Putting the ‘literary’ in ‘literary murder’
In the last few years we’ve seen conventional genres like woman’s fiction breaking down new sub-divisions like chick lit, as well as the emergence of whole new genres we never had before – YA being only the most obvious. So it’s no surprise that a favourite interview question for authors these days is ‘what genre do you write in?’
In my case the answer is ‘literary murder’. In both Murder at Mansfield Park and Tom-All-Alone’s/The Solitary House I take a well-known work of classic fiction, and then weave my own murder story into it. In the first book I did it by ‘re-imagining’ Jane Austen’s novel, and writing in in her style; in Tom-All-Alone’s/The Solitary House I created a standalone murder mystery that runs in parallel with Dickens’ Bleak House, and which draws in some of his most memorable characters.
For someone who loves classic English fiction as much as I do there’s an enormous pleasure in engaging so closely with these wonderful masterpieces, and I hope my readers can see how much I love these books, and how inspired I am by them. I’ve written an academic book on the 18th century English novel, so I do spend a huge amount of time getting the details right – whether that’s the Regency vocabulary in Murder at Mansfield Park, or the sordid facts of Dickens’ London in the latest book.
Both of my novels are murder stories, but the word ‘literary’ is just as important here. I’ve been overwhelmed with the positive response I’ve had to both books, both from Austen and Dickens aficionados, and from readers who’ve never read a word of either of them. But every now and again someone says I should ‘find my own voice’ or ‘leave the classics alone’. My answer to the first point is that while my first novel certainly was a conscious pastiche, part of the purpose of that
book was to do exactly that, in an attempt to give Austen fans some of the same pleasure her own books do. In Tom-All-Alone’s/The Solitary House, by contrast, the voice is entirely my own. I do play ventriloquist when I ‘recall Dickens’ characters to life’ (to paraphrase a memorable phrase of his own), but the story, and the main protagonists are all mine own, and you don’t have to have read Bleak House to enjoy it.
As for the suggestion that I abandon the classics and just make something up, well yes, of course I could do that if I wanted. With my second book, I could easily have written a Victorian murder mystery that made no reference to Dickens at all, but believe me, dear reader, there are many dozens of writers who are already doing that, some of them extremely well. I chose the literary angle precisely because I couldn’t find a single novel that does what I do in Tom-All-Alone’s/The Solitary House. And as the Literary Review said in their review, “Spotting the literary references adds another layer of enjoyment to what is already an absorbing story.”
The contemporary book market is so crowded that every writer needs to find some way to make their book stand out – some factor that makes their novel if not unique, then at least that little bit different. And it’s the ‘literary’ in ‘literary murder’ that does that for me. Clearly there will always be a few people that don’t like that approach, and they’re entitled to that view, but criticising me for choosing it is rather like complaining about the magic in Harry Potter. It’s the heartbeat of the genre I’ve chosen to write in, and if the books do manage to be distinctive in any way, I think that’s why.
This post was originally written for Damien Seaman’s blog, which you can visit at the link below