05/18/2024

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The State of the Crime Novel, Part 2: The Future of Crime Writing

The State of the Crime Novel, Part 2: The Future of Crime Writing

This is part two of our annual roundtable discussion ahead of the Edgar Awards, in which we discuss major issues (and minor peeves) in crime writing. Thanks so much to all the nominees who contributed to the discussion!

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What do you think is the most important issue facing crime writers today?

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Jess Lourey (nominated for Best Paperback Original – The Taken Ones): Inclusivity in our genre, in my opinion, is the most important issue facing crime writers today. Thanks to the hard work of Crime Writers of Color, Sisters in Crime, and others, our field is more diverse than it’s ever been, but there’s still important stories that aren’t being told, or aren’t reaching the audience they deserve. This issue affects all crime writers because all our boats rise together.

Susan Isaacs (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – Bad, Bad Seymour Brown): Not getting distracted. A crime writer has to create the world they want, and then populate it with characters who feel alive. Of course there’s the crime. It has to be depicted in such a compelling way that the reader can’t resist sticking with the investigation from start to finish.

But even with a room of one’s own, it’s tough for a crime writer to stay focused. We all know that the Internet is both blessing and curse. Dare to look up a synonym for fire online (because all that comes to mind in that moment is conflagration, which would suck). And when your conscious mind next checks in on your progress, it discovers you’ve been listening to a podcast by the members of the Nissequogue, Long Island volunteer fire department.

I’ve gotten so tripped up by rabbit holes when researching the forensic science available to solve crimes that I’ve wasted words, passion, and time coercing my narrator to natter on about trace evidence analysis of explosives. Paragraphs. Pages. All because I felt like a pro after an hour of skimming erudite papers and watching a YouTube video. And after I reread and rewrote it? One sentence remained.

It’s not only websites that distract us. It’s politics on social media (watchable on any cellphone) that stimulates us to the point where we believe we’re pundits and must expound. Or the need to display our alleged “real lives,” except even when we’re working, we document our doings for the world: our messy desk, pics of Fluff the cat watching us work. If your goal is to invent a world, you have to live in it, not observe your creation from the outside.

Even entering that world of your characters has become more challenging because of how we’re hooked by some enthralling narrative that seizes our inner lives: from video games to instantly downloadable books to streaming adaptations of… other authors’ crime writing. It’s a fight to leave a compelling story for one that’s unfinished.

James Lee Burke (nominated for Best Novel – Flags on the Bayou): I think what we call crime stories today, at least the good ones, replaced the books about the Depression Era. Steinbeck and Dos Passos come to mind. The big crime to them was injustice. That’s what I try to show in my work.

I.S. Berry (nominated for Best First Novel – The Peacock and the Sparrow): Freedom of speech (and I think this applies to all writers, crime or other). Increasingly, I think people seek to silence voices and subjects to which they object—whether through overt bans or, more insidiously, through pressure, marginalization, or personal attacks against authors. Uncivil discourse surrounding books is growing. Authors should be able to write honestly, authentically, and in an unvarnished and unorthodox way. Books are like frogs in our ecosystem, a bellwether for the health of our society.

Sean McCluskey (nominated for the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award – “The Soiled Dove of Shallow Hollow,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine): The devaluing of writing into content, something that can be squirted out by an algorithm. As artificial intelligence improves, will it be capable of cranking out something that can hold a reader’s interest? Surprise them, delight them, make them glad they picked it up? I like to think that’ll remain the province of the human mind.

Mary Winters (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – Murder in Postscript): One important issue facing crime writers today is pay. According to a 2023 survey from The Authors Guild, full-time “mystery, thriller, and suspense authors had a book income median of $10,000, with their combined median book and author-related income totaling $15,010.” Like so many other artists, writers are not compensated as they should be. It’s a privilege to write, and a blessing for so many, but it should also be a viable profession that provides benefits and a livable wage.

Scott Von Doviak (nominated for Best Paperback Original – Lowdown Road): I’m guessing many of the nominees will mention AI, and rightly so, as it’s probably the biggest issue facing writers of all kinds at the moment. So I’ll leave that one to someone smarter and better informed than me. Another big one is the increasing scarcity of outlets for our work and the promotion of same. A publisher like Polis folding is a massive loss to the crime writing community, and with Twitter a shadow of its former self, it’s even harder to hawk our wares. (I know TikTok works for some, but come on, I went to high school in the ‘80s.)

