No More Murders: The Top Five Crime Fiction Stories Where No One Gets Killed

no more murder

‘Death is overrated’ as the saying goes; as such, I thought it might be interesting to do a top five best novels which, although displaying typical Crime Fiction tropes and featuring detectives and crimes, actually contain no murders (although deaths caused by natural causes or accident are allowed).

This makes for the purest form of detective fiction, as the protagonist seeks to uncover the crime without the spectre of death looming over them. It’s also good for anyone who is over the gore and gruesomeness of some of today’s films and books and just fancies a return to some old fashioned suspense and detective work. Here are my top five choices

5. The Adventure of Silver Blaze: A fascinating specimen, as Conan Doyle, ever eager to perplex his readers, shares the tale of a murder that was not a murder. Instead, a renowned horse trainer was killed by his own animal as he tried to commit a crime; maiming the horse (the titular ‘Silver Blaze’). Offering a unique paradox where the victim and the criminal are one and the same, this is a really innovative story with a great plot that will keep you hooked whilst at the same time not grossing you out too much.

4. The Flying Stars: Despite having read a great many of them, I never quite got into G.K Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries; whilst I found the majority to be incredibly dull, they are mercifully short and easy to read quickly (hence my vast and rapid consumption of them in the hopes of understanding the hype) and, predominantly, devoid of murder. The Flying Stars is among the more interesting, as Brown stays at the country house of a gentleman and uncovers the ingenious theft of a trio of glorious diamonds, known as ‘the flying stars’ on account of their tendency to get stolen. Plodding but slightly less baffling than many of the others, making it well worth a read.

3. Gaudy Night: A novel set right at the crux of the point where Dorothy L Sayers started to create novels that combined human drama and romance with detection and crime, Gaudy Night contains no actual murder. There is crime aplenty with malicious letters, assault and intimidation, but no murder, and even the death that forms the motive for these vicious crimes is a suicide committed both geographically and temporally distant from the novel’s events. A great example of how to write Crime Fiction without actually killing your characters.

gaudy night

2. The Purloined Letter: Among just three short stories featuring Edgar Allan Poe’s excellent detective Dupin, this excellent tale sees the protagonist deducing the theft of a letter used in the blackmail of a lady. This is a great example of how to exact tension and suspense from a narrative without actually killing any of the characters involved.

1. Dead Man’s Chest: The TV adaptation of Kerry Greenwood’s excellent novel incorporates murders in order to ramp up the tension and capture the audience’s attention, but in the book no one gets murdered (except, possibly, a nosey old neighbour, although this is never actually proved). The main crimes include theft and blackmail, as well as a couple of vigilante hair choppers. A real cosy Golden Age esq read, this is perfect for those seeking a soothing Crime Fiction novel with all the wit, verve and vigour of any other, minus the murders.

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Nick Tingley Interview: “There is something particularly powerful about crime fiction writing”

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Nick Tingley, whose debut novel The Bluebell Informant follows Detective Sergeant Evelyn Giles as she battles both an ingenious killer and her own personal demons to solve a fiendish case, speaks to me about writing, inspiration and why he doesn’t really believe in writer’s block.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and mystery writing?

There is something particularly powerful about crime fiction writing. It’s a genre that is very popular with readers and writers alike, and I think part of that is the allure of delving into the deep, dark, basic instincts of humanity and seeing what happens when people are put under extraordinary pressure. Other genres tap in to that, but I think crime fiction does it most realistically and potently.

Practically everything I have ever written – from my very first scribbling as a youngster to my debut novel, The Bluebell Informant – has had a similar approach to it. I’m fascinated by individual characters – how they evolve during the course of the events that I put them through and how they emerge on the other side. I’m not a fan of the happily-ever-after scenario – I firmly believe that if a character walks away at the end of my book unscathed then there wasn’t much point to them being in the story in the first place.

What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?

The Bluebell Informant is my debut novel, but I’ve actually been writing professionally for some time now. I started out as most writers do: toying around with short stories and theatre and film scripts. And then, when I was still fairly young, I wrote my first novel – Such Sweet Lies – and it was absolutely awful. I still keep a copy of the manuscript so I can remind myself how terrible it was when I feel like I’m struggling.

