After a very, very long year, the Edgar Awards are once again upon us. 2021 marks the 75th year that Mystery Writers of America will celebrate the best crime and mystery writing, and while 2020 was an abysmal year by any other metric, it was a stellar year for great new books. In what’s become a tradition here at CrimeReads, our editors partnered with MWA to organize a giant roundtable discussion between the Edgar nominees, and we received responses from over 30 authors, each with their own fascinating take on our beloved genre. The Edgar Awards Ceremony begins at 1 PM EST on Thursday, the 29th, via Zoom. You can read the second part of this discussion, focused on the challenges and silver linings of writing during a pandemic, on Thursday morning.
(The second part of our roundtable discussion will appear tomorrow, before the ceremony.)
Here’s a big one: what do you consider to be (if any) the purpose of crime fiction?
Nev March (nominated for Best First Novel – Murder in Old Bombay): Crime writers are an odd sort of moralist, I think, who rail at the way things are by making it all intensely personal. Crime stories show loopholes in the law, in statute of limitations and other crevices where evil hides.
We hear about tragedies and crime every day, but only when people feel injustice can we change minds. We’re confounded by individuals who defy the law. I think some part of us wonders, could they really get away with it? Sadly, in real life they sometimes do, for decades. Crime fiction allows us to speed up the process of seeing justice served.
Ariel Sabar (nominated for Best Fact Crime – Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife): For me, the best crime stories, fact or fiction, show us profoundly human characters in extreme situations. But ideally they go beyond that. They force readers to confront tricky questions of right and wrong in a broken world where morality is more often gray than black and white.
Brian Cliff (nominated for Best Critical/Biographical – Guilt Rules All: Irish Mystery, Detective, and Crime Fiction): I don’t know that I’d say it has a purpose, as such. Like all art, it can offer many different things to many different readers, comforting them or challenging them, and can do so in different ways at different moments in their lives. That’s a subjective, personal effect, though, and not the same as a fixed purpose.
Laurie R. King (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – Riviera Gold): 1. Entertainment. First and foremost.
2. Subversion: a writer can be sly, in making a reader think about things differently.
Kathleen Kent (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – The Burn): Like any genre, crime fiction can be read for sensationalism. But, the best of it spotlights social inequities and offers, in a cathartic way, individuals who are often greatly flawed, but who struggle to right those wrongs, sometimes through great personal sacrifice.
Mariah Fredericks (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – Death of an American Beauty): Personally, I’m fascinated by the fact that most of us consider ourselves relatively good or righteous individuals. And yet we tolerate an extraordinary level of killing in this country—why? I like stories that grapple with that question in a complex, human way.
Stephanie Wrobel (nominated for Best First Novel – Darling Rose Gold): I think crime fiction has the same purpose as all fiction, which is to nudge the reader to see the world differently. The best books ask questions rather than provide answers, in my opinion. This certainly isn’t a requirement of the genre, but I also enjoy crime fiction that blurs the line between perpetrators and victims. I think the most interesting work dwells in the grey areas.
Ivy Pochoda (nominated for Best Novel – These Women): Crime fiction is the one genre that is never afraid to take an unflinching look at the worst the world has to offer. It goes where other genres do not dare. And there’s no single approach in crime fiction that is superior to the others. We have books from the victim’s perspective, books from the criminal’s, books from the POV of an investigator, be that an amateur or a professional. Taken together, these books offer a more perfect view on the world’s deep imperfections. It’s not crime fiction’s duty to solve these problems but to draw attention to them—highlight them using whatever angle or approach suits the particular problem or narrative. Together the collective opus of modern crime fiction shines a light on the main ills afflicting the world today, from the disenfranchised rights of minorities to the disregard of women, to the mental afflictions and physical abuses that hide in plain sight. And instead of offering solutions, crime fiction illustrates the need for solutions and the pervasiveness of a wide range of often ignored injustices. Today’s crime fiction takes us deep into overlooked neighborhoods, marginalized communities, and into the minds of disregarded characters (whether this is because of age, race, neurotypically, gender, or location). And this daring and unvarnished approach, disguised as a ripping good yarn, forces the reader to confront (sometimes for the first time) an issue they might have shied from, ignored, or dismissed. And that is as good and as important a purpose as any in fiction.
David Heska Wanbli Weiden (nominated for Best First Novel – Winter Counts): Crime fiction should first and foremost entertain the readers and provide them with a window into a new and different reality. I’m never happier than when I’m immersed in a true page-turner with riveting characters and a twisting plot. But crime fiction can also shine a light on pressing social and political issues. I wrote Winter Counts to tell the story of Virgil Wounded Horse, but I also wanted readers to learn about the archaic federal laws that encourage lawlessness on Native reservations. Not to mention, I wanted people to know about the substandard health care system for Native Americans and the fact that our traditional spiritual practices were criminalized until 1978. But in the end, story matters. I love that so many people have contacted me and expressed appreciation for learning about American Indian culture, but I’m absolutely thrilled when I hear that someone stayed up all night reading because they had to find out how the tale ended. When I hear that, I know I’ve done my job.
