On Re-Reading Crime Novels – Katherine Stansfield

This week Crime Cymru’s Katherines Stansfield has chosen, I think, a very interesting topic. For myself, there are some crime novels I keep to reread and others I don’t. I’ve never really thought why……

One would be forgiven for thinking that crime fiction is a genre lacking in re-reading value, given that a significant part of its appeal is trying to guess the solution to the puzzle of the plot – something written into the DNA of the genre. During the Golden Age period of crime fiction – usually taken to be the inter-war years, the stories usually referred to as detective fiction – many writers set about trying to define what a crime story was, and what it wasn’t. Though some of this posturing was undoubtedly tongue in cheek, we might view it now as a sign of a genre trying to assert itself in relation to ‘general fiction’, and to counter accusations of cheap thrills rather than Proper Writing, whatever that might be. One writer who sought to define and defend crime fiction was the American novelist S. S. Van Dine (real name Willard Huntington Wright), one of the most popular mystery writers of the twenties and thirties. In 1928, Van Dine set out his ‘rules’ for writing crime fiction, as did several other writers at this time. These kinds of ‘rules’ laid the foundations of crime writing in the west, particularly ideas of ‘playing fair’ with the reader: giving us a chance to solve the case alongside the detective. Here’s an extract from rule number fifteen:

‘The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent – provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face – that all the clues really pointed to the culprit – and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter.’

According to Van Dine, for the crime fiction reader, re-reading is naught but an exercise in realizing she wasn’t shrewd enough to solve the puzzle, and why would she wish to revisit a story when she already knows whodunnit as well as how they dunnit and why they dunnit?

            This seems an especially relevant question right now as we’re experiencing what might be called a new Golden Age of crime fiction. The crime fiction fan has no end of novels to choose from, with exciting new authors publishing exciting new books every year, and old hands not only continuing beloved detective series across numerous titles, but also starting new series, not to mention the crime fiction now available in translation. With so many options for crime novels, what’s the motivation for anyone to re-read a mystery when they already know how it ends? This way of thinking might lead us to view crime fiction as having a ‘disposable’ quality to it, read once and then given away – just the kind of accusation levelled at the genre in its infancy. Buy a crime novel at the airport and leave it in the holiday cottage for someone else to pick up. Crime books are gripping in the moment, but are they books for keeps?

            This is a question I thought I knew the answer to: I wouldn’t re-read a crime novel. I don’t re-read many novels, in fairness, but with those I do, crime fiction is well down the list. Or rather, it was.

            I recently re-read two of the Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters. This was by necessity rather than choice, preparation for a Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival event. For those unfamiliar with Brother Cadfael, he’s a fictional Benedictine monk who lives at the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul in Shrewsbury during the first half of the twelfth century, hero of twenty novels by Peters (whose real name was Edith Pargeter). A former crusader and soldier for hire, Cadfael in his black Benedictine habit is a herbalist called on to tend the sick, and to investigate dead bodies . . .

            I am a great admirer of these novels and was lucky enough to chair a discussion about them at the festival, exploring the Welsh aspects of the books with some expert panelists. This event had long been in the pipeline: first discussed in 2021 and then put on hold in 2022 when Covid scuppered plans for an in-person festival, before finally taking place in April 2023. During that two-year period, I read all twenty of the Cadfael novels in order, as well as three ‘prequel’ short stories. I spaced them out with other books in between, in part because I was dreading the moment I came to the end of the series and had no more to read. I feared my expulsion from Cadfael’s world, because of course I wouldn’t return, would I, if I knew how the Benediction sleuth solved the crimes of the stories.

            As the festival drew nearer, the Cadfael panelists and I decided to focus our discussion on books one and three in the series: A Morbid Taste for Bones and Monk’s Hood respectively. That meant a speedy re-read of both, and I found I didn’t relish the task ahead. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to re-read the books, it was just that I didn’t feel particularly excited by it. I viewed it as a job to be done for the festival, my ‘homework’. But how wrong I was.

            Re-reading these two novels was an unexpected pleasure. I enjoyed returning to the peaceful world of Brother Cadfael’s herb garden and his workshop full of poultices and salves, and to the lives of beloved characters. I enjoyed Peters’ beautiful prose and her deep commitment to creating a medieval world view for her characters. But what I enjoyed more than anything was seeing how the mystery had been constructed. On this second read of both novels, knowing their individual endings, I could see how the plots were organized, where clues were dropped, where key information was deployed in plain sight but without attention drawn to it – all the ways Peters ‘played fair’ with me as a reader. I could see the workings of the stories because I knew what to look out for, and that was itself a marvel – to see how Ellis Peters dunnit as a writer. And because I could see the workings of the plot, I could see the subtlety of the act. It was only when re-reading that I could properly appreciate how Peters achieves the knife edge balance of ‘playing fair’ and keeping us guessing to the end.

            To be able to see how a well-written book is put together is its own kind of reading pleasure, especially for a reader who is also a writer. What a re-read also allows is more head-space to note a writer’s attention to character, setting and dialogue, all of which Ellis Peters writes with a deep commitment to the world of her story. On first reading, there’s a danger the reader will be too focused on the mystery to fully note everything else that’s going on. Crime readers are very active readers, alert to every detail and storing it away in memory in case it turns out to be relevant in solving the case. We’re constantly weighing up accumulated knowledge to see if we’ve worked it out. This in-built activity for the reader is one of the attractions of crime fiction for many readers, but there’s a risk we miss other things at the same time, which is why re-reading crime fiction is something I’m now going to do more often.

            Knowing the answers in the two Cadfael novels I re-read has meant I’m even more in awe of Ellis Peters’ writing than before. Which is undoubtedly a good thing, because I’ve been collecting the other fifty novels she wrote in addition to the Cadfael books and it’s going to take me a while to read through them first time round, ready for the pleasure of re-reading someday, I hope.

Katherine Stansfield is a multi-genre novelist and poet. Her historical crime series Cornish Mysteries has won the Holyer an Gof Fiction Prize and been shortlisted for the Winston Graham Memorial Prize. The most recent instalment is The Mermaid’s Call. She co-writes a fantasy crime trilogy with her partner David Towsey, publishing as D. K. Fields, and has also published two full length poetry collections and a pamphlet with Seren. Katherine is co-editor, with Caroline Oakley, of Cast a Long Shadow: new crime short stories by women writers from Wales, published by Honno.

You can read more about Katherine’s work here

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