I continued playing round with scripts and stories – film screenplays in particular – before I finally got back into writing novels and started working as a ghost writer for other crime fiction authors who, for one reason or another, needed someone else to pen their novels. I think that was the point where I really honed my skills. The more people started tracking me down to hire me for my services, the more convinced I became that I should be releasing work in my own right. So here we are – it’s still early days, but it’s looking promising.

As for the question of drawing from my own past, that’s something I like to steer very clear of. I had a very happy childhood and an enjoyable adult life, and such backgrounds don’t tend to make for great characters or stories in my humble opinion. Even the sad moments aren’t particularly that interesting for anyone other than me, so I find it easier just to ignore my past altogether.

There’s that old mantra of write what you know. And I disagree with that whole-heartedly. My personal opinion is that you should write about the unknown – the things that worry or concern you because you don’t know how you would deal with them – and then learn about it as you explore your plot. I find that gives a heck of a lot more value to my writing – if I’m worried or uncertain about something, the chances are that there are many people out there feeling the same way.

Please tell me about your books. What sets them apart from other similar novels?

The Bluebell Informant is my debut novel and the first of a new crime series about the cases of Detective Sergeant Evelyn Giles. The story follows Giles as she investigates a murder that seems to bear all the hallmarks of similar crimes associated to The Bluebell Killer, a serial killer she brought down a year earlier. However, as Giles gets embroiled in the investigation, a number of questions get thrown up and she is forced to ask herself whether she got it right in the first place or if The Bluebell Killer is still out there and back to start killing again.

What makes the DS Evelyn Giles stories different to any other crime fiction series is that the main character is quite unlike most detectives you get. Giles is a genuine detective who wants to do everything by the book, but she keeps getting forced into breaking the rules, which invariably ends up causing some quite horrific events to the people around her. In a lot of similar stories, the character manages to forget these things between books and moves on with his or her life.

In this series, the focus is on the character of Giles. She is deeply affected by everything that goes on around her – despite the rather cold veneer that she uses to hide her emotions from other people. As the books go on, the reader will start to see that these events have some quite large impacts on her life and how her career and her environment is beginning to slowly change who she is as a person.

Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?

I was asked this question by my wife’s friend a few weeks back and I’ll say what I said to him because I think it’s possibly the most accurate way I’ve every addressed this question:

I always think of writer’s block as a bit of a misnomer. You hear writers complaining about it all the time, but when you ask them to describe what their symptoms are it is very rare that they describe having no ideas to work with. What they usually say is that they have the ideas ready to go but they are tired or they just don’t have the energy or inclination to sit down and write – and they call that writer’s block. Not all the time, mind, but a lot of the time.

But it is a misnomer, and the reason I say that is because what they are actually describing is just a form of mental exhaustion. What you have to remember is that a lot of writers work a day job and then write in their spare time. Most people are pretty tired when they get home from work, but very few immediately go off and dedicate a couple of hours to doing another job entirely. Usually people chill out or go to the pub or play sport – anything to take their mind off work really.

But writers come home and then will sit down at some point and start work again. And – quite naturally – they burn out. In the same way a chartered surveyor who comes home and then immediately goes to the beach to be a lifeguard for a few hours every evening will burn out. The same way a taxi driver who comes home and instantly goes off to be an apprentice plumber for a couple of hours will eventually burn out.

It’s not writer’s block a lot of the time – it’s not a question of inspiration. Inspiration hits you all the time, as long as you write it down so you don’t forget it, you’re never short of ideas (my solution is that I always have a notebook and pen with me all the time so I can just write down ideas whenever they happen to crop up).

It’s work block that is the problem.

And when I hit that point, I often find that the best thing I can do is not panic and just relax for a few days. I don’t think you can rush yourself back into it – you just have to ride the exhaustion out until you’re ready to sit down and start writing again…

That’s my opinion at any rate.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

I’ve never really thought of that before. Two people spring to mind, I suppose: Edgar Allen Poe and Agatha Christie. I’m not sure it’s necessarily because I would want to collaborate with them, but I think it would be fascinating to spend time with them to know how their minds ticked. Between the two of them they produced some seminal stuff and I think it would be an absolute pleasure to have the chance to see how they did it.

Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

The next Giles novel – The Court of Obsessions – is next on the list, that’s due to be released some time later this year. I know a lot of my readers are looking forward to that one, as they’ll get to see Giles operating more in her comfort zone instead of always looking over her shoulder like in The Bluebell Informant.

Then there is The Butcher of Barclay’s Hollow, which is a novella that I’m hoping to release on the tail end of this year at the latest. That one should be quite fun because it is something a little different in that it is largely about a Victorian policeman (who doesn’t want to be policeman) who is essentially forced to investigate a murder in a small rural village. It was one of those nice side projects that I really enjoyed writing and I think my readers will love reading it – and there’s the opportunity to extend that into a series as well, which is always exciting.

But I think the project I am most excited about is the third Giles novel, The Anonymous Jury. I haven’t started writing it yet, put I’m looking to start soon. I had a few hiccoughs because I started planning the story and then discovered shortly afterwards that a writer I admire had written something that sounded awfully similar to what I had in mind. I was really reluctant to read it because I didn’t want to learn we were writing the same story, but I knew I had to eventually just to make sure.

Luckily my sister-in-law grabbed the bull by the horns and got it for me not long ago, and now I’ve read it I’m happy to say that it is nothing like The Anonymous Jury so I’ll be looking to get my teeth into that shortly.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?

I’m woefully behind on my reading lately so I’m not really on the look out for books that are about to be released, but I am looking forward to getting hold of The Devil’s Evidence by Simon Kurt Unsworth. I read his first book, The Devil’s Detective a while back and loved it so much that I’m eager to dive into the next one.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Thanks for having me, Hannah. It’s been great fun!

I just want to say a massive thank you to Nick for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been enlightening. You can read more about Nick and his work HERE.

Talking Bodies 2017- The Post That Inspired My Paper on the Gendered Politics of Women’s Hair

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This post is just a quick thank you to everyone who came to see my talk at The University of Chester’s Talking Bodies conference, run by the fabulous Emma Rees. I was lucky enough to perform a talk earlier today about entitled The Gendered Objectification of Women’s Hair and its Correlation with Sexuality. I was overwhelmed by the enlightening comments and kind praise which I received from my talk, and I just wanted to say a massive thank you to everyone who came and who contributed to the fascinating discourse around hair and its correlation with sexuality. I wanted to share the blog post that inspired this discussion, first published on this very blog in October 2016. Although the ideas articulated in my paper have moved away from this gendered reading of hair in Adichie’s Americanah, the core argument around the gendered politicalisation of women’s hair, particularly with regards to sexuality and race, remains the same. 

‘Hair is political.’ I don’t think I truly understood what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie meant by this until I had my head shaved for charity.

There was literally no other reason for my head shaving except that I hadn’t had a new experience in a few weeks. When work suggested someone do it to raise money for charity I jumped at the chance.

Even just a few days afterwards people started staring and making strange comments. I was oblivious until someone came out with it and asked if I was a lesbian. It was then that I realized that my hair was more than just the stuff that grew out of my head- it was part of my identity. By shaving my head but not altering my identity to suit social stereotypes I messed with people’s view on the world, and it angered some people (a woman in a nightclub actually told me it should be illegal to have a shaved head and Doc Martins and not be gay).

It is worse for women than for men. A friend of mine had his head shaved for a part as an extra in a BBC drama a few years ago in order to preserve historical accuracy, and the only comment he ever has on the subject is that it “was the easiest 15 quid I ever earned”. The reason for this is fairly obvious- the reduced judgment on men for their appearance- however it is still confusing that a man with such an openly extreme haircut receives less social backlash than a woman.

