writing crime with ellie marney at mwf

(Shameless self-promotion ahead)

Hey you! You there, with a teenager as an accessory! Perhaps you would like to come to the MWF event I’m chairing with excellent YA crime author Ellie Marney, author of the Every series and the first books I steer customers towards when they say, “I’m looking for a book for my teenager who likes mysteries…”

It’s part of the midweek schools program, but if you know a schoolkid who’d be interested (well, presumably a whole class of kids unless you feel okay about skipping class for a writers festival – which I think I do), then check it out here! Even if not, you should still all read Ellie’s books.

(Incidentally I’m also chairing these two events as well, and they’re all in a row so you really should just take the morning off and go to all of them, then head to The Tea Salon afterwards like I will to collapse into a puddle of French Earl Grey in frilly-wallpapered surrounds.)

on switching genres: the benefits of being a reviewer

Look, it’s not a glamorous life, that of a reviewer. Sure, I get a lot of free books, and people at work think I am the Wise Old Elf of crime (it’s all a ruse), and some people even buy books that I say nice things about (augh! It makes me feel like I’m saying “Do you want fries with that?”), and I get paid an amount that doesn’t really reflect the amount of time spent, but frankly that’s because I spend way too long trying to figure out how to stick a stupid joke in five lines. Of course – and any reviewer knows this – you get really burnt out after a while, only being able to read books you have to read rather than want to read, even if you kind of do want to read them. Between these reviews, MWF, and my book club, the last time I read a book that I chose myself was six months ago when I went out for a long lunch on my own and took The Old Man and the Sea with me, because I knew I could finish it over my sandwich (and I did.) I’m not really complaining, of course – better too many books than not enough! – and the one thing I’m extra grateful for is that this job of reviewing around ten books a month for the Readings Monthly means that I have to go outside my comfort zone. Since I don’t want to just review ten books that fit into my specific criteria (well, of course I WANT to, but I probably should not), I need to make sure I cover a lot of ground, so almost every reader gets to hear about their favourite style of crime. So instead of just huddling up with my own favourites (which currently applies to southern USAmerican crime and, obviously, Australian crime, though preferably written by ladies) I have to taste all of it.

Sometimes, I still don’t like a certain genre, but I can distance myself enough to know that I can’t just push in my own preferences, and can objectively appreciate parts of it. I really stretch to enjoy historical military crime, even as I understand that military books have a huge following, but I did recently get swept up in Alan Furst’s A Hero in France (though that could’ve been because it was very short, which always makes me feel kindly towards a book in advance.) I’m not always partial to cosy styles unless I am in a particularly cranky mood and need to be soothed, but I still smashed the first third of Kate Saunders’ upcoming The Secrets of Wishtide without wanting to put it down. I am just about at the very end of my enjoyment of Scandinavian crime after reading approx 5,000 of them, but I’ll still give them a try. I didn’t think that I liked Lee-Childlike action thrillers, but every time I pick one up I genuinely enjoy them, so I’m glad I kept trying.

One style that I really struggle with at the moment is the British psychological thriller. There’s something about this current influx of books with twentysomething British women who are terribly normal and drink a lot and get caught up in some kind of giant murder case that I can’t wholly enjoy. It’s not really the plotting, which is always tight, but some kind of across-the-board sameness that means many of them feel like they’re written by the same author. Here’s where I confess  never read The Girl on the Train, because I picked it up, started it, and felt it had that samey writing style. If you like that style, which around one hundred million people do, then this is your time to swim happily in the sea of that style – and do that! I’m not the boss of what makes you enjoy literature. But when I pick up a book, and think, “Is this the new Paula Hawkins or Sabine Durrant or…?” then I’ve already lost interest – though I will gamely try, for my readers. I am nothing if not generous, and also humble.

