I read a lot of crime fiction (as well as heaps of other stuff - just call me a reading addict!) and lately I've been thinking about sub-genres and what makes a good story. Partly this has come from reading the book Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, because I'm teaching Myths & Symbols again this year and it seemed like a good example of a contemporary book that uses Greek mythology. Yet I'm struggling with it a bit, and I'm wondering if the plot is too simple. Don't get me wrong - the fact that it's a kid's book has nothing to do with it. I've read some amazing children's novels that are totally thought-provoking and complex (like The Wednesday Wars). But this one seems a bit ... predictable somehow. Which makes me dread the movie, which opens next Friday here.
What is it that we want from a book? For many readers, it's simply escapism of the most basic kind. Which might explain why takeaway food sales went up last year and book sales went down! It's why so many buy Dan Brown and give Hilary Mantel a miss. Why strain your brain further after a torrid day at work? But a great book doesn't need to be a struggle. It can challenge and excite and get your brain cells jumping around just by being an excellent story with a plot that makes you think a bit more. Which brings me back to crime fiction.
They (the fabled 'they') have been saying for a while now that serial murder fiction is past its use-by date, no longer popular, no longer trendy. That doesn't seem to have stopped a lot of crime writers trying their own version, or continuing the trend. At the moment I'm reading Tami Hoag's new novel, Deeper Than the Dead. It's a serial killer novel, with the added interest of being set back in the mid 1980s, before the explosion in forensics and computer records. But like many others of its kind, it's about one man who tortures and kills a number of women. As I read it, I feel two things.
One is the urge to go and rent the video for Monster (the movie where Charlize Theron plays a woman who murders men). I'm starting to get way past the novel or the movie where women are simply mutilated victims. But the other aspect of the serial killer novel is that the puzzle is so limited. It's one guy, who we know is insane, who has "things" he does as a signature, and it's the job of the main character to figure out which supposedly normal person is the killer. While there is some suspense involved, it's usually of the kind where we wonder how many more will die before they catch him. The puzzle itself is limited by its sub-genre. Hoag is doing a good job of holding my interest through the characters, but not so much with the puzzle.
Which is why I've so totally enjoyed disovering a new writer in the past few weeks, courtesy of my public library. (Yay for libraries!) Actually she's not new, but my discovery of her is. Priscilla Masters. Funnily enough, her website is actually under the name of her principal character, Joanna Piercy, but the books I've been reading are a series where her main character is Martha Gunn, a coroner in the English city of Shrewsbury. Not the gung-ho kind of coroner who breaks every rule and does things to solve the crime that are not credible, but a character who is thoughtful and intelligent and puzzles things out.
The best thing about the two books I've read is the complexity of the puzzles. Yes, there are murders, but the links and connections are so skilfully played out or disguised that the books keep you thinking and trying to work things out all the way through. I read Slipknot, the second one, first, and then River Deep. Both are really well-written and kept me engaged the whole time. Martha Gunn's own life, apart from the crime aspect, is interesting and adds to the story, making you feel like she's a real person rather than just the convenient protagonist. I'm now going to search out the Piercy series and see if it provides the same kind of intriguing puzzles and plots.