However it wasn’t until my recent reading of Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, that I began to fully understand the politics of hair, particularly in relation to black people’s hair. The first time the reader meets the protagonist, Ifemelu, at the start of the novel she is travelling to have her hair braided. Throughout the novel the subject of hair, and how it shapes our identity, is called into question, as Ifemelu struggles to adjust to her new life in America and the specter of race, something she had never considered when she lived in Nigeria.

Her hair is a key part of her identity that Ifemelu decides to reclaim when she realizes that she is being changed by America, as she realizes that she is changing herself to suit the views of others. It is the realization that damaging her hair to achieve an ideal created by someone else was not worth it which causes her epiphany;

At night she struggled to find a comfortable position on her pillow. Two days later there were scabs on her scalp. Three days later, they oozed pus. Curt wanted her to see a doctor and she laughed at him. It would heal, she told him, and it did. Later, after she breezed through the job interview, and the woman shook her hand and said she would be a ‘wonderful fit’ in the company, she wondered if the woman would have felt the same way had she walked into that office wearing her thick, kinky, God-given halo of hair, the Afro. (p204).

So does this mean that hair is definitely the reason people judge us? Is it simply a small, intrinsic part of a wider social judgment or something much more?

Whilst Americanah does not answer these questions- indeed no novel could without being incredibly long and dense- what it does do is change the space hair takes up in literature. Although other novels have touched on the issue of hair and identity, for the most part hair is merely a descriptive device, used in characterisation in the same way that a handbag or a pair of shoes is- to provide an overall view of the character. Stiff hair makes the character uptight; hippies always have dreadlocks; pretentious types have perfectly coiffured up dos, etc. But in Americanah, hair becomes something more; here hair is a political issue, a social problem, a construct to be overcome. The same goes in real life, as emphasised by the people who told me off for being a straight girl with a shaved head, the people who claim that braids and afros are not professional hairstyles and try to have them banned from schools in order to intimidate and control black children. The fact that this has worked its way into mainstream literature shows that we are opening up to the idea that judging someone based on their hair is both wrong and abhorrent, and this can only be a good thing.

My paper took this argument, which you see here in the early stages (this blog post was the precursor to my paper), and concluded by articulating my belief that women, although outwardly seen to express their individuality through their hair, are actually pandering to male notions of normativity whether they are consciously making a stand against convention or adhering to it. Personally, I feel that the only way to combat this is to address the gender imbalance throughout corporate and artist worlds to provide women and minorities with a greater say in their own aesthetic choices and give them the agency to shape wider perceptions of their aesthetic choices. Please feel free to comment or message me- I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. 

The Top Five Adam Dalgliesh Novels to Enthral P.D. James Fans

Cover Her Face

Unchallenging yet intensely interesting, unoriginal yet delightfully twisted, I have enjoyed almost every novel by P.D James, particularly those featuring her detective Adam Dalgliesh. Her work was closely modelled on the Golden Age novelists and I found myself linking it to modern greats such as the wonderful Colin Dexter and Ruth Rendell.

It was her intense characterisation that set James apart from many of her contemporaries; her novels were innovative in having intense descriptions of horrific violence but evoking a cerebral detective whose methods were genteel and leisurely in comparison to the devious and vicious criminals he sought. Adam Dalgliesh is an intensely sensitive soul whose penchant for writing poetry when not solving crimes is often remarked upon. Starting out as a Detective Chief Inspector, Dalgliesh progresses steadily through the ranks to reach Commissioner by the later novels, whilst still retaining his personal involvement in cases. Although at times highly unbelievable (the latter fact alone being a case in point) James’ books offer interesting insight into the human condition and are a great read. Here I showcase my favourite five.

5. Cover Her Face: The first book in a series is always a great place to start, and I absolutely adore this innovative and fast paced novel. Both the victim and the majority of the suspects are exceptionally shady and the victim herself is incredibly malicious and manipulative, creating a great space for James to offer numerous red herrings and options for the reader to puzzle over. Readers will be hooked by this cracking opener which is the ideal introduction for the educated and methodical Adam Dalgliesh.

