IT’S A CRIME TO MISS THIS OPPORTUNITY
The Telegraph and leading publisher Harvill Secker are joining forces to launch the most exciting new competition in crime fiction. The prize is a £5,000 book deal and, to help you win it, top authors such as Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankell will be offering tips and advice in a series of exclusive online masterclasses. Jake Kerridge reports.
When Fifty Shades of Grey was ousted from the top of the paperback bestseller charts last year, I was not surprised that the culprit was Peter James’s crime thriller Not Dead Yet. We may enjoy the occasional spicy fling with other genres, but our relationship with crime fiction is enduring and committed. It has now trounced romance to become the most often borrowed from British libraries. Crime writers have more desperate addicts in their clientele than a Baltimore heroin dealer.
If you’ve ever dreamt of joining the ranks of those who spend their days devising ingenious murder methods and unbreakable alibis, here is your chance. Today, The Daily Telegraph launches a competition to find an unpublished crime writing star, with the prize of a £5,000 book deal with publisher Harvill Secker. “Crime fiction has always been a very important part of what we publish at Harvill Secker and, as an editor, I’m always on the lookout for exciting new names,” says Alison Hennessey, senior editor at Harvill Secker. “I’m delighted that, through our partnership with the Telegraph, we’ll be able to offer a brilliant new crime writer an opportunity.”
Crime fiction is rather like cricket: the British like to think that they invented it and they certainly codified the rules. But other nations have embraced it and become equally adept – if not more so. The British currently have a world-class side, thanks in part – and here we leave the cricket comparison behind – to an indispensable contribution from the Scots. But brilliant teams are being fielded the world over.
Crime fiction and television have become the most popular Scandinavian export since Abba. France’s Fred Vargas and Italy’s Andrea Camilleri are defining the way a generation of readers think about their respective countries. The works of Argentina’s Guillermo Orsi, Kenya’s Mukoma Wa Ngugi or Japan’s Keigo Higashino are thrilling not just because of the car chases and murders but because of the insight they offer into unfamiliar cultures. This is the perfect time to embark on a life of crime; mystery-writing is enjoying a golden age.
I have reviewed scores of crime novels in recent years, and what has struck me is the infinite variety possible within the form. Yes, tropes are repeated and story arcs recycled, but superficial resemblances to what has come before need not diminish a novel’s power: the originality lies in what the writer does with the formula. It is worth remembering that Bertolt Brecht, a great detective-story fan, once said that “the variation of more or less fixed elements is precisely what gives the whole genre its aesthetic quality” and likened the ignorance of the critic who says that all crime novels are alike to that of the white man who thinks all black people look the same.
Of course, a lot of crime fiction is abject rubbish – innumerable Dan Brown rip-offs that make the original look stylish; far too many misogynistic orgies of mutilation and dismemberment. But there is dross in every genre, including that of the would-be Booker-winning novel. The point is that there is much more good crime fiction out there than can be easily consumed by anyone who has to take the occasional break from reading for washing and eating. And not only is current crime fiction blue-chip, it also caters for all tastes. It encompasses somebody like Kate Atkinson, whose Jackson Brodie novels have shown that uncompromising erudition and an allusive, often oblique, style need be no barrier to bestseller status, as easily as it does Lee Child – or, as some people know him, Jim Grant from Birmingham – whose American action man Jack Reacher makes the heroes created by genuine Yank authors seem soft-boiled.
There are myriad ways of going about writing a crime story. You can achieve absolute authenticity by spending your days with your local police force, as Peter James does in Brighton, or you can mine your imagination and populate a surreal alternative-universe version of your town with mad nuns and grief-stricken monkeys, as Malcolm Pryce does to memorable effect in such novels as The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth.
You can use a murder mystery as a pretext for examining the darkest times in human history, as Philip Kerr does in his incomparable Bernie Gunther series set in Nazi Germany, or as a means of shining a satirical light on 21st-century follies in the manner of the exuberant Christopher Brookmyre. You can put your readers off their dinner with blood-soaked studies in aberrant psychology à la Val McDermid, or serve them up the literary equivalent of comfort food, like the tales of village rivalries that turn lethal in M C Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series. Whatever you want to say, on whatever subject, you may find a crime novel is the best medium.
The ability to set the reader’s grey cells whirring is a sine qua non of crime fiction, but these days you are permitted to do so through means other than authorial legerdemain. You might write a crime novel as a means of exploring philosophical questions about the nature of existence; or you can set your readers pondering over the state of the nation, something that crime fiction is generally held to do better than any other genre.
There are so many possibilities that we thought you might appreciate some expert guidance. So, over the coming weeks, some of Harvill Secker’s most successful crime authors will be conducting masterclasses on our website in both written and video form, in which they’ll be elucidating the mysteries of their profession.
Worldwide bestsellers Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbø explain how they created their respective Scandinavian sleuths, Kurt Wallander and Harry Hole, who have conquered lands the Vikings only dreamt of. Arne Dahl, whose books inspired the eponymous Swedish series recently broadcast on BBC4, explores the interrelation of plot, character and language. Susan Hill demonstrates why peering into strangers’ shopping trolleys is an invaluable aid to creating believable characters – and she should know, as her detective, Simon Serrailler, regularly receives marriage proposals.
Oliver Harris, whose The Hollow Man was one of the most enjoyable crime debuts of recent years, explains why literature is like life without the boring bits and how you expunge the last trace of tedium from your manuscript. Alice LaPlante clarifies the difference between surprise and suspense; Jason Webster, who set his Max Cámara novels in Valencia, covers the importance of setting and atmosphere; while Stuart Neville is a kind of literary AA man, with tips for when your novel grinds to a halt.
We cannot be sure why crime fiction exerts the grip it does – perhaps because, as Dorothy L Sayers suggested, the form boasts an “Aristotelian perfection of beginning, middle and end” that comes less easily to other fiction – but there is no question that there are millions of readers who can’t escape from it, and don’t want to. As P G Wodehouse once said: “The most poignant bereavement of all [is] that of a man halfway through a detective story who finds himself at bedtime without the book.” If you think you have the kind of devious mind that could wield that sort of power over a reader, now’s your chance to prove it.
For more details on how to enter, visit telegraph.co.uk/crimecomp
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