Bill Massey, Deputy Publishing Director of the publishing house Orion, is coming to discuss the art of crime as a guest of CBC’s Crime Writing Weekend. We asked him what most excites and frustrates him about the crime genre. This is his reply:
I was recently listening to a panel at Bouchercon, the Mystery Writers of America’s annual conference, and the subject of realism came up, specifically in regard to police procedurals. The writers on the panel all agreed that getting the details right was key; readers want to feel that the fictional cops were following real procedure. But one of the writers then pointed out that really sticking to procedure would make for pretty boring stories. To be gripping, the narrative has to feel just right: real enough to be convincing but not so realistic as to be boring. You can make your own sliding scale, with a desk-bound detective drowning in paperwork at one end (realistic but boring) and a maverick action hero who only ever turns up at the precinct to work through his authority issues at the other end (exciting but unbelievable). And the place on that scale that hits the spot for you is a matter of taste.
What seemed to be true for all readers, however, was that some sort of trade-off was inevitable – that you couldn’t be totally realistic (leaving aside the philosophical problem of what that actually means) and utterly gripping at the same time. In other words, all readers, even readers who like their crime gritty, have to accept a certain amount of artificiality. Which made me wonder if there were any exceptions I could think of. Are there any crime writers who have managed the trick of keeping it real without losing the reader’s interest? And I could actually only think of one: the late George V. Higgins. If you trawl through the reviews Higgins’ novels’ accumulated in his lifetime, the word that keeps cropping up is ‘authenticity’. Higgins was a criminal lawyer for many years, on both the prosecution and defence sides, and clearly knew the criminal justice system inside out. But, even more importantly, he had a wonderful ear. The countless hours he put in listening to cops and criminals and absorbing their stories didn’t just give him some great idea for plots; he was also able to reproduce the cadences of that speech on the page.
Higgins’s novels are composed almost entirely of that speech. Third-person narration only comes into play when there’s no other way to move the story along – when there’s an action scene with little or no dialogue. Consequently the presence of the author is pared down to almost nothing, and along with it the sense of artifice. Higgins’ stories are essentially told by his characters, but those characters – his cops and mobsters and shylocks and hitmen and thieves – appear just to be talking, not trying to construct a novel with a beginning, a middle and an end at all. Until it magically appears. That’s Higgins’s trick. And the end result is crime fiction that is about as real as it gets.
It’s not an easy trick to pull off, of course. And for aspiring writers, Higgins is a tough model to emulate. You have to spend probably more time than is good for you in sleazy bars. But more than ten years after he wrote his last novel, it would be nice to see someone else have a try.
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