trends in the world of crime fiction which you’re enjoying at the moment – or anything you’re rather tired of?
The big recent trend in crime fiction is towards the domestic psychological thriller. At its best this is a refreshing development. For starters it’s a lot easier to identify with the tensions in a marriage than with the motivations of a serial killer. It’s both frightening and salutary to be reminded that most murders take place in the home.
This vogue – inspired by the huge and unexpected success of Gillian Flynn’s excellent Gone Girl – has been seized on by publishers, and every week several more hopefuls land on my desk. As with any trend that inevitably means that there are some weak and rushed titles alongside the good stuff.
One trend I’m extremely tired of – but that shows little sign of going away – is the serial killer novel. This formula has become ever more repetitive and predictable and often seems more like a kind of violent Gothic pornography than real crime fiction. For me crime fiction should teach us something about society and not just titillate us with invented grotesqueries.
Any new writers coming out in 2017 who you’re particularly excited about?
There’s a couple of writers that I’m particularly excited about at the moment. One is very new and one has been around a little while but is only now starting to break through to the mainstream. The first of these is an Australian writer called Jane Harper – who is, I believe, a graduate of the Curtis Brown creative course. Her first novel, The Dry, is just about to come out and it’s a wonderful thriller set in the Australian outback. As in all the best crime fiction, setting and character and plot all come together to produce something that is far more than the sum of its parts. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
The second writer is Mick Herron. His spy thrillers are the best new series I’ve come across in years – funny and thrilling in equal measures. His latest, Spook Street, is out in February and looks set to bring him the success he richly deserves.
What are the most important qualities which stand out for you in great crime writing?
Qualities that stand out for me are: complex believable characters wrestling with complex believable dilemmas; settings that are fresh and interesting; plots that twist and turn in genuinely surprising ways rather than following familiar formulas; dialogue that crackles with the energy of real speech; writing that prizes economy over showiness. Great crime writing is what occurs when all these elements come together.
Do you prefer series or standalones?
Publishers and readers love series. And why not? There is a great pleasure in being reunited with a favourite character, and crime fiction has always excelled at this – from Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple to Philip Marlowe to Inspector Rebus. I love a good series as much as the next person, but do regret the inevitable fact that after a while a law of diminishing returns applies. I suspect it’s hard to write more than half a dozen really good books about the same character – while some popular series are now 20 or even 30 books in.
What are the three things you most hate about bad crime fiction?
Sadism, sloppy plotting and cliched characters taken from the TV or film screen rather than real life.
Your five favourite pieces of crime fiction, old and new?
Dashiell Hammett – The Maltese Falcon
Patrick Hamilton – Hangover Square
Elmore Leonard – Switch
Barbara Vine – A Dark Adapted Eye
Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl
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