Ilaria Tuti (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – The Sleeping Nymph): More than a purpose, I consider it as an opportunity: crime fiction can be a magnifying glass on the society in which we live, in order to focus its shadows, especially the deepest ones related to the human mind.
Elsa Hart (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne): I think it shares a purpose with all fiction—to change a reader’s world. This can mean so many things. A story can distract us, even scare us, in a way that helps us rest, and the world can look very different after a rest. A book that presents complex issues within a character-driven narrative can help us recognize those issues outside the context of the story. A great detective can become an imaginary friend we carry with us. Even just one scene or sentence or metaphor can add a whole new facet to our reality.
Joseph S. Walker (nominated for Best Short Story – “Etta at the End of the World,” Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine): Huh. That is a big one. What’s the purpose of any fiction? What’s the purpose of art generally? I think Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, introduced me to the idea that art is any activity not dedicated to immediate survival or procreation. Art is the stuff we do that we don’t have to do. As such it serves two overlapping functions: to entertain, and to generate new ideas. Crime fiction does both these things. At one level it can be just escapist entertainment, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. But crime fiction is also a way to think about a lot of important topics: how power is arranged in a society, how and why people violate the social order, alienation and violence, and so on.
All that said, most of the time I’m writing crime stories because doing so is a lot of fun, and hopefully reading my stories is fun too!
Khurrum Rahman (nominated for Best Paperback Original – East of Hounslow): There seems to be a huge pull towards crime fiction on every platform. There’s an attraction, almost an unquenchable thirst for a world that most are not familiar with. I don’t quite know what it is that makes us want to read about horrible injustices. I guess for some it’s the chase, the nuts and bolts of an investigation and slowly putting the pieces together. For me, personally, I like to read crime that delves deeply into the mind of the antagonist, the cause and effect. It’s a never-ending fascination what wicked thoughts run through a person’s mind.
Jacqueline Winspear (nominated for Best Critical/Biographical – This Time Next Year We’ll All Be Laughing): Primarily, let’s be honest, as writers of crime/mystery fiction, we’re in the entertainment business. Please do not take my use of the word “entertainment” to be “fun” or “comic” or (heaven forbid) “light”—it’s a diversion from the everyday, an immersion in something outside oneself. We have to assume that people are spending hard earned disposable income on our books, so whether we are writing a serious story set in wartime, or a crime caper, a political or environmental thriller, or a historical mystery (or even a memoir!) an element of our task is to immerse readers in something other than the daily round of their lives, with all its responsibilities and cares. Or we might be offering another way of looking at the world they know—fiction as food for thought. If a writer can layer that with the universal truths which hold us together as human beings, that’s a fair day’s work. And especially in a pandemic when we all need a little lifting, in one way or another.
James W. Ziskin (nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award – Turn to Stone): I’ve long wondered what makes crime fiction so enduringly compelling. Is it the interplay between morbid voyeurism and the desire to see justice served? It could be a vicarious fascination with the evil perpetrated against someone other than ourselves. Or maybe it’s simply the prototypical human story, featuring the conflict between the worst and the best of our nature. Does that make the purpose of crime fiction cathartic? Entertaining? Moralistic? I don’t know.
Jessica Moor (nominated for Best Paperback Original – The Keeper): What’s the purpose of fiction? What’s the purpose of art generally? I think any pat answer to those questions is almost bound to be dangerous. I don’t think crime fiction is duty-bound to do anything in particular, but I would observe that it seems to do some things very well. One of those things is to take a given situation—whether it’s Danish local politics or an idyllic village in rural England—and show us where the cracks are, what’s going on beneath the surface.
And then, of course, crime fiction is just very good for the story-lover in all of us. JB Priestley observed that the rise in popularity of the crime novel coincided with a move in ‘literary fiction’ towards plotlessness. I think there’s a part of all of us that opens a book and hopes that it will simply tell us a story, a really great story that will take us out of ourselves. And crime fiction is wonderful for that. During a pandemic, when often all we’re doing is waiting, it’s a magical thing to be able to leave our houses, leave our lives, and disappear.
June Hur (nominated for Best Young Adult – The Silence of Bones): I believe it’s to explore the dark side of reality, and to redeem it by resolving the case at the end of the book. I believe it’s to project onto the pages a world we hope for—a world in which justice can be obtained.
Erin E. MacDonald (nominated for Best Critical/Biographical – Ian Rankin: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction): I don’t think there has to be any purpose to crime fiction (or any fiction) other than to give people something to enjoy. That said, I do usually prefer fiction that makes people think about larger issues—not just about crime and justice in a narrow sense, but in the broader sense of social justice. Sometimes it’s enough just to get people thinking about a character—like a female detective, perhaps—in a different way, or to encourage readers to empathize with people they wouldn’t normally be in contact with.
Caroline B. Cooney (nominated for Best Novel – Before She Was Helen): We who read crime fiction want action. We want a car chase, not whiny self examination. We want mystery and puzzles, fear and hope. We want to root for somebody. We want the good guys to win. We want a story where we just have to read the next chapter. In short, we want an armload of mysteries sitting on the coffee table, waiting for us to dig in.
