Article published on March 22, 2013.
Meat Loaf once sang that “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad;” how wrong he was. Having just written the 68,000th word of my own crime novel, I’ve hit a wall at the final third. Like a hundred little credit cards, those twists thrown in up until now to keep the drama flowing have now come due, each one needing its own satisfactory resolution. Likewise, the time has passed to rely on character, plot and mood. This is the business end of the book, where the crime writer earns their money. Moreover, disappoint the reader here, and all that has gone before is suddenly rendered pointless.
For some writers, there is presumably no distinction between the final third and the rest of the book. For police procedurals as puzzlers, the mystery element can be ongoing, with plotting being their principal business. It’s hard to imagine Dame Agatha sitting down to write Murder on the Orient Express without knowing what the next page would bring. I, on the other hand, have steamed into the process on a wing, prayer, and Chandler’s blasé recommendation that, “when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”
In retrospect, the problem stems from my own approach to crime fiction. Over the years, the crime writing I’ve enjoyed the most wasn’t the variety where the reader locked intellectual horns with the writer. For me, I’ve embraced crime writers not primarily as forensic scientists or pathologists, but as psychologists and travel guides. They’ve shown me the depths of the human soul and the scenery of the globe. The fact that they were accompanied by police officers was convenient; it allowed them to boldly go where social convention would normally exclude them. As a result, I set out to tell a tale of suburban gloom in a parochial midlands town… and let my mind wander away from the business of mystery making.
That’s where the masters of the craft distinguish themselves. In Gods and Beasts, Denise Mina examined the role of the media in politics and the self-destruction of the Labour movement – but she didn’t forget to include the payoff. Likewise, when Brian McGilloway shone a light on the new world of PSNI in Little Girl Lost, he did so with an eye on the finale. After all, if you’re not prepared to do the legwork of plotting, you’re not a crime writer.
Therein lies the game. A crime novel doesn’t have to be a crossword puzzle, but it does have to contain a payoff. It’s rare that one gets to say ‘Mickey Spillane said it best,’ but he did –
“Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end.”
Readers will forgive a slow start, will tolerate a sagging middle, but a disappointing ending? It’s a firework that shoots into the sky and is followed by silence, it’s a poorly cooked dish in an expensive restaurant. In life, first impressions are always important, but I’ve come to understand that in crime writing, it’s the last impression that’s truly vital.
Goodbye to James Herbert – British horror legend