The challenge of coloring inside the lines ‹ CrimeReads


In Robert Altman’s film, The player, Tim Robbins stars as Griffin Mill, a top Hollywood producer who spends his days listening to pitches from aspiring directors and screenwriters. Mill’s claim to fame? Only 12 of the 50,000 pitches he hears get the green light from the studio. Why? Because in Hollywood there is Nope tales that have not been told before. So the enterprising supplicants pack their two-minute story summaries by stringing together movie tropes like rosaries. A comedy play about a distraught American who travels to Africa and becomes worshiped as a god by a pagan tribe is presented as a hybrid of cactus flower and Out of Africa. Mill simplifies the pitch by summarizing their project as “Goldie Goes to Africa”.

You get the drift.

Fiction writing is no exception. If a single idea succeeds and catches the eye of a weary publisher or literary agent, there will soon be a score – or four score – other novels based on the same premise. Witness the wave of zombie novels that proliferated after the publication of book of the dead in 1990. For me, this idea jumped the proverbial shark when Pride and prejudice and zombies appeared. However, I was forced to eat my umbrage when this unlikely novel became a runaway bestseller. As Jane Austen herself would have wisely advised, “Hold your breath to chill your porridge.”

Yet the harder we try to reinvent the wheel, the more likely we are to cobble together a flimsy retread of something that came before. This is no disrespect to genre fiction which, by design, is meant to traverse familiar, well-trodden landscapes. You know their names: noir, thriller, police procedural, true crime, detective, cozy – the whole spectrum. But in the exercise of recreating these well-known tropes, what are the possibilities for variation? How to achieve depth and innovation while coloring between the lines? In art and music, achieving this desired but tenuous balance depends on the fusion of disparate aesthetic elements that together create a unified expression of beauty. In literature, the intersection of unity and variety works much the same way.

In his 2001 New York Times essay, Edmund White called Patricia Highsmith’s narcissist Tom Ripley “a shape-shifting protagonist who plots nothing good”. Casting Ripley as a criminal in disguise who is also “psychological support for his own self-loathing,” Highsmith enticed a generation of readers to do the unthinkable: take root for a villain who lies, cheats and kills for to become rich. and independence. Ripley’s narcissistic attitudes and sense of entitlement drive him to exact revenge on a society he jealously believes has wronged him by denying him access to privilege. The world owes him something, and like all the best anti-heroes, he will stop at nothing to get it. And those of us in the cheap seats encourage it along the way.

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The five Ripley novels combine to establish Highsmith’s Ripley as the archetypal trickster of the entire mystery genre. These novels tick all the boxes: unreliable narrator, convoluted plots, a multitude of twists and turns, red herrings, gripping suspense, and deft manipulation of a limited point of view that hides essential information from the reader. Yet within these constraints, Highsmith has managed to create a series of psychological thrillers that straddle a world of darkness and madness – and foreshadow the ascendancy of a smoldering quagmire of social issues that dominate our political discourse today.

There are countless ways we can all benefit from the Highsmith experience. We can start by presenting a single version of the genre we have chosen. We can dare to be bold enough to subvert convention by leveraging skillful storytelling that contemplates society, morality/immorality, and other food for thought. To achieve this, we can reference some of the classics that laid the foundations of the mystery genre today – books written by stalwarts like Highsmith or Agatha Christie. We can study their willingness to pursue quirky settings, complicated narratives and disturbing portrayals of violence.

Agatha Christie has never been afraid to take cutting-edge approaches to the detective genre. She was a master at confusing her readers with unreliable narrators, criminals who cavalierly escaped justice, or even a murder case in which every suspect was guilty. She thankfully embraced these bold departures from the prescribed tropes that defined such tales.

Take a look at the offerings of any bookstore, online retailer or library and you’ll notice that each book, graphic novel or video has been easily linked to other titles by a seemingly endless string of keywords and often incongruous who seek to categorize content. This happens because the market perception is that readers demand specificity, don’t like surprises, and want to know what to expect. We’re led to believe they want assurances that the billionaire-Amish and Mennonite-rom-com they just bought won’t surprise them with the appearance of an ax murderer hiding behind a sand dune.

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Therefore, our challenge – if we dare to embrace it – is to strive to create genre stories that satisfy, while successfully pushing the boundaries of their labels.

To quote daily writerDiane Callahan, “It’s not like ‘the rules’ of [writing] genre are carved in stone. No one has officially decreed that hard-boiled crime novels can’t break the fourth wall, or that period romances can’t also involve space assassins. And these books do more than just blend two popular genres: they force us to question how we think about gender in the first place.

Callahan’s point is perfectly illustrated by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino. His experimental novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler stubbornly refuses to be a single genre – or even a single story. The protagonist of the novel is you (the reader), and you are trying to read Italo Calvino If on a winter night a traveler. But every time you turn a page, you find yourself deep inside

inside an entirely different book. What results is nothing less than meta-fiction tour de force which blasts virtually every trope and genre of fiction.

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Yet no matter how much we speak out against it, genre fiction and literary fiction continue to wage war on each other. Genre fiction is accused of being simplistic and formulaic, while literary fiction is condemned for its importance and density. This tired, ageless debate has raged for so long that its undead denizens rival the number of zombies running in and out of Jane Austen’s drawing rooms. Unfortunately, it remains true that in most literary circles, genre books come with a caveat, which writer Neil Gaiman once colorfully described in an interview:

At the time when fantasy had its own space in the bookstore, it was considered inferior to mimetic and realistic fiction. . . I was fascinated by the way Terry Pratchett, on the one hand, made people like AS Byatt say, “These are real books, they say important things and they are beautifully designed,” and on the otherwise, he would still not get any real recognition. I remember Terry saying to me at one point, ‘You know, you can do whatever you want, but you put on a fucking dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.'”

So, how are you.

And because chickens come home to roost, I’ll share that a publicist once summed up one of my mysteries as “The big thrill meets Grilled green tomatoes Passing by A river flows through This.”

I can live with that. . .



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