Crime fiction is the natural home of secrets and lies. The stories revolve around deception and concealment, mystery and intrigue. Well-written crime writing will always attract readers keen to discover ‘whodunnit’ – and also ‘whydunnit’. From the ‘motive, means and opportunity’ triumvirate, the motivation of the killer – his psychology and behavior – is usually the most intriguing part of the crime.
The Golden Age of detective fiction, with writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, was known for its convoluted plots and carefully-placed clues and ‘red herrings’. But even in the jigsaw-puzzle process of piecing together classic detective fiction, the emphasis is on a believable motive. One of my favourite Agatha Christie’s is The ABC Murders, where the criminal is concealing his true purpose, the murder of a close relative, behind the facade of a deranged serial killer working his way through the alphabet. Christie’s novels are full of greedy cousins, jealous husbands, mistaken decisions and misplaced passions – the very human motivations for all kinds of crimes.
Dorothy Sayers crafted her plots with meticulous attention to detail: the classic example is Five Red Herrings, where the success of the murderer hinges on his ability to read the Scottish highlands train timetables correctly… Lord Peter Wimsey suspects murder because of a detail as small as the colour of the paint in a missing paint-tube. But with all the attention lavished on such fine points, Sayers never forgets to make her characters vivid and believable; there is as much pleasure in deciphering their motives and actions as there is in unravelling the complications of the plot.
When I read contemporary crime fiction, I still look for a cleverly-constructed plot, well-portrayed characters and a convincing motivation. I found all of these in the early work of Ruth Rendell, P. D. James and Peter Robinson, and in the series written by Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton and Donna Leon. Reginald Hill produces brilliant detective fiction in his Dalziel and Pascoe series, and Peter Temple writes very sophisticated Australian crime fiction. The work of all of these authors, and many others, is available in the Barr Smith Library.
Crime fiction is not regarded as seriously as literary fiction (although many beautifully-written novels have very dark secrets and lies at their hearts.) But it is a very successful genre, bearing the hallmark of excellent writing, often dealing with a wide range of contemporary social issues as well as the psychology of crime. For hours of reading pleasure, I am more than happy to read crime writing.