Why I love ... crime fiction

Critic and author Barry Forshaw here shares his love of his speciality – crime-writing – to give us all a pick-me-up and ideas of books to read.

His expertise is used at book festivals across the country and he writes for magazines and newspapers including being a reviewer for the Financial Times

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He is the author of several guides to crime books including Historical Noir, American Noir and Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide.

Barry Forshaw

So – why another guide to the bloody subject of crime fiction – the nation’s favourite reading for relaxation?

This is a question I asked myself before beginning to write Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, writes Barry Forshaw.

After all, the shelves of any self-respecting crime lover are already bulging with a hundred such guides,aren’t they?

There are books that give you reasoned, intelligent appraisals of key crime authors; there are the eccentric, voluminous arm-strainers full of interminable essays on crime novels featuring umbrellas or ticket stubs as key motifs; there are the hastily slapped-together, sloppily edited guides crammed full of pulp-era illustrations showing blondes spilling out of torn dresses.

Surely, between them, such books comprehensively cover the field? Actually, no. I found that many of these guides frequently fail to generate that excitement and enthusiasm that instantly make the reader want to grab the book discussed.The guides with their nit-picking essays are often so impenetrably arranged that it’s far easier to find an essay on the use of the apostrophe in Dorothy Sayers than an appraisal of the novels of Raymond Chandler or Lee Child.

The heavily-illustrated guides concentrate so much on illustrations of cleavage and corpses that there isn’t much room left for actual text (though, of course, there’s nothing wrong with sex and violence in crime novels ...).

I felt, however, that I could hopefully get readers reaching for all the exhilarating crime novels from Conan Doyle to John Grisham. Let’s face it, if criticism can’t whip up enthusiasm, what use is it?

In all modesty, I felt well qualified to take up the cudgels.

Apart from my duties interviewing crime writers for the likes of Heather French, grande dame behind Scarborough’s Books by the Beach, I’ve been writing about crime fiction in various books for many years, and for (variously) The Times, the Independent and the Express ... and I’m the crime critic for the Financial Times.

But I knew that all of these credentials would count for nothing if I couldn’t come up with lively stories about the writers I’ve encountered, from the prickly Patricia Highsmith to the aimable PD James.

Barry Forshaw with best-selling author PD James

Over the years, there have been plenty of larger-than-life personalities in the field who’ve given me a fund of anecdotes.

Bestselling American crime writer Patricia Cornwell, for instance, was clearly taken aback when her attempts to prove that the great English painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper were met with massive scepticism and scorn in the UK.

After all, Cornwell had spent jaw-dropping amounts on research, and it can hardly have been a ploy to sell her book on this nigh-obsessive quest – Cornwell is top of the tree, and needed no massaging of her sales figures.

But Cornwell and other US writers need hardly worry about this Brit resistance – in fact, the genre of serial killer novels (post-Jack the Ripper) was virtually created by an American and one of prodigious skills at that: Thomas – Silence of the Lambs – Harris.

So why do so many of us love the crime genre, either on the page or on the screen?My own theory is that it gives us law-abiding types, assuming that the readers of this paper are law-abiding, a chance to work out vicariously – and at distance –things that we’ve never dared to do, not least settling scores with people who’ve crossed us, rather than simply silently gritting our teeth.

Crime Fiction: A Reader's Guide by Barry Forshaw

We’d all like to do a lot of unacceptable things that we wouldn’t dare to do – and surely that, apart from the sheer pleasure of a well-written novel, is what crime fiction provides, doesn’t it?

Thankfully, there are a lot of writers happy to provide those unlawful second-hand experiences...

Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide is published by No Exit Press/Oldcastle Books.