How many plots are there?

I spent a most enjoyable evening at Waterstones in Kingston last night with Karen of Euro Crime website and blog, at Killer Reads, an event devised by Chris Simmons of CrimeSquad. Yaba Badoe, Chris Carter, N J (a.k.a. Natasha) Cooper, R J Ellory, Ariana Franklin, Johan Theorin (fresh from his CWA dagger John Creasey/New Blood award the night before for Echoes from the Dead), Cathi Unsworth, Nicola Upson and Laura Wilson all read from their novels and talked about their writing as well as the usual topics about the appeal of the genre. One inevitable result is that I now have even more books for my reading list.

Among the interesting perspectives provided was one by R J Ellory, in jetlagged yet energetic mode, who emphatically opined that there are only three kinds of British crime fiction (cosy village murder, gritty urban police procedural, and I forget the third!), which is why he writes novels based in different times and places in the United States, where there are (in his view) far more regional and temporal differences. I find this point of view exceedingly unconvincing. Probably so did everyone else, but they were too polite to say so. He also went on to say that there are only three kinds of author, but I have even less memory of those generalizations – other than it is good to aspire to write a book like To Kill a Mockingbird or In Cold Blood.

It was amusing in this context to read Sharon Wheeler's post about Nick Hay's selection procedure for books to read for review for Reviewing the Evidence. "Oh look, here's a mad monk running around mittel Europe in search of a religious icon. And there's another, with added Freemasons at no extra cost. Yes, and there's yet another, with a beautiful woman to help our intrepid hero track down said mad monk. If the writer's feeling particularly radical, there'll be a mysterious library in there somewhere." Many other books fall into a couple of other categories: Mr Average in small-town America avenging himself on threat to family; and thrillers involving former military heroes charging round the United States.

10 thoughts on “How many plots are there?

  1. Really interesting post, Maxine –
    As I think about the kinds of mystery plots there are, one thing comes to my mind: there aren’t that many categories of reasons for which people kill other people. So there are probably a finite number of plot motifs. Still, there are a lot of different contexts and settings, and so many different kinds of characters, too. Hence the wide variety there really is in crime fiction.

  2. Well, I think it must be lack of imagination. It doesn´t matter what there is or isn´t in a certain region, it depends on what the author is able to come up with. If not, there wouldn´t be any interesting crime novels from Scandinavia or Iceland.

  3. Well, I have to apologize if I came across as opinionated and simplistic in my viewpoint. Serves me right for staying up for thirty-six hours! Anyway, I think what I meant and what I said was not the same thing. I love British crime thriller writing, and I was not trying to be critical in any way! British crime thrillers have set the standard for a hundred years or more, and with the ongoing discussion as to whether ‘Riddle of the Sands’ or ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ was the first thriller, we forget to note that they were both British books! Anyway, my choice to write stories based in the US is nothing to do with some imagined lack of scope or potential for setting a story in the UK, but more to do with personal interest and preference. I think there is a limitless number of superb British settings for thrillers, as evidenced by the authors who were present at Kingston Killers, and also the stellar names we have in our bestseller lists such as Ian Rankin, Frederick Forsyth and John Le Carre. British authors write world-class thrillers in British settings, and that’s all there is to say about it. And next time I show up I’m not going to come directly from New York after a month of touring…I’m going to go home and sleep first, and then I won’t say things that annoy people!
    Once again, apologies for the seemingly narrow-minded perspective I appear to have communicated. It was not intended to come across that way!

  4. Well, I have to apologize for the apparent annoyance I have generated! I seem to have communicated a viewpoint that has been misunderstood, and that is no-one’s fault but my own.
    I am a huge fan of British crime thrillers, and my choice to write books set in the US has nothing to do with some perceived lack of scope for setting books in the UK, but more to do with personal interest and preference. The ongoing discussion as to whether ‘Riddle of the Sands’ or ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ was the first thriller often fails to mention the fact that both of these books were British. British authors write world-class British thrillers in British settings, and that’s all there is to it. You only have to look at the bestseller lists to find such names as Rankin, Forsyth and Le Carre to be reminded of how significantly such writers have influenced the entire genre. Step backwards a few years into Christie and Conan Doyle, and we have the foundation of all whodunnits and whydunnits that have ever been written.
    So, once again, my sincere apologies if I have put anyone’s nose out of joint. Next time I’m not going to come to an event directly from New York after a month’s touring. I’m going to go home and sleep first, and then – perhaps – I might be a little less energetic and abrasive!

  5. Oh, and now I feel like a spoilt little child. It is very kind of you to excuse as my comment was quite rude (these Scandinavians may learn the language but they will say the most horrible things in it). I merely wanted to support Maxine´s point of view that British crime could not be boiled down to three themes, but still I should learn not to write things on a blog that I would never say to anyone´s face. So I accept your apology and offer mine for being less than courteous 😀

  6. Sincerely, I think I was being one of those people you invite to dinner and then don’t invite again! I am ordinarily quite well-mannered (ask Chris!), and courteous, and we shall meet again – no doubt – and I shall buy you a drink and we shall see which of us can be the most polite!
    Best wishes,

  7. Thanks very much for coming over to comment, R. J. Ellory, very much appreciated. And my apologies too if my post seemed a bit ungracious – as a life-long reader of crime fiction I am well aware that there is plenty of variety from Britain, elswehere in Europe and in the UK. Though, perhaps, it would be very fair to say that the “bestseller” lists are dominated by a rather narrow set of genres. But there are masses of books to read without being constrained by those.
    Thanks again for your graciousness in bothering to comment, which is very much appreciated!

  8. Heavens above! I have not read any of R.J. Ellory’s books — I battle no small degree of ill health these days, so I am far behind in things and my neglect of many is at my door, not theirs — but I am going to correct that simply as a tribute to his graciousness, to borrow your word, Maxine, in these comments. Plainly, he didn’t say quite what he meant to say, but he needn’t think it a mortal sin, or even a venial one. Weary or under the weather, we all do it.

  9. But then again, now I read on FF that the name was wrong, I’m probably writing about the wrong author, and whoever it was was not just wrong, but nasty with it. Well, that’ll save me adding a book to my neglected list.

  10. Roger Ellory and I nearly ended up on the same quiz team at Harrogate in July. Later in the year, I had the chance to speak to him at the Reading Crime Festival where I found him quite charming. I’m sure it must have been the pressures of his recent, very busy, US tour that led to the wrong impression.
    Sometimes you meet an author you haven’t read yet and the impression they leave is that you want to read their work. This happened to me here. And his very supportive US publisher, Overlook Press kindly sent me a copy too!

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