“Everything’s important, everything’s on the table, and everything’s fair game.” –Tracy Clark 

Katherine Hall Page (2024 Grand Master): This is a hard one. Staying relevant without tripping over current cliches or losing one’s own style to catch the next Girl-On-A-Train trend are important issues we face. The Importance of Being Honest sums it up. However, the most crucial issue is simply the ongoing state of the publishing world. It’s a landscape that has changed at warp speed since my first book was published in 1989 by SMP, a family publishing house. The absorption of it and similar houses into what are now essentially five publishers with the former houses now imprints makes it more difficult for crime writers to stay published and get published. The days of the slush pile and over the transom discoveries unagented are long gone. To an extent, this means small independent presses and self-publishing, which is good news, boding well for diversity on many levels. It’s possible to become a published crime writer, but it’s more daunting than ever and acknowledging it, trying to change it is the challenge we face. And then there’s AI…

Ken Jaworowski (nominated for Best First Novel – Small Town Sins): I think readers are starving for good books, and I believe that there are more terrific writers out there than ever. Yet with the decline of newspaper book reviews for general audiences, it can be tough to introduce titles to the public. Social media can help, of course. But I’d love to find a way to make it easier to alert the casual reader to new works.

Tracy Clark (nominated for Best Paperback Original – Hide): I don’t think there is a “most important” issue. Every issue out there is important. We’re writing about society and its ills. We’re writing about the human condition. Everything’s important, everything’s on the table, and everything’s fair game.

William Kent Krueger (nominated for Best Novel – The River We Remember): At the heart of so many stories in our genre is the idea that, in the end, justice prevails. But as a reality, the goal of justice for all seems more distant than ever. If crime fiction is a reflection of society, and I believe it is, for me the greatest challenge is to offer stories of hope in a world where hope seems more and more to be slipping away.

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What is the future of crime writing, in your opinion?

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Mary Winters: The future of crime writing is bright. Writers continue to diversify the genre, bringing their unique experiences to the field. The changing landscape makes me feel hopeful for new authors and books.

AF Carter (nominated for Best Paperback Original – Boomtown): Let me put this another way. What is the future of commercial fiction? Fewer people read today, compared, for instance, to the time, not all that long ago, when every little store contained a revolving wire rack holding mass market paperbacks. The decline was inevitable, probably, given the ever-diversifying entertainment options out there. The good news is that storytelling is as natural to human beings as breath and heartbeat. Storytelling will continue on in some form. The bigger question is whether or not human beings will produce the stories. Software like Sudowrite already exist, and while they cannot yet produce a readable novel, AI is still in its infancy. My sense is that novelists themselves will be eliminated as computer-written novels become viable. After all, why pay an advance and royalties when the work can be produced by a salaried editor in a few weeks? No sub-rights to share with authors, either.

Jennifer J. Chow (nominated for the Lilian Jackson Braun Memorial Award – Hot Pot Murder): The future of crime writing is bright. People will always be curious, and I believe crime fiction plays on that desire to unveil secrets, explore mysteries, and to, ultimately, understand one another better.

Katherine Hall Page: When I think about the future of crime writing I look to the past and P.D. James’ response to a question asking about the appeal of crime fiction: “These novels are always popular in ages of great anxiety. It’s a very reassuring form. It affirms the hope that we live in a rational and beneficent universe.” Writers like Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, and Mickey Spillane offered distraction from the Great Depression, World Wars, and political upheaval. The appeal continues—all too relevant— in the present. The future promises even greater anxieties, and we will need crime writing all the more. The traditional mystery with redemptive goodness triumphing over evil; Noir presenting chaotic warnings; and true crime with vicarious escape—we’ll take our picks!

Sean McCluskey: Hopefully, me! But failing that, shorter, more serialized works written by people instead of programming. I anticipate more diversity, with stories of cultures, places, and people that aren’t traditionally heard from. And I think there’ll be a continued drift away from traditional mystery stories (focus on who committed the crime and how) into thriller territory (emphasis on why they did it). All of this will happen, I believe, alongside the continued expansion of self-publishing.

Samantha Jayne Allen (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – Hard Rain): Hopefully, more diversity—of characters and their creators, of structures and the types of stories being told. Not underestimating longtime fans of our genre, who I think desire to read what’s yet unfamiliar in addition to old favorites. As you mentioned, the mixing of genres is becoming more popular, and as crime fiction becomes a larger umbrella, conversely, I think, readers might also burrow into their own niches a bit. Kind of like streaming now, there could be something written specifically for every taste, overall more choices.

