The Beauty and Grace of Language and Plot in Crime Fiction

Mary Morris, Thomas H. Cook, Elizabeth George, Sara Gran and John Banville. Photo by Nick Doll.
Mary Morris, Thomas H. Cook, Elizabeth George, Sara Gran and John Banville. Photo by Nick Doll.

On Friday afternoon John Banville, Thomas H. Cook, Elizabeth George, Sara Gran, and Mary Morris had a wide-ranging conversation entitled “The Beauty and Grace of Language and Plot in Crime Fiction.” Morris, who moderated the panel, opened with a quote from W.H. Auden, in which the poet describes the work of Raymond Chandler not as a writer of “escape literature,” but as an artist. A conversation about this distinction ensued, and John Banville made the point that any kind of writing could be beautiful, citing as an example the beautifully written instruction manual for his first dishwasher. Sara Gran added that a text need not even be particularly intelligible to the reader in order to be powerful, citing her formative experiences reading Jacques Lacan. Thomas H. Cook spoke of his early reading experiences with Stevenson’s Book of Quotations, and how that, combined with his readings of Dickens and Shakespeare in the Alabama public schools, gave him the desire for his writing to “say something and be something.”

Morris then posed the question of structure, and whether or not it sometimes got in the way one’s writing. Elizabeth George replied that she always feels as if she’s breaking free from the structure of a plot, but at the same time, it lends a sense of security and the ability to play. She went on to say that at times she feels as if she’s “diving beneath the current of the narrative and letting it pull [her] along.”

The discussion then turned to the idea of imagination, and its relationship to research and realism in fiction, and crime fiction in particular. Gran described her experiences writing police procedurals as “a drag,” because she was often required to keep those procedures true to life. Banville went even further, calling research “the death of fiction.” A story shouldn’t be “weighed down by research,” he said, adding that “imagination is the most powerful weapon, tool, and gift and we should use it as much as we can.” Gran said that one should simply speak with authority, or at least “carry a clipboard.” Elizabeth George said that she actually suffers from a lack of imagination, and needs to do what her editor calls “topographic gumshoeing,” walking around a place she plans to write about in order to really get a good sense of it. Banville added that James Joyce often spoke of a similar lack of imagination, having to draw his inspiration not from his own mind, but from the people around him.

Banville then also wondered if a crime novel actually needed to have a crime in it. Novels such as Crime and Punishment and Lolita contain crimes, but aren’t thought of as crime novels, so could a so-called crime novel exist without a crime? After some discussion, and a few possible examples from panelists, Cook raised the idea that it was more a matter of the atmosphere of the story than of actual events.

Morris then asked the panelists how they dealt with issues related to writing a series of stories with the same characters. Elizabeth George replied that she hates writing scenes where she feels an obligation for a certain character to appear, so she avoids this by creating a large enough cast of characters that these scenes can be infrequent. Cook pointed out that one of his series characters happened to be a sad, self-pitying type, so he added in a more upbeat foil for him. Over the course of three novels, however, the latter was actually dragged down by the former. Banville also added that he had trouble keeping track of details such as eye color or marriage over the course of a series. Cook summed this part of the discussion up, however, by saying that he believes readers feel comfort in the hands of series writers, that there’s a sense of trust that comes along with returning the same characters and the same world again and again.

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