not entirely coherent thoughts on crime and representation

Recently I saw a poster for the upcoming movie The Great Wall, which is a movie about the Great Wall of China that stars prominent Chinese actor Matt Damon. After my eyes rolled right out of my head and onto the floor, I checked to see if my go-to site for discussion about such things had posted about it, and they sure had. I’ve also recently gone over Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, which isn’t crime but an excellent sci-fi YA space story (and I’m chairing a session with Amie at MWF) and the whole time I felt so desperately pleased at the range of characters in the book – there are female pilots and captains and many MANY characters with non-Anglo surnames. And every time you see a sci-fi movie (I don’t read enough sci-fi to make much of a declaration about books) you always think – why, even in a speculative future/dimension, do we not have more ladies or more racial diversity?

Writing stories set in the current world make this a little harder. I mean, not really – just make more diverse characters – but we have the actual history of the world and its gender politics to work with, not an invented one. Yet in crime, with its high rate of successful female authors, there are a lot of women starring in these books. Sometimes they suffer from sarcastic male colleagues who don’t think they can do very well, since they’re women. Sometimes they’re competent and others are critical of their coldness. But since there are so many women in crime, it’s not something that strikes me as bad – because there are books where young men are intimidated because of their youth or criticised because of their coldness as well. I’m not giving crime books in general a free pass, and as I’ve mentioned in the past, crime authors are a little too eager to make women victims, especially of sexual assault, which is lazy and overdone (are there no other crimes to invest in?), but there’s probably a higher representation of female serial killers in fiction that there is in reality. (This is the part where you note the “probably” and see that my research capabilities are limited to leaning back in my chair and staring at my crime fiction bookshelf.)

But what about representation of other cultures? Crime, like other fiction, loves to explore other countries, but who is telling the story really depends on where it’s set. If you want to read a Scandinavian-set book, the majority of the time you’ll be reading it from the point of view of a native of that country. Likewise for America, Australia, and England – and most other European countries. But when it comes to books set in the Middle East or Asia, well, the books I’ve read have almost uniformly been about westerners who are over there and reeling from culture shock. It seems difficult to set a crime book in the Middle East without making it a military or espionage-type thriller, where John McSmith flies in there, cops a few punches to the face to make him look daring and then smooches some lady who is native to that country and will wind up shot by bad guys, putting McSmith into a fiery rage so that he escapes from torture, slays everyone and flies back home looking morosely out of a window. Likewise, it seems most books with expats in Asian countries end up busting a drugs ring, and I don’t want to distill real issues into a criticism of books that cover those issues, but I just wish there was more (MORE!) books set in these countries so there could be a wider range of crimes and themes to cover. I just want all the books in the world: is that too much to ask? Surely not. Translators are falling over themselves to get all these German and Swedish books to the English-speaking world, but guys, go find those Chinese crime books, those Indian thrillers, those Nigerian mysteries. And I know they’re probably out there – mostly I only read what publishers send me – so do also take this as a “please let me know of crime books set in lesser-read-about countries especially if that author has something new coming out because I pretty much never have time to read anything older than a week old which is a real shame but that’s how it is”.

(Also, I did mean for this to have a tighter theme, but my carefully planned quiet time ended up with me writing this with a four-year-old in a light-up headband on my lap, or yelling about buttons when she had to have a post-soccer outfit change, or crumbling chips into my new rug. I considered putting this in drafts and finishing it another day, but I think we all know it would be forgotten until archaeologists discovered in in 3016 and marveled at how scattered it was.)

in other news

While I’ve been off blatantly neglecting this blog (this is why I don’t buy plants), I do have a vaguely good reason – after my shortlisting for the Text Prize, I now have a literary agent, and to inflate my ego further there was even a press release about it here! (It’s behind a paywall, but you should totally join BplusP. It mentions that I’m one of Danielle’s first clients, that she’s super great, and I definitely do not have my fingers crossed behind my back when I claim that it says there will be publisher wars about it and I’ll immediately sell movie rights to Guillermo Del Toro and make billions.) Anyway, here’s to moderate success! *clinks glass on computer screen*