William Kent Krueger: No end in sight, as far as I can tell. There are wonderful new voices coming onto the scene every year. Lots of reasons to celebrate.

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If you could get rid of any trope in the genre, what would it be, and why?

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Tracy Clark: The hard-drinking PI with a whiskey bottle in his bottom drawer can go, as far as I’m concerned. Seen it. Done it. Time to move on.

Rob Osler (nominated for Best Short Story – “Miss Direction,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine): I would relax the constraining expectation that a cozy should entail a cottage business, take place in a small town, involve a pet, and completely avoid contentious social issues. Note that I said relax, not eliminate. Readers benefit by having broad choices; there’s room for both traditional and progressive works. A more inclusive cozy world only invigorates the subgenre.

Sean McCluskey: It’s been decried by many people more eloquent than I am, but I’d be happy to see the end of the ‘woman as victim to motivate/justify a man’s righteous revenge’ bit. Whatever shock value it once had is long gone, and there are so many more interesting ways to kick off a good vengeance spree.

Ken Jaworowski: The long-winded, implausible denouement, when at the end of a story, a Snidely-Whiplash type character pulls a gun and announces to the hero: ‘I am the killer! Don’t you remember, back at the very beginning, when I said…etc. etc. etc.” That is often the sign of lazy writing, and when it happens, my eyes seem to roll into the back of my head.

William Kent Krueger: Although I try to steer clear of them, I have nothing against tropes, in general. In some ways, they meet readers’ expectations of the genre. But if you put a gun to my head (a cliché, which is, I suppose, another form of trope) and I had to choose one it would be the scene at the end of a mystery when our detective hero explains all the clues that point to the killer, a whole set of circumstances that only someone with the brain of an astrophysicist would have been able to make sense of.

Lina Chern (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – Play the Fool): I wouldn’t get rid of any tropes. I like tropes! All stories rely on certain basic conventions of storytelling—like agreements between readers and writers regarding what makes a story work—and I often find that the line between acceptable familiarity and “trope” or “cliché” is thin and subjective. To me, good writing is all in the execution, and some of my biggest thrills as a reader come when a writer executes a done-to-death trope in a way that makes it new and fresh.

Scott Von Doviak: I’m not sure this counts as a trope, but my biggest pet peeve in crime fiction is the word “upmarket.” When I was on the agent search, this buzzword was everywhere—“we’re looking for upmarket crime fiction”—and I’m still not sure exactly what they mean. To me it suggests respectability and tastefulness—something you can read on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard without being embarrassed. Certainly there’s an audience for that, but is it the only audience? “Keep crime fiction disreputable,” that’s my campaign slogan. Call my stuff pulp, you won’t hurt my feelings.

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What are your thoughts about cross-genre writing?

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Scott Von Doviak: The more the merrier, although I’m not sure agents and publishers agree. I’ve met with resistance just from mashing up subgenres that fall under the crime fiction umbrella. One rejection that stuck with me (not in a good way) was from an agent who felt a particular manuscript was too hardboiled to be a whodunnit and too cozy to be a thriller. “You have to pick a shelf,” as if most bookstores actually have different shelves for each of these things, when mostly they’re shoved together under “Mystery/Crime.” Personally, I doubt most readers need things so neatly categorized, but maybe that’s why I never went into marketing.

Carol Goodman (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – The Bones of the Story): I’ve always loved cross-genre fiction and think that it only strengthens and invigorates the field. Mystery is a wide, capacious tent generous enough, despite a little bickering, to shelter the hardboiled and the cozy; the contemporary and the historical, the realist and the fantastic. I’ve particularly enjoyed Stephen King’s horror-inflected forays into the detective novel, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s potent mix of horror, suspense, and social satire; Anthony Horowitz’s injection of golden age tropes into contemporary who-dunits; and Simone St. James’s haunted thrillers.

A.F. Carter: Consumers have a right to be entertained by whatever entertains them. As for authors? If you don’t put fannies in the seats, you won’t be writing long. It works or it doesn’t.

Jennifer J. Chow: Creativity should be allowed to flow, and I think extending boundaries is a way to stretch artistic muscles.

