This week, I’m being spoiled rotten by another kind author’s contribution of a blog post. So I shall immediately, and with gratitude, hand over the reins to Gordon Lawrie:
Gordon Lawrie was a secondary teacher in his native Edinburgh for 36 years until he could no longer resist the challenge of writing a novel. His first awful attempt remains buried undiscovered in a safe place, but a couple of romantic comedies followed before his first crime novel, The Midnight Visitor, appeared in March 2022. In addition, he is the Founding Director of Dean Park Press, which provides services for self-publishing authors, and the editor of the online publication Friday Flash Fiction.
He has his own website, www.lawrie.info where you can find lots more embarrassing information about him, as well as a great deal of free stuff to read. He also has a Twitter account: @thesaucers where he sometimes says more than he should about the government of the day, golf, birdwatching and his beloved Hearts football club.
I’m pretty addicted to crime fiction. I think it might my need for escapism, but I also enjoy being challenged in a non-confrontational sort of way. I’m addicted to Wordle, too.
I’ve written a handful of novels now, some of which have been better than others. What seemed to work best for me was romantic comedy, but there’s little money in romcoms unless Danny Boyle or someone equally famous decides to turn your novel into a smash hit starring Hugh Grant. No, crime fiction is the way to go if you’re trying to make a living from your writing. Crime – whether it’s a detective thriller or a courtroom drama – not only holds out the prospect of a modest income; there’s half a chance someone will try to use the characters to turn your stories into a TV series. That’s why I started to write my DI John Knox/Sister Mary Maxwell-Hume mysteries. Shameless, I admit it.
But be under no illusion, crime writing is hard. There are so many strands to keep track of: the plot, of course; the characters; the pace; maintaining the general suspense; and of course the reader has to feel satisfied by the eventual solution. Ideally, the reader should end up feeling like the detective’s sidekick, wondering how they managed to be so stupid as to miss the giveaway clues that were the key to solving the mystery. Keep your Booker or Nobel Prizes. Writing a crime novel is the true Everest of literature.
Crime writing, though, is far from homogeneous. Readers of Caron’s blog will be familiar with her cosy country-house whodunnits (that’s an official term, not an insult, by the way). Or perhaps you prefer Raymond Chandler-style hard-boiled thrillers, usually told in the first person to allow the writer to make acerbic observations on the social circles in which he – it’s almost invariably a ‘he’ – moves. There’s a whole genre of historical crime fiction, whether it’s Brother Cadfael in a monastery, or the exceptional Bernie Gunther series mostly set during and in the aftermath of Nazi Germany. There are any number of “noir” crime thrillers: Nordic noir, tartan noir, Icelandic noir and so on. Recently, Richard Osman and others have written successful crime novels with comedy overtones. My fellow Edinburgh author Olga Wojtas is currently having lots of success with a bonkers time-travel comedy crime series. Her librarian protagonist is sent back in time to solve assorted mysteries (the latest being to exonerate MacBeth and discover who really killed King Duncan). Janice Hallett’s The Appeal is written entirely in emails and texts. There’s plenty of choice.
But although I’ll read virtually anything, my all-time favourite crime genre is what I’d term “holiday crime”. Set in some lovely location that I’m either familiar with, or would like to go to, I’m transported there as I turn the pages. I particularly like the ones set in Italy – Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily; Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen set in various cities; but above all Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series set in Venice.
Venice is a city I think I know fairly well, and each of Leon’s novels takes me there on another holiday. An American, she was a Professor of English Literature at Venice University, and she clearly casts herself as Paola, Guido’s wife. What we end up with is a series of novels where the plot is almost secondary, sometimes even thin, but the reader doesn’t mind because there are so many other things to enjoy – the interplay between familiar characters; the politics and society of Venice; Guido and Paola’s own literary preferences; Venetian cuisine; but above all the city itself. There’s even a book of walks called Brunetti’s Venice where you can trace the steps of the great man for yourself. (I’ve done a couple. How sad is that?)
Living in a tourist hot-spot like Edinburgh, you’d think I’d find it easy to weave the city into my books. But there are so many outstanding crime writers who also live here – Kate Atkinson, Ian Rankin and Alexander McColl-Smith to name just three – that I feel rather in awe of their skills. And because writers still have to concentrate on plot, characters, pacing and all the other aspects of a novel, they also have to be careful that describing ‘scene’ isn’t perceived by the reader to be mere padding. That’s especially dangerous if your reader is from your own home city; they probably don’t need to be given a guided tour.
You might not even have heard of Donna Leon, because the only TV series that’s ever been made of Commissario Brunetti’s mysteries was in German. More surprising still, Leon has expressly forbidden her novels ever to be translated into Italian – she’s completely unknown in Venice itself. That might be the secret. The reader needs to feel they’re off on holiday, and it’s not much fun trying to escape in your own town. I think we all learned that during the pandemic.
Thank you so much, Gordon, for this fascinating tour of Italian crime!
Also by Gordon Lawrie:
Self-Publishing: The Total Beginner’s Guide
The Discreet Charm Of Mary Maxwell-Hume
Four Old Geezers And A Valkyrie
and more! All available from Amazon and good book shops.