Crime Fiction and The Quarrelsome Page-Turner

First of all a very big thank you to all who have come back to me following my ‘best crime fiction reads of 2013’ post.

Great to discuss and I was pleased to discover that many shared my views. I suppose the bottom line is that a ‘great read’ makes universal appeal, and many of these books did indeed appeal simply because of that.

I did come to realise though that were one or two ‘marmite’ selections – Lauren Beukes ‘The Shining Girls’ being the prime example. No wonder some poor agents and publishers scratch their heads over what will prove popular. It just shows you what a difficult game publishing is, something which I’ll return to later in this piece.

Anyway, Lauren, if you’re reading, I’m sure you won’t mind. Better to cause a reaction than none at all, and after all, there’s plenty of tasty marmite on the shelves!

It was good to see that a couple of weeks after the post some of these made CWA dagger nominations – and all very much deserved. I don’t know about you, but I always find it hard to answer the question ‘what sort of books do you like?’ It seems facetious to reply ‘good ones’ but I don’t really have a ‘type’ as such. Yes crime fiction is my favourite genre, but taking a look back at my list, books such as ‘Water Blue Eyes’ and ‘The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter’ are a million miles apart.

It may be a bit of a cliché but my marker on this is still the ‘page turner’. However, maybe I could refine it to the ‘quarrelsome page turner’. Those times, often in the early hours, when the bedside clock tells you that you should have gone to sleep a long time ago, but you must read the next page or reach the end of the chapter, or in some circumstances keep going until you’ve read the whole book – and damn the consequences.

Sometimes a little voice nags at me not to turn another page, or scroll down to the next one on my Kindle, but when there’s a good book in front of me I fight it, shout back at it, scream at it sometimes to leave me alone. That’s when you know you’re reading a good ‘un… and my work colleagues can always tell in the morning! One look at me and tell-tale signs are there. It might be the hastily applied make-up, the lack of time spent on coordinated attire, or the inability to utter a cohesive sentence before my first coffee of the day. I usually get ‘Go on then Stella, tell us about the book’.

I think it’s been an exciting year for crime fiction, and the vibes are that 2014 will be no different. I sense that there has been a real injection of new talent to add to the tried and trusted authors we all know and love. I’m going to stick to my wont of seeking out new authors next year. I have heard some encouraging noises from folks in the industry. One example is Eva Dolan with her debut ‘Long Way Home’. I haven’t got a review copy, but the vibes from those that have read it come from trusted sources. If you hear of anything else in the pipeline, which you think I might enjoy, do drop me a line, either in reply here, or via twitter [@hayesstella].

Before I leave my list in the archive, I must say a quick piece about TJ Cooke’s ‘Defending Elton’. Last week I watched the second episode of Bedlam on CH4. It’s a documentary about a triage unit which assesses those with acute mental health issues. This one’s in Lambeth, South London, but sadly, since funding has been reduced, they are few and far between, and with very limited spaces.

One patient featured was Rupert, a giant of a man who immediately reminded me of Elton in the book – in fact so much so it was uncanny. It made me realise what an exceptionally clever piece of writing ‘Defending Elton’ is. Like Rupert, Elton is left to wander between psychiatric unit, the streets and prison with nobody willing or able to properly diagnose his condition. A danger to both himself and the public it struck me that Cooke’s characterisation is spot on, with the plight of Rupert in the real world endorsing the frightening scenario which he paints for Elton in his book.

Tackling a subject such as mental health isn’t easy, in any genre, and in this book a very strong message is buried within a thoroughly engrossing story. The temptation to air such issues can lead to the odd pious and lecturing piece, which I tend to rail against. Cooke does well to avoid this trap, notably with the use of much appreciated humour, albeit some of it rather dark. On the back of ‘Defending Elton’ I’m currently reading his other offering ‘Kiss and Tell’. Another topical issue is faced head-on here, that of controlled drugs and decriminalisation. Again the author seems to have pulled off the task of making a strong statement within a gripping crime fiction read. It’s good to see that there is some real quality writing out there in the Indie community.

Of course three of my listed authors, Anya Lipska, Mark Edwards and Rachel Abbot, have all trodden this path before. They all put their work ‘out there’ via the likes of Amazon, and were eventually spotted by traditional publishers. It’s not a substitute for the classic model of submission, but an interesting and quite enlightening addendum to it. It gives writers that little extra chance of being discovered and for us book lovers that’s no bad thing.

