Breaking the Rules

As many of my readers already know, my main character Kim Stone is not particularly successful at following rules, which prompted me to wonder about my own willingness to remain within set guidelines.

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last few years pondering about whether I’m breaking any rules of crime writing by simply writing the books that germinate from the seedling ideas that are sown in my mind.

I’ve asked myself many questions.  Are there strict rules? Are the rules set in stone? Which rules are acceptable to ignore? Who invented the rules? Are some rules meant to be broken?  And the questions go on and on.  And then I reason that stretching, breaking and indeed changing the rules has led us right to where we are now.

Crime fiction really came into its own in the 19th century when we saw the first detectives, police or amateur sleuths detecting and deducing their way through clues and the emergence of discussion on motives and alibis and other staples of modern crime writing. Earlier works had included no detectives, police or investigators working to solve a case.

Edgar Allan Poe advanced the genre when he created the first fictional detective in C Auguste Dupin as the main character of some of his short stories back in the 1840s.  In doing so he created a character that offered interest to the reader based on his ability to uncover clues.

In addition, he introduced the notion of a side-kick or assistant to the key case solver, later cemented by the role played by Dr. Watson in assisting Sherlock Holmes in the works penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The character of Dr. Watson provided a sounding board for all of Holmes’s ideas, theories and comments.  The investigator’s thought process was made accessible to the reader through his conversation with his side-kick.

Many sidekicks also act as conscience, a warning bell, a voice of reason, a safety net to the main character’s impetuous nature.  The assistant is often reserved, sensible, of a stable and respectable professions and exists primarily to tease out the information at the right time and place for the reader.

Kim Stone’s sidekick, DS Bryant, is all of the above.  He listens and advises and acts like any good assistant should, but he is also a very patient and understanding colleague, often challenging her more than anyone else would dare.  He is often described as ‘the closest thing to a friend she has’.

Poe and Conan Doyle were pioneers in changing the rules once more when exploring the ‘Locked Room’ mystery whereby the reader is challenged to solve a crime where there is no seemingly easy way of anyone getting in or out.  The reader is offered clues along the way and encouraged to solve the crime before the dramatic reveal.

In the late 1800’s Conan Doyle gave renewed energy to the emerging crime fiction genre in the shape of arguably the most famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes, while not a detective or a police officer accepted clients who paid him to solve a case.

The skill and beauty in the stories of Holmes lies in the logical deduction based on the tiniest of details that may go unnoticed by the average person.  The clues are always there.

The 1920’s and 30’s are often referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction led by authors such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers who focussed on ‘whodunnits’ whereby authors successfully lead their readers along the wrong track to reveal the least likely suspect as the villain.  Many of these stories relied on appropriate settings like English country houses to explore the cast of characters brought together for the mystery.

The importance of setting was always a priority for me as I spent many years writing books based in places that I thought publishers would like instead of areas I knew well and could write about with authenticity.  My own perception was that gritty crime only took place in well-known, sprawling city locations like London, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

When allowing the character of Kim Stone to emerge I knew that her personality was suited to my own area of the Black Country in the West Midlands, known for its dark industrial past.  And as one Italian crime critic referred to me as ‘The new Queen of crime, working class style’, I feel that it was definitely the right decision.

During the next few decades the detective story developed into the Crime novel and prompted the emergence of the psychological suspense story whereby authors focussed as much if not more on the character than the plot.  Rather than concentrate on the suspense of uncovering the identity of the criminal, the reader instead shared the thoughts of the main character while guessing what’s going to happen.

I think this development was a game-changer for the crime novelist and opened the door for deeper exploration of a characters thoughts and motivations meaning that the ‘whodunnit’ was of equal importance to the ‘whydunnit’ of the story.

The gate has been opened for authors to explore all of their villains in more detail, often building complete histories with defining moments.  This freedom allows authors to consider motivation to a greater extent and explore character traits and the psychology of a crime in more detail.

But, not only are authors able to offer more psychological liberty to their villains but also to the main characters.  There is no longer the need for them to be perfect or even honest in many cases of the unreliable narrator.

Some great inspirations for me were Val McDermid, Carol O’Connell, Stuart Macbride and Lynda La Plante as all of them break some crime writing rules.

Val McDermid gave us the unique character of Tony Hill – a clinical psychologist who works for the National Home Office as a profiler.  He suffers from developmental coordination disorder and has poor social skills and uses unorthodox methods of deduction such as role-play to access the thoughts in his head.

Carol O’Connell gave us New York police detective Kathy Mallory who is a borderline Sociopath and unable to identify or empathise with any of her victims or colleagues yet possesses the determination to exact justice to the perpetrators of crime.  At times, her lack of emotional involvement is presented as an advantage in her crime-solving skills.

Stuart Macbride’s award- winning novels set in Aberdeen are littered with laugh out loud humour against examples of the most foul levels of humanity.  It is a technique I employ also to offer balance against dark subject matter.

Lynda La Plante broke an unspoken rule of crime novels in Prime Suspect when the first suspect in the case actually was the perpetrator providing a real open-mouth moment when the twist was revealed.

Amongst others, these authors gave me the courage to explore the voice in my head that was Kim Stone.  I had kept her hidden away as I knew that she didn’t sound like the majority of main characters that I had read.  I could tell that she was both rude and unapproachable and not always sympathetic to the victims of crime.

It was only once I let her out onto the page and gave her control of my pencil that I began to understand her redeeming qualities; her passion for justice, her determination and tenacity, her powers of deduction and her empathy for the underdog.

These authors taught me that it was okay to break the rules.  To explore the character that was trying to say something to me and to introduce psychological elements into a crime story.

I think and I hope that crime writing authors will continue breaking the rules and pushing the boundaries of the crime novel to investigate and explore the darkness of the criminal mind whilst offering complex, interesting, unique main characters that both intrigue and entertain the reader.



Angela Marsons is the USA Today bestselling author of the Detective Kim Stone series, and her books have sold more than three million copies and have been translated into twenty-seven languages. She lives in the Black Country, in the West Midlands of England, with her partner, their cheeky Golden Retriever, and a potty-mouthed parrot. She first discovered her love of writing at junior school when actual lessons came second to watching other people and quietly making up her own stories about them. Her report card invariably read “Angela would do well if she minded her own business as well as she minds other people’s.” After writing women’s fiction, Angela turned to crime – fictionally speaking, of course – and developed a character that refused to go away.