This year Spineless Wonders will publish Crime Scenes, an anthology of crime fiction anthology edited by Zane Lovitt. Who is Zane Lovitt and what kind of crime writing is he looking for? During the 2013 Adelaide Festival, Zane appeared with Emily St John Mandel on a panel entitled ‘Not Quite Crime’. It was a fascinating discussion, facilitated by Farrin Foster, in which both authors unpack the ways in which what they write is ‘not quite crime’. Here’s a brief rundown of what they said. You can listen to the audio recording of the panel is below. To submit a story to Crime Scenes, click here.

Photo credit: Dese'rea L Stage
Emily St John Mandel Photo credit: Dese’rea L Stage

Emily St John Mandel

Best known more recently for her post-apocalyptic bestseller, Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel’s first two novels involved crimes. In Last Night in Montreal, a woman disappears and in The Singer’s Gun, a young man tries to escape the people smuggling business. Mandel does not describe herself as a crime writer but says she ‘straddles the line between literary fiction and crime’.

‘I like to write literary fiction with a strong plot. If that plot involves crime, you’ve written a crime story.’ MANDEL

photo credit:Darren James
Zane Lovitt Photo credit: Darren James

Zane Lovitt

Zane says he definitely belongs in the Crime section of the bookshop but that his take on crime writing is different from most. He uses a writing style which is not typical of the genre and he hopes that his stories are more meaningful than the average whodunnit. Lovitt’s debut novel, The Midnight Promise, is told in 10 stories. All of the stories feature John Dorn, a damaged private eye who tries to solve the mysteries of human nature.

‘I have taken the cliché of the hard-boiled detective from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and tried to work out what makes him tick, what makes him so alienated and despairing.’ LOVITT

Character-driven crime

Both Mandel and Lovitt say they owe a debt to Chandler and they quote from his seminal 1950’s essay, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’. In particular, Lovitt’s stories focus on the failing and flailing detective (or, defective). Farrin Foster suggests that crime fiction presents ‘an entertaining and engaging way for people to work through emotions that they themselves feel.’ Lovitt agrees.

‘Here are characters like us, with everyday problems that we experience. But the stakes are much higher. What’s at stake is a suitcase full of money, or life and death or a death sentence.’ LOVITT

Foster also asks if part of the appeal of crime fiction is to let us inside the life and the mind of the criminal. Mandel agrees and says that crime fiction allows the reader to fantasise about the excitement and the freedom of transgressive behaviour. As well as the consequences.

Both writers create complex, complicated characters and eschew stereotyped ‘black and white’ characterisation.

Crime fiction of consequence

Both Mandel and Lovitt write stories that are strong in plot, have a strong sense of time and place and that explore the cultural landscape. For instance, Lovitt’s linked stories take place over a ten year period and are all set against the backdrop of contemporary Melbourne.

What both writers are interested in exploring through crime fiction is the human condition. Lovitt, who is a lawyer by trade, says he uses the crime genre ‘to convey what drove me to writer in the first place.’ As Farrin Foster says, the crime stories by both Mandel and Lovitt explore people’s morals. ‘What is good? What is bad? And how often, there’s no answer to that question.’

Structure of Crime Fiction

Both writers say they are strongly influenced by filmmaking. Lovitt, a former scriptwriter, likes the way that film plays with time sequence . ‘Telling a story non-chronologically enhances the suspense,’ he says. Mandel says she learnt more from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction than any book she has read.

‘Pulp Fiction has such choppy structure but things fall into place at the end. When you finally figure out what was going on in those previous scenes – it is so satisfying. Just brilliant.’ MANDEL

What makes great crime writing?

Lovitt confesses that he doesn’t read a lot of crime fiction because, he says, he ‘doesn’t like the writing style and the clichéd nature of most genre crime’.

‘I am drawn more to writing that has a strong voice and unique way of structuring sentences than I am to “story”. The writing is the most important thing for me. I look for sentences that will blow my mind.’ LOVITT

Mandel also says she has a ‘weakness for the perfect sentence’.

Violence vs suspense

Both writers avoid depicting graphic acts of violence. ‘The average person is not really interested in the visceral, graphic scene,’ says Mandel. Both Lovitt and Mandel opt instead to write about the effects of violence. ‘It is the aftermath of violence which is the more interesting to write about,’ Lovitt says. Mandel agrees. ‘Even years later. And also the impact of violence on those not directly involved.’ Both also agree that it is the ‘promise or threat’ of violence which provides the suspense in a crime story.

‘Once the guy is shot in the head the suspense is over. Once you write the violence, the tension is gone. The moment of greatest tension is before the shot.’ LOVITT

To hear the full interview, here.

To submit a story to Zane Lovitt, click here.