Tuesday, July 13, 2010


What are the factors we use in deciding if we like a book? Or even deciding on a winner from a short list of fine books?
There are certain authors with whom I have developed an empathy, and they could almost write a shopping list and I would find it interesting. But that gut reaction when analysed just means that writer has skillfully included most of the necessary ingredients without a lot of fuss.
For example Andrea Camilleri can include a character's back story in half a paragraph, or sum up someone in a couple of evocative sentences.

Decked out in Armani, top-of-line-loafers worn without socks, Rolex, shirt open to a golden crucifix suffocating in a forest of unkempt, rampant black hair. He was surely the idiot tooling around in the Ferrari. [The Wings of the Sphinx]

I would judge a book on the following factors.

1] Characters-
Are the characters interesting, and does the reader want to find out what happens to them? Do we get enough detail about them?
The success of Hercule Poirot is perhaps based on the fact that we are given so much information about his appearance and his habits. The only other crime fiction character I can think of whose physical appearance is described in such great detail is Lisbeth Salander.

2] Plot-
Writers should be storytellers, not wordsmiths aiming for effect.
Telling a good story should take precedence over trying to create beautiful passages of prose. I have never forgotten the book claiming to be literary crime fiction that contained a pretentious one hundred and ninety one word sentence. A clever believable plot with a few red herrings, and some twists and turns, is the basis of any crime fiction book, but even the most experienced writers forget this on occasions.

3] Style, and Translation-
I can appreciate the difference between James Paterson and John le Carre, and Dan Brown and Graham Greene, and that is about my limit when it comes to literary style. But I did comprehend reading Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel that this was something special and a beautifully written novel, so perhaps I am not that illiterate.
A novel should read smoothly in English, or in a translation into English. When the translator is blamed for a "clunky" translation I wonder if the critic has read the book in the original language. The "clunkiness" might be the original writing, or the efforts of editors, and nothing to do with the translator.

4] Accuracy-
Authors should stick to subjects in which they have some expertise, or at least have researched thoroughly. A fellow blogger told me that she had stopped reading a book after a character walked from Sloane Square to Knightsbridge, and managed to cross the Thames on the way.
Getting the facts right is an absolute essential.
For example Agatha Christie worked as a nurse in Torbay Hospital during the Great War, later moving to the dispensary where she acquired her knowledge of poisons used with such skill in her novels.

5] Humour-
In real life people use humour to relieve the tension in difficult situations, and those authors who replicate this in their books are among my favourites.

6] Education-
I like to be given interesting information, but not when this is merely extraneous padding in order to get to the required number of pages. The material should be relevant to the plot, and ideally vital to creating an evocative atmosphere.

I quite like politics in crime fiction, but then:

"My idea of an agreable person is a person who agrees with me." Benjamin Disraeli

Political diatribes should be done with a light hand, and not blasted at the reader on every page.

On the other hand there are certain subjects that I find difficult.
These are extreme violence to women and children, and glorification of criminals and bullies. But if it is absolutely essential to the plot then I can accept a minimum amount. For instance in Peter Robinson's excellent new thriller Bad Boy there is a brief description of violence towards a woman that I rushed past, but still highly rated the book.

In fact crime fiction novels are no different from any other fiction they should have a good story to tell, and be sprinkled with interesting characters.

The judges for the CWA International Dagger will make their decision on 23 July.
I will pick my winner later this week, but as one distinguished figure in crime fiction commented in view of past events it might be sensible to have a bet on "the French guy".


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norman - A very neat and well-written outline of what makes a crime fiction novel excellent! I agree completely, too, with the priorities in your list. And your later point - that crime fiction is much like any other good fiction - is well taken : ).

5:13 AM  
Blogger Bernadette said...

Would that all books had all those elements Norman, still we are lucky that so many fine examples have made their way into our hands this year.

5:28 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Margot.
The comment by John Sutherland former chair of the Booker judges about entering crime fiction for literary prizes being like "entering a donkey for the Grand National" was pathetic snobbery. Mind you some of the horses I have bet on in the Grand National were a lot slower than donkeys. Some of them didn't realise you had to jump the fences.

6:10 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Bernadette, I agree. The field was very strong and I think it will come down to the judges personal preferences for thrillers, detective stories or mysteries.

6:52 AM  
Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

Great set of points, Norman. I think Mr Sutherland has recanted (or "clarified") his views somewhat, since making that original calmuny.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Dorte H said...

I agree 100 % on the first three. With the rest it depends - on the book, my mood etc. And with regard to accuracy, it depends on the subgenre. When I read and write cosy stories, I am quite tolerant, but for historical fiction it is certainly a different matter.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Anon E. said...

I agree with all of those (maybe not in that order)

I especially like the accuracy. That is probably the hardest thing for most writers to do especially when you are just a writer, but want to write about something extravagant.

For me, plot, setting, culture UNIQUENESS and mystery are all elements that make a good book== A nice setting allows your imagination to take over especially if it's foriegn to you. A different culture (whether "exotic" or local) is definately important especially when the writer gets creative--J.K. Rowling for instance created an entire realm complete with it's own culture and habits. Mystery , whether it's a mystery novel or not, always keeps me reading!

4:25 PM  
Anonymous Minnie said...

Excellent list: should be read by all crime novelists, whether established or aspiring! Agree strongly re certain subjects being individually off-putting (like you, I dislike excessive violence against women + would add anything involving cruelty to children). A further point might be strong sense of place/setting (but that's probably just one of my peculiarities!).
Also am horribly pedantic (bad case of hypocrisy, there ;-)): stopped reading first in best-selling series when the writer described someone's lack of interest in X as 'complete distinterest'. It struck me as sloppy writing, reducing credibility - and once that's lost ...
Great blog; have often lurked, so it is high time I commented.

4:52 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Maxine, Dorte, AnonE and Minnie for your comments.

Minnie, lurking is fine but it is nice to get your input. I agree a sense of place is important, and I think the six shortlisted books all managed to convey a unique sense of place

6:43 AM  
Blogger Gary Baker said...

Very interesting ... how does a new author get someone like you to read their book and give an opinion?

4:16 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Gary, I am flattered that you think that my opinion would be of any value to a new author.
"Someone like you" sounds as if I have some influence, but I am just one member of a community of crime fiction fans, who started a blog just to keep a record of the books I was reading.

As far as debut novels go I usually find them from recommendations from other bloggers.
In one case A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell I was informed about a trailer and web site by the curator of Euro Crime, who thought the subject matter would interest me. I contacted the author and she sent me an ARC and we went from there. A Trace of Smoke has since won or been nominated for several awards. Part of my review was used as a blurb on the Spanish version!

Professor Rob Kitchin was a fellow blogger who offered me an ARC of his first foray into crime fiction The Rule Book which I enjoyed very much. I also reviewed his excellent second book The White Gallows.

5:24 AM  

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