If you're a writer - or, for that matter, a reader - you'll have noticed that different genres have noticeably different conventions with regard to such things as writing styles, degree of pace, suspension and so on. Even use of language can differ, for instance you wouldn't expect Ian Rankin or Michael Connolly to write in the same way as Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel. Mind you, people like PD James and John le Carre do manage to write literary works while at the same time sitting in the crime and/or spy sections of bookshops and libraries, but they're both a bit special.
So I thought I'd ask a writer who regularly swaps between crime novels and thrillers. Do they use the same conventions? See what the experienced writer, Adrian Magson, has to say about it.
WRITING CRIME NOVELS OR THRILLERS - what's the difference?
by Adrian Magson.
As far as headings go, probably not much. They should both thrill, but to differing degrees.
Readers like to know what they’re getting. As do agents and publishers. Call a book a crime or mystery and they know exactly where to place it, mentally and physically. Romance, sci-fi, fantasy… all those are obvious. Labels help them target books to the appropriate audience (although oddly enough, in one chain bookstore, many thrillers are found in General Fiction).
But as a writer, I have to approach them with a plan in mind. And for me that plan involves pace.
Take my Inspector Lucas Rocco (crime series). Set in rural Picardie, France, in the 1960s. It’s been called a police procedural, but I have to admit it’s light on the procedure. And that’s deliberate. The French police structure is more complex than ours, but going too deep into that would have taken up too much of the story. And Lucas Rocco is not really a rules and regulations animal; as a former gang-buster from Paris, he’ll abide by them where he has to, but solving crimes is what he’s good at and lies at the heart of each story.
Rocco, often accompanied by Claude Lamotte, the local garde champetre (rural cop), or Desmoulins, a fellow detective, is not always chasing crims in dark corners. He’s more likely to be out looking for clues, or straying off-territory to hunt down contacts and sources of information (often in Paris, his former base), or mixing with unsavoury types trying to unpick the relationship between suspects or others, all the time trying to stay below the radar of the all-embracing Ministry of the Interior.
The Ministry is vast and controls all aspects of police life. To Rocco, the men in grey suits merely get in the way, especially when so many of his cases seem to involve an arm of the government. Then there’s his immediate boss, Commissaire Massin, with whom he has history both of them would like to forget. These twin aspects of Rocco’s professional life – and his problems adjusting to life in a small village, and the quirky locals - allow me to inject conflict alongside the troubles and dangers he faces each day, whether that’s from violent criminals, would-be presidential assassins or bombs left by former Resistance members.
Rural it might be in Picardie; quiet it isn’t.
The pace here lies in the unravelling of the story as he chases down the villains, and this invariably picks up and becomes more tangible as we get into the investigation.
And then there's my protagonist Harry Tate (spy thriller series). This has pace in its DNA. I know from the start of each book that I have to keep the story moving. This means more action, more threat – and a faster movement of characters and events.
As a former soldier and MI5 officer, who was nearly terminated by a rogue boss (‘Red Station’), Harry works as a contractor for the intelligence services and others. He’s ‘carded’ (licenced to carry a weapon), and his world is one of spies, traitors, rogue military types and foreign intelligence hit teams. He has a colleague, Rik Ferris, who provides the technical aspect of surveillance, digging out secrets and occasionally hacking into areas he shouldn’t.
Harry isn’t a super-agent type, but more a solid, effective counter-intelligence worker who gets things done. He’s ready to travel anywhere, and frequently does, so his field is international (which is also fun to research and write).
I was asked last year by the Harry Tate publishers to write another series character, and have just turned in ‘The Watchman’ (due out in February), which is still in the contemporary thriller world, but darker in tone. It was something I wanted to try, to see if I could deliver. (The publishers and my agent – and my wife, Ann, who is my beta reader – love it, so the signs so far are good). Portman, the main character, is a sort of unseen bodyguard for spies, and therefore has to be ruthless in his outlook to protect his charges. The setting is on the Somali/Kenyan border and involves terrorists and pirates.
I enjoy switching between the two genres types, and consciously wear a different mental hat for each one. Once that hat is on, I’m in the zone and ready to go.
The main thing is, I enjoy what I do, whatever the genre, and hope that comes out in the writing.
Adrian Magson - firstname.lastname@example.org
Inspector Lucas Rocco series published by Allison & Busby