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talking to HSC literture students on crime writing has got me thinking…

October 24, 2012

On 14th November I will be addressing HSC literature students at the Wesley Conference Centre on the topic of crime writing and I am really looking forward to it. Crime writing is an elective HSC subject and the students must answer one question on the set texts (which includes P.D.James’ The Skull Beneath The Skin) and one that is creative crime writing.

As I prepare my speech I find myself playing with ideas on three main themes:

  1. how crime fiction encompasses a very broad range of sub-genres today
  2. why crime fiction, and particularly thrillers, tap into the hot issues of our time
  3. how the cultural background of the authors influences their presentation of right and wrong: is a government assassin the hero or the villain?

As I see it, what all crime fiction has in common is:

  • A crime has taken place or will take place
  • The hero or heroine must defeat the villain (note, hero is almost always successful – but not always)

But what fascinates me is that whilst the detective, PI or forensic expert is still hugely popular there are so many heroes from other areas of expertise: journalists, psychiatrists, doctors, military, hey, even a glaciologist.

What I find even more fascinating is how the big social, political and, more recently, environmental issues of our time are key themes in crime fiction.

So why does crime fiction tend to tap into social, political and environmental issues, more than other popular genres? Is it because the authors are all crazy left wing political activists who need a soap box? Hmm, I don’t think so. The crime fiction genre naturally taps into these issues because they are stories about a crime or potential crime, and what a good crime novel will do is explore the culture, the background, the childhood and so on of the villain and ask why that person has their world view, however sick or warped it might be. How they come to believe that what they are doing is right? What kind of world does a terrorist come from? Who has taught him or her to think that way? Why do they see no other option? Or what kind of world allows priests to abuse children or young adults to take a gun to school and kill as many of their school mates as possible? As the detective tries to discover ‘whodunit’, a good crime fiction novel will reveal, slowly and gradually, the killer’s world view and motivation. By doing so, the author reveals the issue at the heart of the story as well as bringing the reader a well-rounded, believable villain. A villain who is evil simply because he is, really doesn’t make for a credible character, in my opinion.

Anyway, I’ll keep any further details of my talk to myself until I’ve had a chance to share it with the students attending. Only fair they get to hear it first. But if you have any thoughts on these topics, I’d love to hear them, so please leave a comment below.

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