Several elements come together to make a good novel: writing style, plot and overall atmosphere. Very occasionally a novel’s unique atmosphere can elevate an OK book into a classic. Take Gerald Kerch’s ‘Night and the City’, possibly the most atmospheric novel about London since Dickens trod the city’s shabby streets and undoubtedly a great book, even if – at times – the story plods along like a lame cart-horse.
The aspect of a novel that elevates it into the bestseller lists is usually its plot. Clive Cussler, David Baldacci and Dan Brown are dull, unimaginative writers whose prose has been known to cause great pain to many discerning readers, but they redeem themselves and write bestselling thrillers by means of superb plotting. Or, as the blurbs have it, they are ‘great storytellers’.
Take this extract from ‘Stone Cold’ by David Baldacci:
“Harry, you OK?”
He stirred. “Just some stuff at work.” There had been no news coverage of the incident, even though the police had been called, because Homeland Security had stepped in to put the kibosh on it. Having Finn exposed in the press would put a severe crimp in the red cell contract work that his company did for Homeland Security, work that was critically important to national security. With DHS in Finn’s corner, the local cops had quickly rolled over. The young security guard had not been charged with anything other than being stupid and undertrained, and his gun had been taken away. He had been reassigned to a desk job and told that if he said anything to anyone about what had happened he would regret it for the rest of his life.”
Just a section taken almost at random from the book I’m reading now. There are many far more guilty authors than David Baldacci and better examples of terrible prose out there, but it hardly seems worth spending time looking for them. The crime most average writers commit is the over-use of adjectives. People speak menacingly, cheerfully and tearfully; ideas are brilliant, inspired and wonderful; the bad guys are tagged as evil, heartless and merciless. And so on and so forth.
Claiming the middle ground is the great Agatha Christie. Possibly the best plotter that ever sat at a keyboard, some of her stories are so clever you want to scream, even if her prose has a tendency to be frothy and her characterisation – especially of ‘types’ such as majors, policemen and domestic staff – is invariably paper-thin. ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ is her undoubted masterpiece. In it, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is drawn out of retirement in order to solve a dastardly crime in the peaceful English village of King’s Abbot. Without giving too much away, this is the novel that turned the art of plotting on its head. All of Christie’s novels are worth reading, and the cream of her output also includes ‘Ten Little Indians’ (‘And Then There Were None’), ‘The ABC Murders’ and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’.
Another giant of the ‘Golden Age of Detective Fiction’ was John Dickson Carr, an American who lived in the UK, where most of his historically-flavoured mysteries are set. He was the leading exponent of what was called the ‘locked room mystery’ and when it came to close, intricately plotted puzzles, he had few equals. ‘The Three Coffins’ features Carr’s series character, Dr Gideon Fell, and, typially involves supernatural and historical elements. Chapter 17 is the ‘Locked Room Lecture’ in which Fell famously details the various types of locked-room situations. ‘The Devil in Velvet’ is no ordinary murder mystery, either. Set in 1925, it features Nicholas Fenton, a history don at Cambridge University, who makes a pact with the devil to be transported back to 1675 in order to solve and maybe prevent the murder of Lydia, Lady Fenton, the wife of an eponymous ancestor. If only more of today’s historical fiction could capture the intelligence and vibrancy of Carr’s writing.
More selections from my list of Best Crime Books next time, including novels by Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain and Graham Greene.