How True Crime and Fiction Intersect

We’re Having a Collision here! How True Crime and Fiction Intersect

In preparing to teach a class next semester on popular fiction—including science fiction, mysteries, horror, thrillers, and fantasy—I’m learning and thinking a lot about these genres, even after having written a novel marketed as a psychological thriller and another described as a mystery. Studying them has taught me that there’s often a good deal of overlap among these categories. From my experience as a writer, I’ve also learned that many readers have definite expectations when they open a book, depending on what section it’s shelved in or what label the publisher has given it.

I wasn’t setting out to write either a psychological thriller or a mystery. My novel Lacy Eye, which came out last year, originated in my fascination with the real-life story of a woman (who happened to live in my hometown) who maintained the innocence of her adult son even after he was convicted and imprisoned for murdering his father and attempting to murder his mother. Originally, I wrote a draft focusing solely on the mother’s journey toward understanding her daughter; it wasn’t even part of my plan to try to create much, if any, suspense about the murder itself.

The story’s evolution into a thriller began after a conversation with my editor, when I realized that beefing up the murder element of the story would actually coincide with the mother’s psychic and emotional trajectory, in the sense that the things I withheld from the reader were often things my character was withholding—or trying desperately to withhold—from herself. In other words, I wouldn’t have employed suspense just for the sake of it, although I understand why other writers do. But suspense ended up being a great tool to use as I told my story from the perspective of the mother who doesn’t want to know what she already knows.

Am I glad that some readers seem to have felt thrilled (as in engrossed by or catapulted into the story) by my book? Very. Yet I know others were disappointed because they expected a twist, à la Gone Girl, because of the word thriller. My book doesn’t have a twist or even much of a surprise. If there’s a better categorical description for my novel, what would it have been? And a broader question: do we really need these categories? I know they end up serving as a shorthand way for prospective readers to decide whether they want to invest time and/or money in a book. But what if that book doesn’t fit into the prescribed niche?

My latest novel, How Will I Know You?, contains an actual question about who murdered the teenage girl Joy at the center of the story. In that sense, it does qualify as a mystery in which, typically, there is a problem (usually a murder) to be solved. The information isn’t hidden by one character from another (or from herself or himself), but, rather, unknown. In that sense, it’s a whodunit, but I hope it’s also more than that because I was most interested in examining the effect of Joy’s death—and her manner of death—on selected people around her, especially in the context of the search for her killer.

Writers usually have good reasons for deciding what to reveal in a story, when they reveal it, and why. It usually depends on the experience we want to create for a given story’s ideal reader. My ideal reader will, like me, probably be more interested in the psychological experience of a novel’s characters than in anything else. So, just for the record, if you ever see a novel of mine referred to as a thriller, know that you will be disappointed if you are looking for a car chase, a character with an alternate personality that no one who knows her has ever seen before, or a twist of events or identity that stands the plot completely on its head.

A side note: Personally, I often love it when a novel or a story turns out to be something other than what I thought it would be. That doesn’t mean that when I write a novel or a story, I set out to trick anybody. I’m just hoping that a reader will give me a chance to show what my story is, on the page, beyond whatever it may say on the book jacket. If you are one of those readers, know that we writers are very grateful to you!

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