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December 09, 2012



This reply may the first of several as I consider your question in a broader context.

I read a lot of crime fiction and enjoy most of it (though to be fair, I consider the vast majority of what I read to be "average"). It's probably easier to start with what I don't like and then move on to what I do like.

I don't like …

• Endless backstories. I'm actually not all that fond of backstories in general, but I do understand the need for them in certain contexts. But in some books the backstory seems to take over the primary plot. To my way of thinking, this is lazy writing, that in order to meet a certain (arbitrary) page limit demanded by the publisher, the author filled in the needed pages with backstory.

• Too many characters, and more especially, too many character points of view. I don't know what the maximum number of characters is, but it is probably single digit (for those with speaking parts, as it were).

• Vampires, zombies, and other supernatural characters. This is a personal preference. There seems to be a market for these characters, but I generally don't enjoy books that feature them.

• Supernatural elements, and more especially, those that exist merely as a plot convenience. Again, a personal preference.

• Long books, more than, say, 300 pages. Maybe it's because I read so much that I don't have the patience for long books, but I find myself preferring books in the 180 to 230 page range.

• Cross-over genre mysteries that cross over too many genres. I read all sorts of mysteries, and really have no particular "favorite" genre within the category, but it seems that many newer books try to appeal to too wide an audience by including elements from too many genres, a combo-whodunit-police procedural-serial killer-political thriller-culinary cozy. I'm exaggerating there, but still, if a book crosses 3 or more genres within the crime fiction, that's probably too many for my liking.

• Serial killer thrillers. I think this is a wildly overworked genre, with some authors substituting graphic violence for solid plotting (and good police work). Maybe I'm simply tired of them.

• Excessive "bad" language. I've had authors tell me that it is absolutely critical that they include such language in their books because it makes them more real. I'd like to respond that fiction isn't real! As with excessive violence, I sometimes think that authors use this kind of language to mask a weak plot.

Well, that's a start. I'll think about "likes" and post a separate reply with them.

Thomas Pluck

I want well-written, character-driven fiction. I want to be hooked from the first line, and I do not want the flavor of the month, or stories so cemented in the genre that the tropes hold up the plot.
If a character is well-defined, the plot will flow from the choices they make.

I prefer stories from the perspective of the victim or the victim's family, or someone in a moral gray area. A criminal, an outsider, someone interesting. Not another amateur P.I. or even a cop unless there is something interesting and new brought to the table.
Procedurals rarely do it for me, with Tana French being the big exception, because her characters are so compelling.
Crime is everywhere. It is part of life. We overlook it every day- the accountant fudging the numbers for the boss, the violent neighbor with the slow-burning fuse, the girl at the strip club who gets picked up at the end of the night by the mobster who "owns" her.
We walk through a veil of human depravity every day, we blinder ourselves to it. I want stories that remove those blinders and make me angry that we tolerate it.


This is a great question. Technically, I fall into the middle ground between writer and reader (I do both frequently), but I think one tends to inform the other. I spent about three years attempting to crack the short fiction horror market before moving to crime where my work has been more readily accepted. The only thing that I was a bit uncertain about in that transition was how I could consistently write good crime fiction without sounding like everyone else.

Enter books. A lot of them. The thing I love about writing is I can chalk buying books up to “research.” I read crime shorts and crime novels in an attempt to figure out what crime fiction is and how I could put my own spin on it. And I think during that process, I discovered something.

I’m tired of the tropes.

Most private detectives bore me. I’m not interested in intricate puzzles and red herrings. Most twists feel like the author is patting themselves on the back rather than giving us the kind of revelation we might expect in reality. That’s what I’m talking about here. Reality. At least a possible one.

When I’m reading crime fiction (noir, mystery, suspense, thriller, etc.), what I want is to be entertained. But I don’t want to reach a particular moment in a story and have my logical brain kick in and remind me that what I’m reading is completely ridiculous. I realize that reading and writing involves the suspension of this disbelief, but there’s only so much I can take.

There’s that saying about certain books feeling like movies. That’s exactly what I don’t want to read. I spent five years in film school, listening to washed-up professors feed me homogenized bullshit about what is cinematic. Movies are a big draw, so it’s no surprise that a writer would want their book to be ready-made for a film adaptation. It means another payday. But I went from aspiring filmmaker to aspiring writer because I realized that one form could do what the other couldn’t. A book can get into a character’s head.

And that’s what I want. I want to get swept up in a character’s thoughts. Having done a lot of thinking over the course of my life, I know that a thought process can be chaotic, that you can find yourself thinking about something irrelevant in a tense situation, that sometimes your impulses override logic only to be reigned in by a mental back-and-forth before you do something you’ll regret.

In other words, I want characters that resemble human beings. The detectives and heroes floating around in supermarket fiction feel more like mannequins and cardboard cutouts. It feels like the writer has created a role in their exciting plot and developed a thin stereotype to fill it.