Leslie Elman (nominated for Best Short Story – “The Summer Uncle Cat Came to Stay,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine): Comfort? I think everyone appreciates and enjoys good storytelling. Traditional mystery fiction—like traditional romance fiction—offers the reader certain guarantees. We can be fairly confident that a criminal will be found out and eventually brought to justice. There’s comfort in that.
Elizabeth Mannion (nominated for Best Critical/Biographical – Guilt Rules All: Irish Mystery, Detective, and Crime Fiction): The same as all forms of fiction: escape, educate, provoke. The one thing that sets it apart—I’m agreeing here with something that’s been said many times by many people—is the satisfaction that comes from witnessing process and a sense of order.
Lori Rader-Day (nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award – The Lucky One): Crime novels can be social novels, nudging readers to think about issues they would not choose to study and may not believe have anything to do with their own lives. I say can be because not all are. Not all should be. I think it’s fine for some books to be fun to read, although personally I like books better if I see the world reflected in them. I spend a year writing a book. I think it would be strange to have a year of my life packaged up and not have some of what bothered me off the page show up on the page.
Taryn Souders (nominated for Best Juvenile – Coop Knows The Scoop): I would hope to show there’s justice in the world. Sometimes it’s not quick. Sometimes it takes more time than we want, but ultimately, I want my readers to know there’s justice (and hopefully redemption).
Martin Edwards (nominated for Best Critical/Biographical – Howdunit: A Masterclass in Crime Writing by Members of the Detection Club): To engage, inform, and above all to entertain.
What’s a change you’d like to see in the genre? Is there a sub-genre that you think is due for a revival?
Jessica Moor: Fewer dead girls being used as sexy ciphers. Less of the true crime industrial complex’s voyeurism.
David Heska Wanbli Weiden: I’d like to see many more indigenous writers write crime novels. Winter Counts is written from a Lakota-centric perspective, but there are hundreds of other Native nations, and I can’t wait to read tales from those emerging writers (including more novels from the crime writer Marcie Rendon, White Earth Nation citizen!)
Joseph S. Walker: I’d like to see more attention to short fiction anthologies. This is selfish of me, because most of my stories appear in such anthologies. Still, there are a number of independent and small-press publishers out there turning out entertaining, diverse anthologies every year that include stories by a lot of very good writers. It can be challenging, though, to make the readers who would love those books aware of them, and I’d like to see more effective ways of doing that.
Ivy Pochoda: I really loved Tod Goldberg’s short story collection and would absolutely love to see more—gosh I hate this word—literary crime story collections, especially linked collections, such as Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth.
Lori Rader-Day: All the subgenres are due for a refresh with #ownvoices authors at the helm but in particular, given how dire things outside books have been, I think we might see more happy endings, more humorous mysteries, more paranormal. The real world has been so hard. We deserve some haunted houses.
Mariah Fredericks: Humor is supposed to be the kiss of death. But I think crime novels that highlight the whacked out, bizarro extremes of American life a la Elmore Leonard or Donald Westlake would be very welcome right now. By me, anyway.
Elsa Hart: I’m always looking for mysteries and thrillers that are aware that they are stories. Give me mind-bending metafiction any day.
Ilaria Tuti: I love science fiction, but in Italy it is underrated and overlooked. I hope that one day sci-fi novels built on the chassis of crime fiction will be more present on the market, because they deal with fascinating topics such as the future of humanity and the human-machine interaction.
Kathleen Kent: I’m a big fan of apocalyptic fiction, like Stephen King’s The Stand, or Justin Cronin’s The Passage. It will be interesting to see how this new pandemic will shape the next crop of crime fiction.
Khurrum Rahman: I’ve been toying with the idea of writing an out and out horror. Something dark and depraved that would make you jump out of your skin. Maybe I’m wrong but I struggle to find truly scary books. Recommendations are welcome!
Elizabeth Mannion: I love classic locked-room mysteries and am up for a revival on those.
Nev March: I’d like to see a lot more international mystery stories and cross continental stories. We live in a global world, and the differences in culture fascinate me. I like more genuine emotion in stories. Fast-paced action is good, but it needs to have heart.
Martin Edwards: I’m a huge fan of short stories and I’d like to see even more publishing outlets for them.
Publishing has committed to diversifying the industry, but there are still plenty of hurdles when it comes to gatekeeping. What still needs to change, when it comes to crime and mystery publishing?