William Kent Krueger: One of the things I love most about the crime genre is that it can embrace any interest that a reader or writer might have. If you love history, there are historical mysteries. If you’ve got a profound sense of humor, there are funny mysteries. Love philosophy? It’s easy to find mysteries that delve into all kinds of philosophical conundrums. So, why not throw a vampire or werewolf into the mix? There’s a reason crime novels are called popular fiction. They offer something to appeal to everyone. As both a writer and a reader, I appreciate the egalitarian nature of our genre.

I.S. Berry: I love cross-genre work! More than ever, I think traditional category descriptions are too limiting and don’t do writing justice. When you look back, so many great books could fit into multiple genres. Is John Fowle’s The Collector a thriller or literature? Before I was published, I didn’t even know what all the labels meant. One reviewer called my book “equal parts noir, thriller, and literature”—and I’m delighted with that description!

Sean McCluskey: I love anything that sparks creativity in writers, and inspires readers who love particular genres but don’t have experience with others to try new things. And I think one of the best things about crime is that it just goes great with anything, like chocolate and/or peanut butter. Also Scotch.

April Henry (nominated for Best Young Adult – Girl Forgotten): I think crime fiction has always cross-pollinated with other genres, and has long had room for humor, or romance, or settings like outer space or historical times. Mysteries can be solved by cats or have a supernatural element. More recently, I’m seeing a mix of horror and crime fiction. I love it all.

Patricia Johns (nominated for the Lilian Jackson Braun Memorial Award – Murder of an Amish Bridegroom): As a romance writer who has moved into crime fiction, I love this! Romance looks at the human experience of falling in love, and crime fiction looks at the human experience of death, and pushes the envelope further to include murder. It’s the same source of passionate emotions driving people to find a partner to care for, or on the other end of the spectrum, to lash out and kill someone. Those deep boiling emotions drive us, and I believe that being able to write compelling romance really does help to write compelling murder, too! Sometimes I joke that in romance I get to marry them off, and in crime fiction I get to kill them off. But there is something very satisfying about exploring both the bright side and the dark side of the human experience.

Claire Swinarski (nominated for Best Juvenile – What Happened to Rachel Riley?): I think the melding of genres is a great way to get people interested in mysteries who otherwise might not be. My favorite books don’t fit neatly in one category; they’re a blend of romance and mystery and literary fiction and drama. There are no rules anymore–it’s a great time to be a writer because there’s so much creative play and experimentation!

Jennifer Cody Epstein (nominated for Best Novel – The Madwomen of Paris): I tend to think that crossovers of any sort can strengthen, enrich, and add dimension to writing, in much the same way that open dialogue can enrich and enhance conversation and understanding. It’s something I’ve always been interested in; in fact, my first novel centered on an early 20th-century artist who drew criticism as well as acclaim for blending Chinese and Western painting techniques. And as a writer I’ve always been intrigued by the way elements like truth and fiction, past and present, and prose and poetry can speak to one another within my novels. The Madwomen of Paris was very much an experiment along those lines, combining a variety of different genres—historical, mystery, Brontëan Gothic, true crime—in a way that I hoped would speak to modern-day questions like sexual assault and medical exploitation.

Jess Lourey: Mystery writer Matthew Clemens once said, “There are only two genres: good books and bad books. Everything else is marketing.” The more we feel free to cross into what’s been historically considered another genre to write the best story we can, the better the books will be. Personally, I love reading crime fiction threaded with romance, or horror, or in a fantastical setting and hope to see more of it.

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Do crime writers have a responsibility to engage with social criticism? 

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William Kent Krueger: A responsibility? I don’t believe so. But many of us do choose to use our work as vehicles for pointing out the iniquities or injustices in our society. And I believe that our stories have the profound possibility of making readers aware of and sensitive to social problems in a way that straight forward reportage cannot. A good story goes for the heart, not the head. And it’s only in the heart where a story finds a lasting home.

Tracy Clark: Crime writers are pretty attuned to the world around them. The world is their landscape. Crime fiction is nothing more than society in microcosm. Good v. evil. Humanity/inhumanity. It’s just a big old morality play with good guys and bad guys battling it out. Crime fiction doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Writers need to see the world as it is, and then figure out what they think about it.