I’m talking about the James Pattersons and Dan Browns. The Tom Clancys and Brad Thors. When the situation is not a natural extension of how a person would act or react in a given circumstance, I tune out. I put down the book, spend awhile getting pissed off that a publisher paid money for such crap when my work goes unpublished, and then I seek out something better.

I’ve never gone wrong with Jack Ketchum or Jim Thompson or Ed McBain. They manage to strike a balance between character and plot, where it feels like a character has free will rather than being an unwilling participant. They show us what makes these characters tick, and ultimately that makes the plot so much more rewarding. And, yes, sometimes we are given a character’s thoughts––something a movie can’t give us without delving into cheesy narration, which assures us that we don’t need to worry about this character in moments of suspense because they will inevitably survive the ordeal and tell the tale.

And there’s another issue. Narration. First. Third. It doesn’t matter to me. As long as I don’t feel safe. I want the writer to gracefully omit information and establish subtext, to build things up adequately until that big moment, when I’m sitting there holding my book with white knuckles, excited and terrified about what will happen on the next page, paragraph, sentence, word.

If a writer can do all this, I’ll pay to read them and I’ll keep coming back.


Since I enjoy so much crime fiction, I found it surprisingly hard to pin down exactly what it is that I look forward to seeing in a book. But here are a few items that immediately come to mind …

• Series mysteries. I think I have a (slight) preference for series mysteries over stand-alones. I like to see a character grow and evolve over time.

• Relatively simple plots. I tend to enjoy most those mysteries the plots of which can basically be distilled down to a simple "who" or "why" question. Authors of forumulaic mysteries with weak storylines tend to compensate by overcomplicating the plots, making them less credible (and less enjoyable).

• Characters, who retain a little mystery about themselves. I mentioned (above) that I prefer series mysteries, but when the character gets stale, so does the series. Readers need to learn more about the character(s) with each new entry in the series.

• Books that consider setting to be equally important as character and plot. Everyone wants good character development and a finely crafted plot. But I also want to be taken someplace I've never been before … even if it is my own home town. Books that convey a rich sense of time and place are more likely to be memorable to me than those that don't, even if everything else about them is first rate.

• Maps and (sometimes) cast of characters. I may be one of the few readers, who actually like maps and other explanatory information at the start of a book. Not every book should have them, but there are probably more than a few that would be better for their inclusion.

On the other hand, I'm having no trouble whatsoever coming up with things I don't like in a mystery. In addition to those I mentioned in a previous reply, here are a few more to add to the list …

• Books written in the present tense. I find them nearly impossible to read.

• Ultra-short chapters. Chapters exist for a reason, and to my way of thinking, it is impractical for an author to try to develop anything of consequence within just a couple of pages. I'm not sure there should be a rule about chapter length, but I tend to find books with short chapters choppy and uneven.

• Plot twists with little to no foundation. I suspect some authors try so hard to surprise readers with a plot twist that they intentionally fail to set it up properly, possibly thinking that the twist will have a greater impact if it comes out of left field, as it were. I enjoy a plot twist as much as the next reader, but I feel cheated if it I can't in retrospect see the path that it took throughout the book.

• Smart characters, who do dumb things, not because they're "human" and make mistakes but because the plot demands that they act this way in order to move the story along. A lot of artificial plot conveniences creep into mysteries, and many are fairly innocuous, but this one really bothers me. It's even worse when the character thinks to themself, "I really shouldn't be doing this" and then they proceed to do it anyway because the story would otherwise come to a screeching halt if they didn't.

• Author notes. I find that books that have extensive author notes are generally those I don't enjoy. It's fine to include an additional reading list, but long explanations as to the motivation behind the plot or other key element in the book are a red flag to me that the book wasn't written to entertain me, but to educate me on a topic of particular interest of the author, and one not likely to be of particular interest to me.

Nick Campbell

I'll take an odd view here. I'm not sure I want until I'm reading it. It's why I rely on gatekeepers to help determine what I should read based on a few criteria like creativity, quality writing, and well-developed characters.

Sometimes I want a clever puzzler that is frustratingly difficult to comprehend until I feel I can't get it and then do.

Sometimes I want a tv show tie-in with simple plots and cheeky punchlines.

Sometimes I want a series character badass who never changes but always gets the girl and saves the day while looking dashing in a tux.

I don't ever know what I want to read until I'm reading it. But there are always a few things I always want from my stories.

Character development. Even if the character doesn't change by the end, I need to think he/she might.

Good writing. Nothing kills a book like stupidly bad writing. Even tie-in novels can be written well although that is rare.

Creativity. I'm not expecting to see something I've never seen before, but maybe all of the elements combined is unique or the result is. Some aspect of the entire book should be new and it will be if the author stays true to themselves.

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