Ivy Pochoda: Well, obviously what needs to change is more editors of color acquiring crime and more pathways for people of color to get jobs at the entry level in the industry that pay enough to sustain them. We are certainly seeing a shift in how people of color are represented in crime fiction—no longer do we have the old trope of Black cons and white cops doing the good work. We are starting to look at crime and crime fiction through a wider lens—for instance, to see what legitimate or understandable reason a Black man might have to commit a crime rather than just treating him as a problem. We are reading more deeply about the social justice issues that create inequality that leads to crime instead of just examining crime in a vacuum and treating it as something that needs to be “solved” often by a white male. I think that one of the more interesting developments in crime fiction is the way we think of resolution and solution. This is no longer simply filling the blanks in a traditional whoodunnit, but understanding the community, the atmosphere, and the climate that led to conflict tackled in the novel. Over the last years, readers of crime fiction have opened up to a more expansive appreciation of the genre, from victim-forward crime fiction, to criminal-forward, to novels with murky morality and no traditional heroes. And I’m not going to say one of those visions of crime fiction is necessarily better—but I am saying that they are all necessary as part of the whole in order to get a better understanding of this world and its faults and fissures. And in order to get these stories to readers, we certainly need more editors from a diverse canopy of backgrounds.
June Hur: Through movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, I believe publishing has come to recognize that there is an audience hungry for more diverse books, but I believe the next step is not only to publish diverse books—but to amplify the voices of diverse authors.
Elizabeth Mannion: The changes needed in our genre specifically are, I suspect, the same as for the publishing industry generally. I recommend the Lee & Low Books Diversity Study to anybody who is not familiar with it, and I would welcome a formal study specific to crime and mystery imprints. Or has it been done already? I would like to see that, if it has. Diversity in hiring and a reduction in the industry’s traditional entrée of non-paying internships are essential across the board.
Elsa Hart: The publishing industry is connected to everything else and must participate in dismantling systems of privilege and underrepresentation. This includes supporting the work of writers from historically underrepresented groups and promoting stories that counter stereotyped and tokenized depictions of minority characters.
Joseph S. Walker: I can’t pretend to have any innovative ideas here. I think there’s been a tremendous amount of progress, but it’s evident that people who aren’t straight white cis men still too often face higher barriers in trying to be published. I believe this will continue to change in a positive way, though more slowly than it should. Readers have a role, too; they can lead the way by rewarding publishers who show real evidence of prioritizing diversity.
Mariah Fredericks: As someone who looks like the majority of people in publishing, I think most people in the industry have excellent intentions. But there are blind spots in terms of what gatekeepers see as marketable or who they see as the audience for crime fiction. If there are say, 20 slots for white authors writing about white protagonists to 1 slot for a an author of color writing about non-white characters. Not only are we missing out on great work and denying people a career they deserve, it’s insanely self-destructive when you think about building future generations of crime readers. Diversity in editorial, marketing, agencies, libraries expands the vision and knowledge base which in turn expands the range of stories and the market.
Tanya Lloyd Kyi (nominated for Best Juvenile – Me and Banksy): It’s true that publishing needs to shift. But we can also make personal commitments to help create change. We can choose to read widely and we can post and repost reviews of books by diverse creators. As readers, we’re constantly sharing recommendations with family and friends—and that’s the best way to boost unique perspectives. My 16-year-old daughter had a great time this spring doing Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge. She’s inspired me to join her!
Lori Rader-Day: In publishing, we need more BIPOC editors, so to dig down into how class and racial privilege creates a mostly white publishing industry is a thing we could discuss. If you pull a thread in the problem, there’s usually a big tangle to undo. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to unknot it.
What we need is a mind shift. I’m still seeing diversity panels in our industry. BIPOC authors tell amazing stories; reading their books is not medicine we have to take to be good people. It’s reading we want to do because that’s where the stories we don’t already know are being told. Yes, we all have our favorites. But there’s room on the shelf, and on the panel about a specific subgenre or craft. No more diversity panels.
Laurie R. King: Awareness. I’ve been chair of Mystery Writers of America’s publications committee for several years, and one thing we’re doing consistently now is reminding guest editors, contest entrants, and judges that we celebrate our diverse membership—and that applies not only to who they are, but what they write. I also see that publishers are finally starting to look at both their work force and the books they publish. Slow progress, but encouraging.
Jess Lourey (nominated for Best Paperback Original – Unspeakable Things): I’m seeing a refreshing number of crime writers of color getting picked up by major publishers, which is wonderful, but it’s not lost on me that many of them have been writing really good books for a number of years and are only now beginning to get the recognition they deserve. I think part of the problem is it’s not just about signing marginalized voices; it’s also about making sure there is equal representation behind the scenes—as editors, marketers, reviewers, publicists, agents, and publishers.
Richard Osman (nominated for Best Novel – The Thursday Murder Club): Most importantly, back up mission statements and good intentions with real money and real opportunities.
David Heska Wanbli Weiden: I’m no expert, but it seems fairly clear that we need more publishing professionals of color. For example, I’m told there’s exactly one indigenous literary agent out there. If this is true, it speaks to a real need for literary agencies to actively recruit interns and assistants of color, especially Native people. However, there are good things happening in some areas of publishing: new houses such as Agora/Polis, the Native-focused children’s imprint Heartdrum/HarperCollins, and the creation of organizations that support diverse authors, including the group Crime Writers of Color, of which I’m a proud member.
Conversations about violence in policing inevitably have their counterpart in conversations about the representation of policing. How do you feel authors of crime fiction and true crime should respond to the political awakenings of the past year in their own work?