4. Death in Holy Orders: Like a number of James’ novels, this book offers a creative spin on the traditional ‘locked room mystery’ by offering a select number of suspects in the form of a coastal Church of England theological school. Dalgliesh originally arrives in to explore the suspicious death of a student, operating outside of his official capacity until the body count begins to rise. As the pressure rises and the killer remains ever vigilant the detective involves members of his team from London to help him solve this fiendishly difficult case and uncover a number of shocking truths which threaten the peace and tranquility of this otherwise exquisite retreat.

3. The Lighthouse: Set off the coast of Cornwall, this exhilarating novel is both a human drama and a stunning piece of Crime Fiction as Dalgliesh and his team battle against deadly diseases and a devious criminal. This book also puts across a fantastic representation of the detective himself as Dalgliesh battles his own demons and faces a number of tough decisions.

the lighthouse

2. Unnatural Causes: P.D James has a bit of an obsession with murdering or suspecting writers, whether they be novelists, as in this particular case, or journalists, for whom she reserves a particular ire. In this book a novelist is found murdered in a similar manner to the plot of his latest thriller whilst Dalgliesh is enjoying a rural holiday. The coast is another key feature in James’ novels and she loves to incorporate it into her books, making the setting an integral part of every novel.

1. The Private Patient: Set in Dorset, this exhilarating novel encapsulates the very best of James’ talents and offers readers a great insight into the seedy and secretive world of private cosmetic surgery. Incorporating Dalgliesh into a team was a stroke of genius on the author’s part as it allows him to become more of a rounded character as readers see him interact with a diverse group of people whilst at the same time work to solve a puzzling murder.

Revisiting Hercule Poirot: Did We Really Need To?

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Happy Easter!! On this fine Easter Sunday, which sees me returning to the shire for some much needed R&R, I explore the need to revive existing, popular characters such as Poirot and whether this adds anything to the canon of excellent literature already produced by creator Agatha Christie.

As a huge fan of Christie’s seminal Golden Age detective, I was both pleased and surprised when I encountered Sophie Hannah’s reinvention of the pernickety and fastidious Belgium detective in The Monogram Murders (check out my review HERE).

The book is a triumph, as is the follow up, Closed Casket, which I have just devoured in practically one sitting. However, whilst I acknowledge them as being excellent in their own way, it rather got me thinking about whether it was the plot or the reincarnation of Poirot himself that was so special about the books. The answer is the former.

Taken together with the recent reincarnations of Dorothy L Sayers’s excellent Lord Peter Wimsey by Jill Paton Walsh (read my thoughts HERE) and the many reinventions of other famed detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, this can be seen as the age of revival. Hollywood is constantly remaking movies, often shot for shot, and the literature world is no different, with these new versions of classic characters reappearing regularly. But are they worth it?

With the new Poirot novels, it is the differences from the originals that stand out almost as much as the similarities. In an effort not to borrow too heavily from the original Walsh invented her own sidekick, Edward Catchpool, a Scotland Yard detective with a limited imagination but an eye for detail. Catchpool is supposed to be the stand in for Christie’s brilliant Captain Hastings.

A note for those who have never read Christie’s works; Hastings is not the man you have seen on screen. I have never seen him portrayed properly. Whilst Poirot himself has been well done on a number of occasions, including Peter Ustinov’s measured version and the recent seminal portrayal of the character by David Suchet, Hastings always comes across wrong. From Jonathan Cecil’s incredibly upper class outing to the Hugh Fraser’s bumbling oaf, each of which are good characters in their own right, every on screen version of Hastings fails to take into account Christie’s writing, which showcased a brave and loyal man who was astute and intelligent, although occasionally lacking a little in common sense.

Creating a new sidekick in the form of Catchpool does allow Hannah to distance herself just enough from the Queen of Crime’s work and highlight her own talent for character creation, but what I cannot understand is the need to use Poirot to achieve this. Hannah’s other novels have all been huge successes, with the spectacular Little Face being one of the creepiest and most engaging books that I have ever read. Whilst I understand the value of wanting to reimagine a highly popular character such as Poirot, these novels would be even better if they instead introduced a new character that readers could enjoy without the burden of prior knowledge and high expectations.

