One of the things that makes a crime novel is pace. Tension is created by a sense of danger, and then the speed at which the danger resolves.
The best crime writers are masters of economy. James Ellroy’s terse sentences in LA Confidential aren’t just a kind of grammatical puritanism, they’re a way of getting to the point of the action. In an interview with Paris Review Ellroy explained, 'Because, the story was violent, and full of action, I saw the value of writing in a fast, clipped style. So I cut every unnecessary word from every sentence.’
I’m a big Simenon fan too. His was a kind of painterly minimalism for whom a tiny detail could form an entire character sketch - ‘the black commas’ of a man’s moustache, the lines on a naked woman’s body from where her clothes had been too tight, a celluloid protector for a traveller’s necktie. Simenon knew the value of getting the reader where they need to be fast, and without flourish. "Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut,” he once said.
Elmore Leonard, another genius of pace, famously wrote his 10 Rules for Writing. Number 10 was, ‘Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.’
But sometimes you have to breathe, surely? By the time Ellroy wrote The Cold Six Thousand his quest for economy had become so extreme it became comical. "''They got close. They dropped guns off. They shot inland. They torched huts.”
The thing about speed is you only notice how fast you’ve been going when you slow down. What makes roller coasters scary isn’t just the speed of the drop, it’s the pause before the decent. It is those moments of stillness, when the readers sensible something terrible is going to happen, but the characters in the book, going about their daily lives, don’t. The Birdwatcher is set in Dungeness. It’s a beautiful place of eerie calm. My main character is an ordinary, neighbourhood officer who enjoys the simple tasks of looking for stolen lawnmowers and attending community meetings. The wide shingle beach is extraordinarily beautiful in autumn, when sunlight cracks through low dark cloud. It’s a place where the birdwatchers gather to witness the beautiful migrations that take place each season. And what could possibly go wrong in a place like that?
The Birdwatcher by William Shaw, is out now by Quercus Publishing (£12.99)
Police Sergeant William South has a reason for not wanting to be on the murderinvestigation. He is a murderer himself. But the victim was his only friend; like him, a passionate birdwatcher. South is warily partnered with the strong-willed Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, newly recruited to the Kent coast from London. Together they find the body, violently beaten, forced inside a wooden chest. Only rage could kill a man like this. South knows it. But soon - too soon - they find a suspect: Donnie Fraser, a drifter from Northern Ireland. His presence in Kent disturbs William - because he knew him as a boy. If the past is catching up with him, South wants to meet it head on. For even as he desperately investigates the connections, he knows there is no crime, however duplicitous or cruel, that can compare to the great lie of his childhood. Moving from the storm-lashed, bird-wheeling skies of the Kent Coast to the wordless war of the Troubles, The Birdwatcher is a crime novel of suspense, intelligence and powerful humanity about fathers and sons, grief and guilt and facing the darkness within.
You can find more information about William Shaw and his books on his website.
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