One of the most frequent pieces of advice we hear for aspiring writers is to write what you know. So it’s a wonder crime novels aren’t littered with crazed authors bludgeoning their editors to death! Thankfully, the examples where the writers appear within fiction are a lot more refined. We asked author and creative writing tutor Henry Sutton to expand on the subject.
‘Writers have long emerged on the page in the genre’s long and bloody canon. Whether directing the action, playing havoc with the plot, or as victim or perpetrator. Often epigraphs by Friedrich Nietzsche seem to accompany these texts, particularly those that appear to address the issue of creativity itself and simply supply further proof that writing fiction can be a pretty criminal activity. Take the line by Nietzsche that Stephen King used for Misery: ‘When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.’ So the abyss is what? Writing a novel? But beware, when fully engaged with that process, weird things can happen.
By no means exhaustive, here are a few of my favourite crime (and I’m using that label, as it should be used, widely) novels that play with the sense of the author, as much as the author plays with the plot.
1. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler.
Chandler’s last proper novel (I’m excluding Playback) is as much about his own tussle with the process, as it’s about Marlowe investigating any crime, including, as the novel progresses, the disappearance of popular, romantic historical novelist Roger Wade. As Marlowe muses at one point: ‘This is a very peaceful place. One would think a writer would be happy here – if a writer is ever happy anywhere.’
2. Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke.
The insanely inventive Irish writer Declan Burke cemented his reputation with this neo-noir novel, or meta-thriller, which finds the unnamed narrator being terrorised to give one of his abandoned characters a second chance. So back to life comes Billy Karlsson, a hospital porter with a side-line in euthanasia. With the narrator/author reluctantly on hand a whole new novel within a novel explodes onto the page (almost literally)
3. Misery by Stephen King.
Whether a psychological horror novel (strictly speaking) or thriller, is a debate that might perhaps detract from the central theme of a genre writer struggling with his form. Famously we have Paul Sheldon, a writer of 19th Century romances featuring Misery Chastain, intent on killing her off so he can move onto pastures new. But his number one fan, Annie Wilkes, who rescues him from a car accident, has other ideas, about what she, and by extension, the public want.
4. Death Sentence by Mikkel Birkegaard.
Brave is the author who attempts to dissect his art in public. In only his second novel the young Danish crime writer Mikkel Birkegaard presents us with a successful crime writer renowned for his visceral descriptions of violence. Torture porn might not be far off the mark. But then someone ‘in real life’ begins enacting these crimes. Much of this, especially the evading of capture, is pretty imaginative stuff. But then, hey, it’s fiction. Crime fiction is always that (by definition), which is why it can be so entertaining.
5. Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard.
Leonard’s masterpiece, giving equal billing to Chili Palmer and Hollywood, is so infused with the sense of story, where stories comes from, creating fiction from fact, what hooks, what delivers, that it comes as no surprise a shylock from Miami, learns to out pitch a top movie producer. La La Land is lovingly ripped apart as Leonard has the last laugh and Chili Palmer is left pondering the reality that endings are always the hardest things to get right.’