Love, betrayal, jealousy, greed … and family: Cracking Crime Fiction

Henry Sutton makes the personal criminal in a riveting talk about his journey to the genre and the craft of crime fiction. 

photo by Lauren Cortese

On Wednesday, 27 April, Professor Henry Sutton from the University of East Anglia spoke to an engaged and enthusiastic audience about the craft of crime fiction. One of the roles of a UEA American Library Scholar is to bring the gown to the town (as we say in the States), to foster the connection between the university and the American Library with a series of public lectures. Since my area of research is crime fiction and Henry is a professor of creative writing specializing in this popular genre (and also my academic supervisor), it was a natural fit.

Henry billed his talk, ‘Cracking Crime Fiction:  On Craft and My Journey as a Writer of Non-genre Literary Fiction to Crime Writer’ and we soon learned why. In an engaging and witty hourlong chat (with time for questions), he charted his path from an upbringing in a Norfolk seaside town, complete with eccentric relatives, to successful author and respected scholar. Along the way, he gave us a thumbnail history on the birth of noir and hardboiled fiction (the American connection) and spoke about how incorporating those genre elements into his writing helped him make the shift to a literary life of crime.

He began his career as a journalist, finding banging out news stories and features to be good training for crime fiction. But, as a young writer, he didn’t yet know that’s where he was going. He worked his way there gradually, publishing a number of well-received novels, starting with one set in his hometown that was an immediate hit. Gorleston—the book, the place and its people, stayed with him as he continued on his creative path. He called his earlier novels realism with the potential to be crime fiction. He was getting closer.

More than British Golden Age mystery writers like Agatha Christie, however, Henry was influenced by the American hardboiled and noir writers of the early to mid-20th century: Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson. He defined ‘noir’—a notoriously slippery term—as thematic, a story that is dark or ends on a grim note. Hardboiled, he said, is more a style, a certain hardness and street vernacular. But, he noted, the two can—and do—overlap. James M. Cain may have been inventing a new genre in 1932 with The Postman Always Rings Twice, but he claimed to be writing love stories.

Under contract to write a police procedural, Henry found himself immersed in the nuts and bolts of crime fiction—the technical parts of the craft—and gaining a new appreciation for the elements in Golden Age detective fiction with its mantra, ‘stay one step ahead of the reader.’ His years of teaching also had him thinking deeply about the genre. Coming full circle, Henry arrived at his signature seaside noir, a series set in Great Yarmouth and Gorleston about an organised crime family, the Goodwins, led by a female crime boss: a younger version of his eccentric grandmother. Like James M. Cain, he’s writing love stories, with an ample helping of betrayal, jealousy, greed … and family.

Henry Sutton is Professor of Creative Writing and Crime Fiction, and the convenor of the Creative Writing MA Crime Fiction at UEA. He is the author of 15 novels and a collection of short stories, including My Criminal WorldKids’ Stuff (which was adapted for the stage, and received an Arts Council Writer’s Award), First Frost (co-written under the pseudonym James Henry) and Get Me Out of Here. His latest novel in English, Good Dark Night, was published by Little, Brown in 2019 (under the pseudonym Harry Brett), and is the third in The Goodwin crime family series. He is also writing a critical and practical approach to crime fiction for Manchester University Press, under the title: Cracking Crime Fiction. He co-edited, with Dr. Laura Joyce, a collection of essays, Domestic Noir: The New Face of 21st Century Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), and is now co-editing a series of crime narrative critical studies for Cambridge University Press. He has been a literary critic for many years and has judged numerous awards. He is the co-founder of the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival.

— post by Suzanne Solomon

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