I have always been a little wary of what used to be stigmatised by brand as ‘self-publishing’, and I think quite rightly so. It was a market seemingly dominated by those who either had funds to promote their own books or, more worryingly, a few less than salubrious folk who tempted others to depart with such funds, for very little reward!

However, the sands have certainly shifted this last couple of years. Now budding authors don’t have to ‘buy’ in as an alternative to traditional publishers. They can make their books available with very little funding, and consequently be judged on merit – and therein lies the rub, because merit, rather than money, is now the operative word.

It’s only during the last six months that I’ve taken the step of accessing some of the books directly published [as perhaps we should now call it] via the likes of Amazon’s KDP [for Kindles etc] and Create Space [for paperbacks]. There are some real nuggets in there that’s true, but there are also many poorly crafted pieces of work.

What I would advise is to consider reviews selectively and take note of those people whose views you already trust. The temptation has been to look at sales figures to highlight directly published works which may be worthy of further consideration, but I would be very wary of this. Why? Because the old enemy ‘money’ can still play a part. I have come across books which have been hyped and marketed with gusto, which consequently have led to reasonable Amazon sales. Yet some of these, and I’m not in the business of negative vibe, have been very disappointing. This side of the business is still relatively new and if you’ll allow me to coin an awful phrase ‘the proof of the pudding is in the reading’.

So, how do we, the great reading public, get to know about a really good Indie author? In being selective there is quality to be found, but the problem at the moment is that it’s like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.  I’m very glad to see though that some are trying to make the task of spotting the nuggets from the fool’s gold that much easier. We can all do our own little bit if we find something we really believe in, and we should, because these authors don’t have publishing house back-up. This week however, some with a little more clout, such as the Crimefictionlover website and the renowned convention ‘Crimefest’ have really added to the cause. Crimefictionlover.com does a splendid all-round job, and has suggested a few more Indies which are well worth a mention. Also this week Crimefest announced that for the first time they are going to have an emerging/Indie author panel which reflects the rise of new talent via this route.

So times are changing, and I really do think as book lovers we should rejoice in that. Ultimately, from the perspective of readers, all it will mean is that there is a higher chance of a few more fabulous authors being discovered, whose books may otherwise not have seen the light of day. We all know that some wonderful writers have taken many years to get published, quite a few in this genre, and if the new Indie model helps to speed up that process then I think we’ll all reap the benefit.

Those I know in the industry have told me that it’s always been challenging in deciding which authors to back, from both agent and publisher perspectives. One agent told me that it’s like ‘waiting for the planets to align’ before they can be confident that one of their charges will be offered a deal. Nobody is saying that judging these things is easy, and of course it will inevitably remain highly subjective, but both agents and publishers might now get a few more clues as to what’s out there from other respected people in the industry, and not just in this genre either.

I’ll try and keep tabs on what’s happening in 2014, but my guess is change will continue. There’s now the hybrid author too, which muddies the waters further for unfortunates like me who are trying to keep pace. There are those who were traditionally published who then release subsequent books directly, thereby taking advantage of the readership they’ve built up and taking a higher percentage of profit from sales to boot! Add to this the Indie authors who publish direct to get noticed by traditional publishing houses, the Indie authors who are quite happy to do their own marketing and remain Indie, and then a whole mass of folk who just publish one often poorly written manuscript – no wonder some say it’s a minefield. Did I suggest I’d try and keep tabs with it? Maybe with the help of others I might. 

Still, let’s not be scared of change. Let’s try and embrace it, which is all I’m trying to do in my quest to find talented new writers to add to our entertainment.

Finally, I must also say thanks to Arcadia and Faber & Faber for the lovely books they sent me. I thought ‘Norwegian By Night’ was a terrific read, and Arcadia also have a fine author in Edward Wilson. Though the TBR pile was down a few notches a month ago, it’s soon stacked up again!

Well, as I’ve said, my posts will hopefully be meaty, but invariably sporadic. The run up to Christmas will be hectic at work I’m sure, but I’ll try and post again mid December if I can, and New Year if I can’t.

Cheerio all. Happy reading.

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