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Thursday, 12 July, 2001, 17:51 GMT 18:51 UK
Dissecting the whodunnit
Inspector Morse
Inspector Morse: One of the great modern whodunnit series
As a crime writing conference opens in London, arts correspondent Rebecca Jones examines the difference between a crime novel and a thriller.

Mystery fiction is booming in Britain. More is being published and it is the most popular genre among library users.

And a major mystery writing conference begins at the National Film Theatre in London on Thursday.

But what do we mean when we talk about mystery fiction?


The greatest accolade that we as writers can have is when your spouse shouts down aren't you coming to bed and you say yes darling as soon as I've finished the chapter

Colin Dexter
Take The Hound of the Baskervilles, the classic murder mystery. But is it a crime novel or a thriller? And what is the difference?

Ian Rankin is one of the country's best selling crime writers. He has written 12 novels featuring the fictional detective, Inspector John Rebus.

He says the most essential difference between the two genres is probably the idea of the chase.

"In the crime novel it's more of an internalised chase, one detective up against one individual, you're very much inside the head of the detective and you're fairly static, you're not shifting all over the globe.

"When you come to the thriller what you tend to have is some kind of wide ranging conspirarcy involving governments or terrorists, and you tend to have an ordinary person who's thrown into this and has to try to make sense of it, so you get this externalised chase which goes all over the globe."


Your great man is the only one who can read the clues

Colin Dexter
And when we go off around the globe on holiday, how often do we pack a crime novel or thriller alongside the biographies and other books we mean to read?

How often do we return to the comfort and cosiness of the whodunnit - made famous in the 1920s and 30s by Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham - and Agatha Christie?

Colin Dexter, who created Inspector Morse, says he is writing in that whodunnit tradition.

"You get a murder committed and you call in your Alpha Plus Acumen Man, who's usually accompanied by a sidekick, a man of monumental stupidity, somebody like Captain Hastings with Poirot.

"Your great man is the only one who can read the clues and at the end you get the resolution of the crime by the unmasking of the crook."

But over the years the whodunnit has become more of the whydunnit.

Modern police techniques mean many fictional crimes could be solved in the first chapter. So the fashion today is for ultra realism.


The spies and the war have disappeared from most people's experience and I think what's replaced those books are white collar thrillers

Michael Ridpath
The thriller has also had to re-invent itself. Michael Ridpath used to work in the City and now writes thrillers set in the financial world.

"War stories were the thrillers of the 1950s," he says.

"Then there was the Cold War and you got more spy stories with Russia as the real threat.

"Now the spies and the war have disappeared from most people's experience and I think what's replaced those books are white collar thrillers, thrillers about more everyday life, legal thrillers, financial thrillers, horse racing thrillers and art thrillers."

But while thrillers and crime novels have evolved, and while they both enjoy commercial success, their literary value has been questioned.

The writer PD James says that is not fair, although she does acknowledge techinical problems.

"Dorothy L Sayers said the detective story could never reach the greatest heights of writing because you could never explore the character and motive of the murderer.


It's very difficult for a woman with six honorary degrees as doctor of literature to feel that she's writing an inferior form

PD James
"He was at the heart of the whole book, but you couldn't explore his past, and his compulsions and his motives and his personality, because after all everything about him had to be kept secret until the last chapter.

"But without being conceited it's very difficult for a woman with six honorary degrees as doctor of literature to feel that she's writing an inferior form."

And whether crime or thriller, Colin Dexter thinks all writers are ultimately striving for the same goal.

"The greatest accolade that we as writers can have is when your spouse shouts down aren't you coming to bed and you say yes darling as soon as I've finished the chapter," he says.

"Whether you're reading thrillers or detective stories or Dickens or anybody, I think we'd all like that said of us more than any other thing."

See also:

17 Nov 00 | Entertainment
Colin Dexter: Morse the pity
10 Nov 00 | Entertainment
Ex-convict beats Poet Laureate
27 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Oxford honours Morse creator
06 Dec 00 | UK
Booking a place in history
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