Khurrum Rahman: It’s not just the past year. It’s been written about for far longer. It just feels like now it’s getting the attention that it deserves. The police are a cross section, just like any other community, my work has always observed that grey area between so-called good and so-called evil. The louder we shout about it the better.
David Heska Wanbli Weiden: I thought John Fram’s op-ed in the New York Times (June 4, 2020) addressed this question well. In that essay, he noted, “Novelists who choose to honestly depict the failures of the criminal justice system or center the experiences of nonwhite protagonists can face career challenges.” I hope that’s changing as a new wave of crime fiction emerges that challenges the standard narrative. Of course, not every mystery and suspense novel needs to take on the big issues of racial and social justice. But those books that do examine these issues can definitely add to the conversation and perhaps spark calls for change.
Kathleen Kent: The perspective of the traditional police procedural is shifting as more women and POC have their works published. The role of women, in particular, if they appeared at all in typical Noir fiction, was either as victims of violence in need of rescuing or as sexual objects. Now we have female protagonists who are using technology and strategy as a work around to the violence in the world. They are often the tempering agents who react to the violence they encounter, but do not contribute to it.
Richard Osman: I think we’re going to see some extraordinary books over the next few years as great writers come at this from many different angles. I look forward to reading and learning.
June Hur: This is a great question, and something I’m very cognizant of as I write. Crime fiction tends to glorify the police, and I think it’s important for works of fiction to portray how problematic and violent policing can be, even if the protagonist of the book is part of the police force.
Erin E. MacDonald: I do believe that the best authors respond, at least in some way, to the social context around them, whether their works are set in the past, present, or future. The crime fiction authors I most admire and have written about tend to bring socio-political issues into their works and show the police responding to them, sometimes progressively and sometimes not. I think it’s important to have that kind of realism in fiction because it can and does influence people. I recently listened to a new crime fiction podcast called Winding Road that used the idea of someone (not the police) kneeling on a victim’s back or neck and at first I thought it was a bit on-the-nose, but then I decided I liked it. Why not use the genre to point out things that are happening in the real world?
Sierra Crane Murdoch (nominated for Best Fact Crime – Yellow Bird): There is so much potential for the genres to explore these issues in nuanced and provocative ways. I attempted this in my own book, Yellow Bird. I became interested in the crime central to my narrative because it was connected to a bigger story I’d been following for years: Tribes’ lack of criminal jurisdiction over non-Native people even within the borders of reservations and the resulting culture of impunity among non-Native perpetrators who commit crimes on those reservations. This lack of jurisdiction, along with other federal laws or the lack thereof, have also given rise to the number of Indigenous women, men, and children who go missing in the U.S.—another issue I address in the book. These are the kinds of crime stories I’m most interested in writing about, and in reading: Ones which rely on a crime to not only generate plot but also to serve as a portal into a community or an issue the reader should better understand. Jill Leovy did this brilliantly in her book Ghettoside about the murder of black men in Los Angeles. My fellow finalists have done this in their books, as well. And there were two novels this year—Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli and The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones—exploring themes of police violence and neglect in fictional-but-not-far-from-the-truth form.
Jess Lourey: This is a great question. I think crime fiction authors need to have serious conversations about our representation of law enforcement. Tearing down our corner of a toxic system isn’t something that can be done quietly or alone. The good news when it comes to the actual writing is that the same skills that make for a strong story—complex characters, relational characters, characters interacting with their environment as well as their flaws—are the path out of the “gruff, unemotional police officer/detective with a heart of gold” or “infallible police officer/detective at the center of the story who has to bend the rules because he knows what’s best for others” narratives that have historically populated crime fiction.
Ivy Pochoda: Clearly, this is important to me. I think the current political climate be it Black Lives Matters or the rise of Asian Hate crimes needs to be addressed either explicitly or implicitly in a novel. It’s part of the panorama of policing, especially an urban crime novel. It’s disingenuous to power through a book involving cops and not nod to these seismic movements and moments in our history. Whether or not they are at the forefront of a novel depends wholly on the author. It’s not a novelist’s job to fix or correct police brutality in our work or to create hero cops who are on the right side of that fight. Because that really doesn’t change anything—and it’s a bit of a feint. But it is the delightful purpose of fiction to examine, highlight, and elucidate people’s psychology and emotions in a more dramatic and dynamic way than happens in non-fiction. And this ability brings readers closer to stories they might shy away from in a journalistic account—which means it makes them listen. Fiction can sometimes go where non-fiction cannot—so it’s an important tool to draw attention to issues such as police brutality, not to correct them, but to locate them as inherent, unavoidable elements of our broken modern world.
Ilaria Tuti: Writers can investigate reality through fiction, they can reach their audience and give food for thought, study, interpretation, they can observe the problem from different angles. They can give people a voice through the characters, make their stories immortal. They must be keepers of memory so that we can learn from the present to build a better future.