The plots are a key area that are constantly compared to Christie’s original books, and whilst they are intriguing and inventive there are, in my opinion, too many twists to Hannah’s revised Poirot novels, reducing the impact and lessening the tension in the narrative. Christie was a master at creating taunt, tight stories that crackled with atmosphere; whilst they are great books in their own rights, The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket are both lackluster in comparison.

At the end of the day it is this constant commitment to reviving old characters and stories in an attempt to reinvigorate past success that is killing creativity across the media industry, and whilst I enjoy Hannah’s new Poirot novels it is my sincere wish that writers create new and exciting books which will one day become classics in their own rights, rather than constantly looking to prolong past appreciation.

John Moralee Interview: “It’s my job as a writer to make my writing fun to read”

 

author picture cropped 2Crime, horror and science fiction writer John Moralee discusses his work and talks me through the importance of his readers. 

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style.

My writing style developed as a result of studying what I liked reading and figuring out what worked for me. My favourite authors were always the most readable authors – the ones who didn’t show off their literary skills with convoluted sentences, thesaurus-busting words and obscure references to other literary works.

When I’m reading for pleasure, I like exciting storytelling. If a reader can’t follow a story without stopping to thumb through a dictionary, I think the writer should have done a rewrite, making everything clearer. That doesn’t mean I don’t like complex sentences and evocative metaphors, but they have to be carefully done.

It’s my job as a writer to make my writing fun to read, so I ruthlessly “murder my darlings” during editing.

Readability is my number one priority – always.

What drew you towards crime fiction, mystery and science fiction writing?

Growing up, I visited my local library at least once a week, taking out the maximum six books each time. The children’s section had loads of Agatha Christie books and Doctor Who ones, which is probably why I like crime as well as science fiction, horror and other genres.

How did you get into writing professionally?

Writing was the safest option for me and everyone else. I’m terribly dangerous if I try to do practical things. Somehow, I break anything I touch. Maybe I should have become a demolition expert.

Please tell me about your books. What do you believe draws readers to them?

I’ve written four novels and roughly two hundred short stories. My début crime novel was Acting Dead, a mystery set in Rhode Island about a famous actor investigating the disappearance of an old friend. I loved writing that book, but it took years to finish. The research and rewriting was mentally exhausting.

I find it much easier to complete shorter stories, like the ones collected in Edge of Crime, which includes several stories first published in Crimewave and other British magazines. My other short story collections are The Bone Yard and Other Stories (horror), Bloodways (more horror), Blue Ice (more crime), The Tomorrow Tower (science fiction) and The Good Soldier (general fiction) – all available on Amazon.

Most recently, I’ve had some science-fiction stories published in the Visions series of SF anthologies by Lillicat Publishers and ATZ’s horror collection Tricks, Treats and Zombies.

My other novels are Journal of the Living (a zombie apocalypse thriller), The House on Willow Lane (dark fantasy), and The Legend of King Arthur (comic fantasy.)

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

I’d choose Iain M. Banks. His novels were beautifully written. He wrote superb literary/mainstream fiction and science fiction. His Culture books were a revelation, because they were not set in a grim future dystopian society. They had optimism and hope. I liked the way he was successful at writing under two separate genres, using the “M” in his name to mark the difference. The Wasp Factory is one of my favourite books for the incredible denouement. His early death was a huge shock.

Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

On May 28th I have a story called Imhotep’s Dog published in an anthology of steampunk stories called Clockwork Cairo. The other writers include Gail Carriger, Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. There are twenty stories by steampunk authors in the book, published by Two Penny Books. I’m really looking forward to that.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?

Yes – too many. I have a massive collection of books that I haven’t got around to reading yet – hundreds and hundreds of books stored in boxes because I don’t have the shelf space – so I really should read those books first. Unfortunately, I can’t resist buying more books by my favourite crime writers, like Michael Connelly, Jeffery Deaver and Jo Nesbo. They are so prolific that I’m never going to catch up!

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Yes – thanks for interviewing me!

Thanks to John for answering my questions, it’s been fascinating. You can find out more about John and his work HERE.