By Carina Tan-Van Baren
Crime fiction has invaded the zeitgeist. In books, movies, television, even music, crime is a dominant theme devoured by a public hungry for the dark and disturbing.
The genre certainly punches with the heavyweights when it comes to readership, with mystery and thriller titles representing about 30 per cent of fiction sales in the United States in 2010, according to industry analyst Bowker.
In the United Kingdom, a BBC News report said crime fiction sales generated about £150 million a year. While I wasn’t able to find a comparable statistic for Australia, it’s a fair bet crime’s popularity measures on a similar scale here.
Thriller author Michael Robotham told the Perth Writers Festival session, ‘Thrill Me, Kill Me’, that crime fiction was in a ‘golden age’. But he wasn’t talking about sales or popularity. He was talking about quality.
Despite the derision of anti-genre critics, Robotham said some crime writers were now at the top of the writing game. “There are some really, really brilliant writers that are writing at the moment,” he said. “Down the track, they will look back on this era and say it was a golden age of crime writing.”
This made it all the more interesting when he and fellow panellist and crime star, Jo Nesbø, explained how they fell into the genre – seemingly by chance.
“I was completely an accidental crime writer,” Robotham said. “I wrote 117 pages for my first novel, which didn’t have a title, and it became the subject of a bidding war at a book fair. But I didn’t know it was a crime novel.
“It was only when I was asked by my publisher what I was going to write next and I had this great idea for a romance novel and they said ‘You can’t do that, you are a crime writer’. I said ‘Where does it say that?’ and they said ‘It’s in your contract’. It was then that I realised I was a crime writer.”
Robotham, a former journalist from Australia, has gone on to forge an international career as a crime writer, with his psychological thrillers translated into 22 languages and published in more than 50 countries.
Similarly, Nesbø did not set out to become a crime writer.
“I had five weeks to write something and I thought ‘Maybe crime will be easy’,” he said. “Now I am stuck in the crime genre.”
By ‘stuck’, he meant being acclaimed as a leading crime writer. His website quotes James Ellroy saying: “I am the world’s greatest living crime writer. [Jo Nesbø] is a man who is snapping at my heels like a rabid pitbull poised to take over my mantle when I dramatically pre-decease him.”
Nesbø’s series featuring Norwegian detective Harry Hole has been translated into more than 40 languages and some of the novels have been made into movies. He told the festival session that Hollywood heavyweight Mark Wahlberg wanted to produce and star in an American version of Headhunters, the Norwegian version of which was screened as part of the Perth Festival. Director Martin Scorsese had signed on for another Nesbø project.
In keeping with their unplanned trajectories, both Robotham and Nesbø went in unexpected directions with their main characters.
Robotham had not wanted to write a series so gave his lead, Joe O’Loughlin, early onset Parkinson’s disease. But O’Loughlin defied his poor diagnosis and kept bobbing back up.
“I brought him back for Shatter because he seemed perfect for the story,” Robotham said. “Then I had him again because my wife said I had to sort out his private life. I write first person, present, and I always like writing from Joe’s point of view. But it’s like spending a year with your best friend in a two-man tent. Doesn’t matter how good a friend they are, you just want them to go away.”
“When we visited, my grandmother said: ‘If you’re not home by eight o’clock, then Hole will come and get you!’” Nesbø said. “I always imagined him as this really big blond guy. That was the idea for the character. I thought he would be a camera, an eye into the story.
“I didn’t know he would be important to the story. It wasn’t until the third novel that I started to know who he was and that was probably when he started developing as a character.”
Inadvertent paths to their calling and characters aside, both authors took seriously the implicit compact between crime writer and reader.
“For me, the most interesting thing with the crime genre, with genres in general, is they give the reader some sort of starting point,” Nesbø said. “If you read on the cover ‘This is a crime novel’, you come to that novel with certain expectations and the expectation is that the writer is going to trick you into believe who did the murder and, probably, it will be somebody else.
“I don’t think you find that in other stories, that you have this game between the reader and the writer where you are supposed to manipulate the reader, and that makes it a very intimate dialogue between the reader and writer.”
Despite such manipulation, Robotham said the author still had to play fair. “You can’t beam down your villain on the second last page and not give your reader the chance to work out who they are,” he said.
“In a sense, it is a contrived and artificial sort of format. But the people who read crime know that. They know there is going to be a mystery and some twists and turns and they love it.”
Fellow ‘Thrill Me, Kill Me’ panellist, South African author Lauren Beukes, said she was irritated by categorisation and just wanted to “write what I want to write and hopefully readers will follow me”. Her latest book Zoo City mixes elements of crime with magical fantasy and science fiction.
Beukes said there should always be an element of surprise in the novel. But “everything absolutely has to make sense. Everything has to go together.”
She said genre fiction was a powerful vehicle for addressing social issues like those she encountered in real-life Johannesburg, the bleak location she adapted for Zoo City.
“The power of genre across the board is that we seem to be dealing with issues in a very real way, whether you have the conceit of a crazy serial killer or a magical animal,” Beukes said. “It is not the news. We can get over that issue fatigue by putting these very hectic issues and very hectic crimes in a way that is very engaging.”
Expanding on the idea of crime writing as social commentary, Robotham said these issues came with the territory. “It is a given now that you are looking at issues like good and evil and truth and justice and also everything from prostitution to people trafficking, war on drugs,” he said. “Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos – both of these men believe that crime writers are now writing the major works that are looking at major issues and that literary writers are steering away from it.”
Nesbø accepted the territory but rejected any notion of a responsibility to address social issues. “I think my only responsibility is to entertain my readers,” he said. “I see myself as an entertainer.
“Social issues – I will use them if I need them. I am a vulture. I will just pick anything I need. If that makes me look like a concerned citizen then fine.”
Other reports from the Perth Writers Festival >