Love and the Crime Novel by Matt Rees

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The crime novel tradition seems to have little connection to love. Maybe sometimes love in a perverse sense is the spur to the murder at the heart of most crime novels – the spurned husband killing his wife, for example. But usually the detective is a loveless loner, pining without much hope like the great Marlowe for his true love to come along.

As I write more novels, I’ve noticed that love is at the heart of crime fiction. At least, mine, anyway.

Leonard Cohen sings that “love’s the only engine of survival.” It’s a good way to look at the crime novel. Rather than being a race to unravel the murder puzzle and nab the killer, I view the crime novel as the detective’s journey toward understanding about himself. And understanding, in my experience, comes only with the unfolding of love. You can finger the killer and take away the danger he poses, but unless your detective learns about love, emotionally he won’t survive the trauma of his closeness to death.

It may seem that I ought to have figured this out before now – I’m close to completion of the manuscript of my sixth novel, after all. But society hides the centrality of love behind strictures of finance and duty and work, and the format of the crime novel often plays the same role. So it’s only now, 400,000 words down the line, that it’s clear to me.

I started out thinking of crime novels as marked by plot – a murder, an investigation, a discovery of the bad guy – alongside a deeper emotional characterization of the hero and as many of the other characters as I could manage.

Then as my novels went on, I noticed the importance of relationships between the characters. I realized that it was these relationship which gave the novel structure and meaning, rather than the Three Act concept (dilemma, discovery, resolution) of most writing texts. The Three Acts were the superstructure, if you like, but no more.

More recently I’ve looked back and seen that each of my novels was founded around at least one relationship of love. Even in my first, “The Collaborator of Bethlehem,” Omar Yussef investigates because of the love he feels for his ex-pupil, George Saba. By the time of my most recently published novel “The Fourth Assassin” the love was even more baldly stated, because Omar had to clear his son of an accusation of murder in Brooklyn, New York.

Now that I’m writing historical crime fiction, the love stories have become even more central. Not because of anything inherent in historical writing. Rather because I’ve accepted the unavoidable: if your aim isn’t to find the love in yourself, then it’s because you don’t know yourself; and if you don’t know yourself, then you won’t be a good detective. Love is so basic that it strips away all the posturing about ourselves which can obscure our thinking.

I suppose I knew this all along, subconsciously. That’s why I made Omar Yussef a family man, rather than a loner; a man of compassion rather than a self-hating cop driven by old resentments.

Most of all, without acknowledging the love you feel for the world around you, as a writer, you’ll produce emotionally empty novels. What better way to understand the centrality of love, than to place your characters in juxtaposition with the kind of action that erases love – murder. So, put more romance among the noir nastiness.

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