Sarah Stewart Taylor (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – A Stolen Child): This is such a complex subject. One part of my author brain says that when you sit down at your desk for the day, your primary responsibility has to be to the writing, to the story. Good writing, by every definition that I subscribe to, is informed by what is true, by the actual experiences and feelings of people like the ones you’re writing about. Characters need to feel wholly and messily human. They can’t be symbols or mouthpieces. But I think that crime writers do have a unique responsibility to look unflinchingly at systemic injustice and inequality. Writing about crime can confer a narrative advantage; crime stories provoke a visceral response that draws readers in and gives our genre its appeal and staying power. Along with that advantage, I think we have a responsibility to re-examine who we cast as heroes and villains in the stories we tell and to be clear-eyed about the inequities in our justice system, about poverty and racism and homophobia and misogyny. I just do.

Carol Goodman: I think that’s each writer’s choice, but it’s hard to imagine how not to comment on society while writing crime fiction. Whenever we write about crime, we’re writing about social ills, taboos, and marginalized people. I am continuously inspired and provoked by what’s happening in our world and I use writing to process the chaos. I want my readers to recognize the world they live in and to perhaps see it anew when they put the book down.

Jennifer J. Chow: Writers absorb their surroundings, so real-world issues will organically appear in our work when we craft authentic characters. I believe crime writers have a unique position in opening up dialogue about social issues because we often explore underlying primal human emotions that can lead to merriment…or murder.

Linda Castillo (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – An Evil Heart): A fiction writer has one job and that is to entertain the reader. Do some readers read crime fiction with an eye toward real-world issues or social criticism? Perhaps. But I think it’s more likely that readers read fiction to escape and enjoy a fictional world that will entertain and delight. Give your readers what they want. Stay true to your story. Stay true to your characters. And you will stay true to your readers.

Yvonne Woon (nominated for Best Young Adult – My Flawless Life): I write novels for young adults, so I’m biased, as I believe that writing for young, malleable minds comes with many layers of responsibility. When we have the attention of developing minds, we have to be mindful of what our stories are telling them. This especially goes for stories about crime, which are, in essence, about what’s right and what’s wrong, and how and why people do bad things. What complicates crime writing is that our idea of what’s right vs. wrong is constantly changing – many behaviors that are unacceptable today were socially accepted just ten or twenty years ago, and if you look historically, the difference is even more pronounced. Many actions that are now considered crimes weren’t treated as such just a handful of decades ago (domestic violence, sexual assault, and police brutality, to name a few). So while I don’t think crime writers have a duty to directly address real-world issues, I do think it’s impossible to write a story that feels true and urgent without thinking about the story existing within the moral context of the world today.

Rob Osler: All authors are interested in writing authentic characters. Unless the story features a recluse, the protagonist exists in society—and no society is perfect. Whether the story’s hero is gay or straight, a POC or white, rural or urban, poor or wealthy, identity and social status shape a character’s world and struggles. It’s hard to keep it real and completely avoid social issues. That said, genre then influences how deeply a reader might expect an author to delve into such matters. If the story is a political thriller, social issues would seem unavoidable, but with a cozy, a lighter touch would be expected.

A.F. Carter: I’m going to stick out my neck and say no. The first duty of an entertainer is to entertain, and it’s quite possible to please a large audience without touching up controversial issues. There’s also the well-worn mandate: show, don’t tell. I want my own books to reflect social issues and they do, but I wouldn’t impose social relevance on others, nor is social relevance especially prominent in my own reading. I would add this, however, for beginning writers. The novel you begin tomorrow, will see the better part of two years before it’s published. Today’s hot topic may well be yesterday’s news two years down the line. Better to allow your characters to embody the issues without resorting to windy polemics.

Sean McCluskey: As a federal employee, I obviously eschew any responsibility whatsoever! But I think a writer’s greatest duty is to tell a compelling story, whether it speaks to contemporary issues or not. A writer’s message, like a writer’s unique voice, will come through naturally. I think the crime fiction writer need to be aware of the criticism that address the genre (gratuitous violence, sexual assault as a plot device, etc.) without limiting their work out of fear that they’ll offend.

I.S. Berry: Writers should absolutely tackle real-world issues. People are looking to make sense of our world, and I think artists of all stripes have a unique ability to help them do that. Especially in this time of TikTok, clickbait, and social media, I think writers can provide a more thoughtful, nuanced, deeper lens on issues. That said, there are a lot of current topics that seem to flicker through the literary ethos, and I’m wary of becoming too wedded to these: as a writer, I search for what’s timeless; I want my book to retain its resonance and engage readers twenty years from now.