Mark Timlin: It's a crime novel, so where's the crime?

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The Independent Culture

The only time I met Ed McBain, I asked him what he thought made a good crime novel. At first he declined to answer, but when I pressed him, he came up with a quip from Elmore Leonard, another genius of crime, who said: "There should be a lot of white on the page.'' Perfect, I thought. That means the sentences are short, sharp and to the point. No fat. No flannel.

Ironically, McBain's first success was as a literary author (under the name of Evan Hunter) with The Blackboard Jungle in 1955. He only became McBain with the 87th Precinct novels, and it was years before the truth about his double life was revealed. I'm sure a lot of his fans aren't aware of it to this day.

Hunter/McBain did the almost impossible feat of changing horses in midstream, and since then a number of writers have tried to do the same. These writers get great reviews and disappointing sales. They take a squint at the best-seller lists and see them full of books about serial killers, gangsters and good cops, and say to themselves: "Blimey! I can do that.'' Or more likely: "Good heavens, I wonder if I put my mind and talent to work on this subject I could have a hit.'' Because a literary writer will never use one word when half a dozen will do. There's not a lot of white on the page with these folks.

Take Martin Amis. I read London Fields because I heard it was literary crime at its finest. I guessed the culprit on page 18 and had to plough through another 450, full of people with ridiculous, jokey names, to find that I was right. Then there was a book called Night Train written as an American woman cop, about which the less said the better.

Just recently, two more from the literary set have published crime novels. Robert Edric's mantelpiece groans with awards. Siren Song (Doubleday £16.99) is the second part of a trilogy featuring Hull private detective Leo Rivers. He's hired by a woman with terminal cancer to investigate the death of her daughter in what appears to be a suspicious boating accident where no body was found. Not for one moment do I believe in Rivers. His interrogations of the suspects are as polite as a maiden aunt's tea party, and even when one does go into a four-letter-word rant, the dialogue rings as true as a cracked bell.

Susan Hill, another multiple award winner, wrote The Woman in Black and was once shortlisted for the Booker prize. The Various Haunts of Men (Chatto £12.99) is the first in another trilogy, this time about Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serailler in the fictional cathedral town of Lafferton. Oddly, he doesn't seem to do any police work at all, leaving most of the work to DS Freya Graffham, a recent transfer from the Met, who falls madly in love with Serailler on first sight. This leads to many Mills & Boon moments that grate like fingernails on a blackboard. Graffham, like Leo Rivers, is extremely polite, even in times of mortal danger, and I dearly wished for a door to burst open, and some burly copper to yell: "We're The Sweeney son, and we haven't had our dinner.'' If I thought Siren Song was dull, TVHOM gets to the parts of dullness I never knew existed. It meanders around for a quarter of its length, introducing a number of unattractive characters. Finally, echoing the old ad line - "Where's the beef?'' - I heard myself screaming: "Where's the crime?'' At last on page 172, it arrived, and it was hardly worth the trip.

Now don't get me wrong. There's no faulting the writing of either of these novels. I'm sure grammar and syntax are all present and correct. But who cares? Not me. It seems that both these novels are aimed at people who think that reading crime fiction is beneath them. They are written without any tension or energy, and with no love or understanding of the genre and what makes it tick. My advice is to save the money you might spend on these two long, uninspired volumes and go find a paperback of McBain or Chandler, or any one of 100 crime novelists who manage to pack more thrills and excitement, character and plot into a couple of hundred pages with plenty of white visible, and probably never got an award in their lives.

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