Jessica Moor: My novel The Keeper was written largely out of a sense of despair towards policing and author social institutions, after working for a year in the domestic violence sector. I came to see the police as a force that largely served to reinforce existing structures—in this case systematic violence against women, but just as true of other forms of inequality. I don’t think the answer lies in abolishing the police, but in the involved and tedious work of structural reform and training. Many people internationally find it very surprising that in the UK, where I’m from, the police do not routinely carry guns. As a result, their approaches to confrontation are necessarily different. I don’t know that that’s possible in the US, but I think it’s a useful reminder that policing doesn’t necessarily look like just one thing.
As for the place in fiction, I think there’s a tension. We love the crime novel as a puzzle, in which the great detective is the inspired puzzle-solver. That’s a tradition that dates back to Sherlock Holmes and beyond, and there’s a reason that people love it. But that image of the detective is at odds with the reality, partly because policing is largely a matter of collective procedure rather than individual inspiration, and partly because police officers are human and have blind spots. My detective, Dan Whitworth, has an irredeemable and fatal blind spot, and I felt that I had to write him that way because that was the truth as I’d experienced it. I suppose crime writers have to ask themselves – am I participating in a collective fantasy of the role of the detective, or am I seeking to depict the truth of the system? Both are valid, but I think you need to know which it is that you’re trying to do.
Brian Cliff: It’s hard to imagine effective crime fiction that doesn’t acknowledge these conversations in some way—it’s such a pervasive issue that I don’t think you can set, say, a plausible procedural narrative in anything that’s supposed to resemble our world without recognizing this. It’s not something every writer’s going to be able to do well, without condescension or opportunism. That said, a lot of these conversations can happen through characters who are themselves learning to navigate the awakenings you mention, or through characters who’ve never been allowed the luxury of not having been awake in the first place, even if that means widening the scope of a series.
Joseph S. Walker: This is a tough one, and it’s an issue that I think the field will be struggling with for some years to come. I’ve read some pieces over the last year about how the producers of Brooklyn Nine-Nine have tried to recognize the challenging aspects of thinking about the police in their new episodes. If a sitcom can take these issues under consideration, surely crime fiction can as well. That doesn’t just mean thinking about how to represent the police in new work. It also means being conscious of the history of how we as writers have represented the police.
I’m thinking here about something like Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. I love those books; I think the series as a whole is one of the towering achievements in the genre, and I think it deserves recognition as a significant piece of 20th century American literature. I want to be absolutely clear here that I think the books should continue to be read and valued. But it’s very difficult to read them now and not be troubled by, for example, Fat Ollie Weeks, a character whose racism and violence are presented as being, essentially, character quirks in an otherwise brilliant detective. When we talk about McBain, that should be part of the conversation.
For the most part, crime writers rarely produce works that completely valorize the police. After all, our genre has its roots in texts by Poe and Doyle in which the police are usually presented as bunglers. Even writers who have police characters as the central figures in long-running series usually show the police making mistakes or bending to political pressures. They recognize that there are lazy cops, stupid cops, criminal cops and, yes, racist cops who might relish the chance to inflict pain. Still, the genre as a whole is kind of built around the idea that people commit aberrant and transgressive acts which should be explained and, where possible, punished. It’s built, in other words, around the idea that policing, in and of itself, is a basic function of society that is ultimately both necessary and good.
I was going to say that the last year has taught us that this idea should be challenged, but of course many people have already known this, have had no chance but to know it. We can no longer ignore the fact that much of the history of law enforcement in this country has arisen from a mandate to discipline and oppress minorities (racial and otherwise) in order to protect and preserve the privilege and property of those in power. I hope and believe we will see a good deal of crime fiction in the coming years that treat that knowledge as a given, and work from there to think about what roles the police play and what roles they should play.
Of course, as I say that, I immediately want to take it back because I’m also aware that much crime fiction has already addressed these questions, and has been doing so for decades. If you want to learn about the intersections of race and policing in contemporary America you could do a lot worse than to read Walter Mosley or George Pelecanos or Steph Cha, but they’re only recent examples. Crime fiction has always had an element of social commentary, if only because crime stories are inevitably about who can do what and get away with it.
I guess the bottom line is this: it’s still possible to write stories about individual cops who are admirable, and individual crimes that obviously must be solved. Moving forward, though, any story involving the police that is making any claim to a degree of realism should recognize that policing in this country has a deeply problematic history. It doesn’t have to be made an explicit subject of the book, but it’s part of the historical context necessary to an understanding of the book.
Nev March: Hard-bitten crime writers have often focused on police corruption and political machinations. Recent events have highlighting the impact of race and discrimination on policing. Writers of crime fiction do need to elucidate these, so that our understanding of the roots of bias can grow.
Stephanie Wrobel: A lot of crime fiction is told from the perspective of a journalist and/or detective. Though these detectives are flawed, they’re often the heroes of the story. I’d like to see more stories that reflect the world around us, where ‘police’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘good’.
Is there anything you wouldn’t write about, for fear of influencing readers towards a harmful course of action?
Erin E. MacDonald: I’m always leery of the idea of mixing sex and violence, or to put it a different way, of encouraging a sexual response to violence. There are things that are very realistic and human that nevertheless maybe shouldn’t be highlighted in certain ways. The series The Fall really made me cringe for that reason.
