What is crime fiction?

This week, on a course about Crime Fiction, we were asked the question ‘what is crime fiction?’ You’d have thought we’d know, since we’d signed up for a fairly significant chunk of education on the subject, but it was harder to answer than you might expect. It was really quite a clever bit of teaching, to pose that question, and to sit back and allow us to discuss it. I doubt that a single person came out of that room with a sentence that began ‘Crime fiction is…’ but we all came out thinking, and discussing it further with each other and, in my case, with family and friends.

I woke up in the middle of the night last night with a sudden (and paranoid) fear that there was someone in my room. I had heard a noise in my sleep, and remembered that the doors here only lock if you turn the the latch on your side. I had to get up and check that I had done this and, even though I had, I still had to check everywhere in the room that there was no one hiding. Of course, once I’d established that this was middle of the night away from home paranoia, I had such a cracking idea for a crime novel that I had to write that down. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that overpowering need to write something down in the middle of the night like that.

After I’d scribbled down a half considered outline on the back of one of the hotel notices, I had a half remembered thought. It was something I’d heard at Fantasy Con one year, or maybe Edge Lit. I couldn’t be exactly sure. And I can’t attribute because I can’t remember who said it. I can’t even remember exactly what was said. But it was a comment about the difference between horror and crime and went something like this. ‘In a story, if you’re lying in bed and something grabs your leg, in crime, it’s a murderer, but in horror it could be anything.’ I had a middle of the night compulsion to expand this further. I scribbled this on the back of another hotel room notice. I woke up this morning and reread it, and it still mostly made sense, so I thought I’d share it here. Please feel free to add to my list in the comments here, or let me know what you think Crime Fiction is.

In a story, if you’re lying in bed and something grabs your leg…

if it’s crime, it’ll be a murderer

in ‘Golden Age’ crime, it’ll be a classy murderer with an unlikely weapon

in noir, the murderer will be sleeping with your husband or wife

in domestic noir, you will be sleeping with the murderer

in horror, it’ll be a something that’s come from hell

in psychological horror, it might have come from hell, or it might be your subconscious

in science fiction, it might be an alien, or a robot, or someone from the future

in fantasy, it really could be anything, but it might not have malicious intentions

in romance, maybe you’re reading Fifty Shades?

in literary fiction, it could be anything, but whatever you do, don’t worry too much about what’s grabbed your leg and notice the brilliant metaphor I wrote.

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