Katherine Stansfield adds even more intrigue to the mix with Crime + in a fascinating exploration of genre blending.
When it comes to reading crime fiction, I’m not much of a purist. I’ve always enjoyed crime stories that have an extra element, some other form in tandem with the central investigation. This probably explains why, when I started to write crime fiction myself, my own novels were crime + another genre from the outset.
My Cornish Mysteries series is historical crime, set in the 1840s in north Cornwall and featuring a pair of amateur sleuths, Anna Drake and Shilly Williams. The novels are traditional mysteries set in closed rural communities. Dead bodies turn up and everyone has something to hide – if not murder then fraud, illness, poverty and the like. I like to think the novels (there are three to date) work just as well as historical fiction as they do crime. In addition to a satisfying mystery investigated by our sleuths, the reader can explore real events in nineteenth-century Cornwall in all their glory: Methodist revivals, mining boom and bust, farming failures and scientific discoveries. But there’s another element to the Cornish Mysteries: the supernatural.
The first book is Falling Creatures, and when we meet the protagonist Shilly (not her real name) she’s an illiterate farm worker on Bodmin Moor. She might not be able to read the hymn book in chapel, but she understands the landscape in which she lives and the behaviour of animals, alive to omens and spells. She has a harder job ‘reading’ the otherworldly visions she’s afflicted by, but as the series goes on, her abilities improve. This is fortunate, because the crimes Shilly and Anna investigate all involve supernatural elements drawn from Cornish folklore. Or do they? We’re never quite sure. Shilly is an unreliable narrator, hampered by alcohol and the narrowness of her world-view. Her partner Anna Drake is the more rational of the two. Think Mulder and Scully meet Holmes and Watson.
There are various terms for this kind of mixed form novel: genre blending, genre mash ups, hybrids, sub-genre works. We see it across fiction, of course, not just in crime: space westerns, paranormal romance, comedy fantasy. Writers have been blending all sorts of genres for as long as there have been recognisable genre tropes. For me, crime works so well as one component in a blend because of the strong plot drivers it provides. The enticing world-immersion of historical fiction is all very well but without a plot to necessitate those Methodist revivals, why take the reader there? A crime investigation with all its twists and turns, false leads and red herrings, break-throughs and dead ends, animates the historical research I love to undertake, and helps me harness it to something larger. The same is true for my new project.
As well as my independent writing, I now co-write with my partner David Towsey under the name D.K. Fields. Our joint novel, Widow’s Welcome, has just been published, first in the Tales of Fenest trilogy. This is fantasy crime. Unlike Shilly and Anna who are working outside the law, the protagonist of Widow’s Welcome is firmly inside it: Detective Cora Gorderheim works for the Bernswick Division police station, solving crimes on the mean streets of Fenest – capital of the Union of Realms. Fenest plays host to the Union’s election in which the realms compete to win power. And their means of winning? Storytelling. The Union is a world in which stories are everything, including motivation for murder. When an election storyteller is found dead, his body mutilated in what seems like a warning, Cora is dragged into a conspiracy that threatens the whole Union.
Her goal to find the killer is a classic whodunnit, and there are elements of the police procedural sub-genre too, and perhaps noir, given the corruption Cora finds. Her chain-smoking and rejection of authority put her close to hard-boiled detectives of the past. But all these recognisably crime components are nested within a firm fantasy novel. The Union is a completely made-up world, as are the peoples who populate it. One group live inside a field of volcanoes and when they leave the sulphuric air of home, they need a chunk of smouldering rock strapped to their faces to keep breathing. Another group modify their bodies with metal and fly from high peaks. As well as the people, my co-writer Dave and I have created a whole new political system and a pantheon of gods. But just as with my historical Cornish Mysteries, all the imaginative energy we put into world-building in a fantasy novel needs something to drive it. For me, that’s where crime comes in. Cora’s investigation in Widow’s Welcome allows readers to travel the Union with a sense of purpose. I very much hope they enjoy what they find there.
Read more about Katherine Stansfield
23rd August 2019