Department of English at Gymnasium Steglitz, Berlin, Germany

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What is the formula of a good crime story ?

  Clever characterization plus creativity is the best formula

 Sex and crime has become an essential element

In order to find out what the points of a good crime story are one should look at our time. There has been a steady development of improving certain effects, on the one hand regarding the investigator himself and on the other hand his methods. It is clear that Sherlock Holmes would have been quite unfamiliar with the Internet or DNA-Analyses but rather trusted in his ability to conclude several facts. Today’s environment is more complex and has more features for a gangster to hide his crime. Thus classic stories are no longer granted the acceptance and appreciation they had at the time they were written.

Like in many other things it is crucial to move with the times. Particularly that point needs to be taken into consideration when a tale should be exciting. Suspense is the key factor for many readers, which decides whether a story is interesting or not. If it is not, quite a few readers will not continue reading it because it bores them. A.C. Doyle’s Holmes would hardly be noticed today because of the lack of suspense or at least the lack of an increase of suspense. As an ordinary Holmes-story continues, there is nothing that would attract special attention today but when it was written it was very popular due to the fact that this kind of story was new at that time and thus more fascinating than today. After over a century since the first one was published Doyle’s stories have lost their fascination, because they were replaced by other innovations in this genre or it has simply been improved.

One reason why people read crime stories is because they want to be part of something exciting, something special that they would never be able to do; they want to escape reality and be close to a hero they can identify with. It is not the least thrilling for people to watch one of the so-called "armchair detectives" do his work to which we have got too accustomed. What is therefore needed is more than merely a continuous level of suspense, but a story which takes its tension from several ups and downs allowing the reader to relax and sum up the last few things before taking him into action again. A strong contrast between action and relaxation is the base for a good story. When this is considered the reader will probably be more anxious to read further on to see if anything unexpected happens.

However, there are several more factors that play a role in the decision if a crime story is good. It is important to make a story authentic, not so much realistic, but it has to be apparent that all characters could exist; it does not matter whether the setting is unrealistic, e.g. a medieval world with dragons and magic, it is rather the way the people are characterised. Some crime stories are set in the Middle Ages with some invented things that were not known at that time. Nevertheless the people possess a soul and are not just a heap of completely different characteristics thrown together into one single person.

What makes a crime story additionally attractive is a sexual element. Of course, everyone enjoys erotic fantasies that are described. This element has very often been applied to a crime story, but also to other genres, because it is entertaining and fascinating at the same time. "Sex sells" and can attract many peoples’ attention so that "sex and crime" has become an essential motif in such stories. Basically violence has the same effect, which is applied to increase suspense and see the hero struggle against his enemy. Sex as well as violence are emotional things that everybody is familiar with. One can tell by the success of such books that both things are interesting things in a crime story for many people. Whilst it is some sort of voyeurism that causes many people to like sex in crime stories it is perversion or a kind of sadism in liking violence. Both are primitive characteristics that everybody possesses.

Furthermore a surprising ending or turn is crucial as it draws attention to the plot, which then encourages the reader to continue to see in which development that turn or ending will result. It is clear that such step is directly connected to the motif of an increase of suspense. Take the movie "The Usual Suspects" for example: The story is told by an apparently stupid gangster who is interrogated by the police about a very dangerous killer. The police suspects that the killer used the stupid man to flee from them. Only in the last two minutes it turns out that the supposedly stupid gangster is the killer. The uncertainty of a reader as far the knowledge of the true culprit is concerned again makes him continue reading. Of course, such surprising action needs to be authentic, otherwise the reader is not given the chance to follow the plot and will therefore drop the story. In addition to that, a crime story is good whose plot or way of telling the story does not follow the pattern of ordinary crime stories. The reason why some are regarded as better ones is that the author added something special that was new and thus surprising. Hence the best key to a good crime story is and probably will ever be creativity.

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15 March 2002

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