Stephanie Wrobel: I like to write characters who are hard to empathize with, to try to understand what makes people do horrible things. But there are certain groups I’d hesitate to try to humanize, e.g. pedophiles, serial killers, mass shooters. I wouldn’t want to contribute to the potential glorification of these groups. For me personally, I only want to write characters I can find some redeeming quality in. One-dimensional villains don’t interest me.
June Hur: So far, I’ve tried to avoid writing about my teenage sleuths killing the criminal themselves. I’m not opposed to this plot development in fiction, as I’ve read several books that dealt with this decision very well. But I believe there’s a difference between justice and revenge, and if ever my characters do kill a criminal in a future book of mine, I would have to make sure to stress that there’s grave consequence that comes with murder—even the murdering of a monster.
Lori Rader-Day: I would never write about harming animals or children, on the page. I just don’t like it. I don’t normally have much violence at all on the page, because as Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” But I don’t think that if I write about a serial killer that I am telling someone how to become a serial killer. If I wrote out every act a serial killer took with a victim, I wouldn’t be writing an instruction manual, I’d be writing violence porn. I have no interest in that. Serial killers don’t need a manual anyway. They’re self-taught. Or home-schooled.
Ilaria Tuti: In my opinion, it is possible to write about everything, as long as one takes care not to celebrate violent actions – I am thinking especially of the younger and more easily influenced audience. Words have a tremendous power that should not be underestimated and that can influence predisposed minds. For instance, here in Italy, an institute studying femicide has demonstrated the upsurge in these cases after a digital swarm of articles praising such violence was posted on the most popular social networks.
Nev March: While writers love finding clever ways that a criminal might get away with crimes, I hesitate to showcase these. Criminals are arrogant enough to believe they can get away with vicious acts and need no encouragement. Crime novels often show the impact of chance in catching sociopaths, as though they’d have got away with it, but for that coincidence. This glamorizes such animals, in my opinion, and should be avoided.
Elsa Hart: There are so many things I wouldn’t write about! There are other writers whom I trust to take me to dark, violent places that can entertain me, help me process my own tough emotions, educate me, or motivate me to be more engaged in real-world issues. In my own fiction I make bubble worlds that are simpler and more just than the real world, in the belief that those kinds of crime stories serve a different but also important purpose.
Jacqueline Winspear: I think the challenge is to write what we want to write about, but to remember the power of words and how people can be influenced. If we are writing a story touching upon issues such as domestic violence, or environmental activism, or immigration or whatever hot-button topic that is primed to offend or inflame, we have to be aware of what we are doing, and how we can influence thought and action with the power of our words. It might not change what we write, but we should have that awareness. I think it’s to do with respect—though other writers may point out that a reader can always put down a book if they do not care for the content. The two big freedoms come into play—freedom of expression, and freedom of choice, and they intersect when a reader decides a book is not for them, for whatever reason. It’s a matter of choice, because it could be the book for someone else, so arguably it has a right to be there. You could go back and forth on this one for a while, especially when the book under the microscope can be proven to be inflammatory in a way that divides communities and encourages dissent and discrimination and is the cause of pain. Fortunately, given the number of books published each year, those cases are few and far between.
Monica Hesse (nominated for Best Young Adult – They Went Left): Because my books are historical fiction, I’m constantly balancing how to accurately depict the setting’s prejudices and outdated beliefs in a way that doesn’t glorify the past, but that also doesn’t paper over it. The question that I’m always asking myself is, “Is there a way to depict this in a way that doesn’t cause harm to my teen readers today?” Because I’ll always choose my readers today. The only reason to keep writing about the past is if it helps us move forward into the future.
Jessica Moor: There are plenty of things that I wouldn’t write about because I don’t feel qualified to write about them well, but I don’t think that anything well-written, from a position of knowledge, can in itself influence a reader towards something harmful. So I’d just advise any writer to know their limitations, and not write from a place of ignorance.
Kathleen Kent: Intent is everything. If the difficult, or uncomfortable, topic being written about is something that the protagonist(s) can overcome, or vanquish, it can be instructive, illuminating and inspiring. The topic of man-made violence features prominently in both my historical fiction and crime fiction. It’s inescapable. But there is redemption in fighting the good fight, even though the Evil That Men Do can never be completely eradicated.
Tanya Lloyd Kyi: Because I write for young readers, I’m very cautious about the topic of suicide. I also try to show the full range of how an event might affect different characters. In Me and Banksy, a string of students experience cyberbullying. My protagonist responds with strength and action. But other characters show the range of possibilities. One was devastated and left the school. One turned her anger on others. Not everyone can be strong in every situation, and I think that’s an important thing for kids to understand.
Jess Lourey: If you mean is there anything I wouldn’t write about for fear someone would copycat it, then no, and this leads to the next question: what is the purpose of crime fiction? I think it has a couple, and a big one is that it’s a big, safe, beautiful release valve for the deviant thoughts we all have. I also believe crime fiction fulfills the human need for justice and closure. We don’t often get either in real life, but a good crime novel mimics the emotional journey of justice, and that’s nearly as mentally healing as the actual journey. Crime fiction is also a change agent; crime fiction writers are uniquely poised to examine and humanize social injustices. Lastly, I think crime fiction is damn good entertainment.
