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Building a crime novel

Crime novels possess an architecture, its form partly defines the genre, and if such books were bridges structural engineers would assess their load bearing and frame systems.


Sean Sheehan


Structures with minimal forces bearing down on them, they would quickly see, do not need heavy columns, deep foundations or multiple trusses; crime novels that don’t kick in with the reader exhibit their own flimsy narrative architecture.

Mick Herron has become a hugely successful author of a new kind of spy fiction but his latest work of fiction, “This is what happened”, breaks new ground.

This is kept hidden from the reader as the first chapter gets underway with a pleasurably syncopated piece of action that reads like his familiar territory: 26-year-old Maggie Barnes has been recruited by an M15 agent to stay behind after work one night in the 27-storey office block where she works in the mail room.

Her mission is to clandestinely upload an item of spyware on a computer network using a flash drive she been entrusted with.

So far, so good, and the surprise that follows is enticing enough. But then it slowly grinds down to a labour of reading. The novel’s characterization reveals itself as weak and unconvincing, the plot plods along and the denouement is too predictable to count as a climax.

Photo: Pixabay

A review in The Guardian praises it as a psychological thriller, ‘a compelling and claustrophobic three-hander, told with admirable economy’, but you will need to make up your own mind after reading it.

The A35 is a trunk road connecting Devon with Hamphire but the author of “An accident on the A35”, begins the construction of his crime novel with an incident on a road of that name in a backwater of France.

Graeme Macrae Burnet, like Mick Herron, has good form –last year he was on the shortlist for the Booker prize for his novel “His bloody project” and his new crime novel also breaks fresh ground.

Like his previous work, “An accident on the A35” has a historical setting and a framing device that posits the author as someone who just happens to come across documents relating to a crime and which he proceeds to translate.

As part of the book’s architecture, it’s a literary device for establishing the Maigret-era setting and the Maigret-style Inspector Gorski on whose patch the fatal car crash occurs.

As inspector Gorski probes into what on the surface is a straightforward car accident he uncovers facts and makes connections that intrigue him as much as the reader.

The other main character is the teenage son of the deceased driver and he also discovers secrets that have been kept hidden by the bourgeois citizens of his town.

Burnet’s novel is not a page-turner but, skilfully written and neatly executed, it is a quietly satisfying read. As bridges go, it would be an elegant and aesthetically pleasing construction and a pleasure to traverse.

“This is what happened” by Mick Herron is published by John Murray. “An accident on the A35” by Graeme Macrae Burnet is published by Saraband.

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