Ivy Pochoda: No! I believe it’s important to address all truths on the page no matter how terrible. Lionizing them is one thing, but recreating or reporting on them seems not just valid but necessary.
Richard Osman: I will sidestep this question slightly, other than to say if I came up with a scheme for the perfect, victimless, bank robbery and someone actually did it in real life then I would expect a cut of the proceeds.
Do you have any rituals for celebrating when you finish a book?
Jacqueline Winspear: Just to relax a bit, because the next part of the journey will start in short order, and that is when you have to become part of a publishing team, and no longer a writer working alone with only the company of your characters.
Brian Cliff: In the late stages of finishing something, I print out every draft, scribble all over it, and then type up those changes, before repeating the cycle a few more times. I keep all of the digital files, but shredding those printed, marked copies is a gratifying and comforting stage to reach (simply throwing them in the recycling bin isn’t quite satisfying enough).
David Heska Wanbli Weiden: I’ll broaden this question to including finishing a short story or other creative project. When I complete one of these, I run around the house with my arms up like I’ve scored the winning touchdown in a playoff game. My two teenage sons look at me with expressions that range from amusement to condescension to absolute embarrassment.
Laurie R. King: I tidy the collected debris, books, notes and whatnot in my study and then dive into all the things I’ve left undone during the last push for finishing the thing. And maybe take an afternoon off and read a book. Do those count as rituals?
June Hur: I finally pick up the book I’ve been dying to read—but was unable to due to deadline—and finally crack it open with a glass of wine.
Taryn Souders: I’ve found that my husband is a great editor! I always let him read a finished manuscript before I send it to my agent. He’s really good at catching mistakes in my timeline and details like that. Oh…and a glass of wine will probably be involved too.
Jessica Moor: Something alcoholic and fizzy.
James W. Ziskin: My wife and I always open a bottle of champagne. Then we write the date and the occasion on the cork and save it. That’s for all writing milestones, by the way. Finishing a book or a story, launch day, getting a starred review or a nomination, Thursday… Any excuse to pop the cork will do.
Nev March: After completing the first draft, I return to a ‘normal’ schedule of 10-6 and stop working regularly at night—I’ll still do late nights occasionally, but my family gets to see me more! After my book is sent off to my publisher and all the edits are addressed, then we go out to dinner—or in this case, call up for a fancy take out.
Lori Rader-Day: I don’t have a ritual! I should have a ritual, right? I usually post something on Facebook, and everyone in the book biz celebrates with me and everyone outside the book biz wonders… weren’t you already finished with that book? There are many stages of “I’m finished.”
I sometimes buy myself a present when I *sell* a book.
Erin E. MacDonald: It always seems like a bit of an anti-climax, because there are so many drafts and edits to get through before the hard copy ever appears at my door. Should I celebrate when I’m done the initial manuscript? Or when the final draft has been sent off to be proofed? Or after the proofreading? Or once the book is available for pre-order? I used to go out for dinner with friends to celebrate, but this year was different, of course, basically just my husband and I having a drink.
Elsa Hart: I go for a run, which is how I process and celebrate a lot of emotional moments. A cocktail usually happens somewhere within the 24 hours too.
Khurrum Rahman: I think the sheer relief first followed quickly by the urge to find the nearest bed and just collapse. It never lasts long though, not with my kids.
Tanya Lloyd Kyi: I always tell myself I’ll do something special when I finish a manuscript. I’ll go shopping, I promise myself, or I’ll book a pedicure. But mostly I stumble around the house mumbling to myself and praying the book is in any way comprehensible. Is there a support group for this?
Kathleen Kent: “Finishing” a book is a long process: completing multiple drafts, several rounds of edits and copyedits. Typically, I’d celebrate after being able to hold the Advanced Reading Copy in my hands. Until this past year, I’d go out for a celebratory dinner with my husband. Last year, though, we celebrated quietly with a nice bottle of wine, counted our blessings, and hoped for a better 2021!
Elizabeth Mannion: I treat myself to a fancy pen, usually from Tiffany, and have the book title and year engraved on it.
Brian Freeman (nominated for Best Paperback Original – The Deep, Deep Snow): We always make sure to have a nice dinner and toast over a bottle of wine. The more books you write, the easier it is to forget how special the experience is of putting that final word on the page. I never want to lose sight of that!
Monica Hesse: I’m obsessed with Staedtler Tri-Plus fineliner pens. I use them and lose them on a daily basis: they’re the perfect non-smudging pen for lefties like me. Whenever I finish a book, I buy myself a new pack in fun colors. This year, my tentative due date for my revised manuscript is also the date I’m scheduled to get my Covid vaccine, so I think that will probably outweigh any other celebration I could concoct.
Ivy Pochoda: I never know when I’m done. So I’ve stopped trying to celebrate. Mostly I celebrate having written on any given day!