Writers of genre fiction who don’t give readers exactly what they expect from that genre can pay a heavy price. It’s generally accepted by authors that writers of “literary fiction” can write their own rules, but if you write genre fiction you’d better stick to what’s expected. Almost as if readers want to read the same book again and again.
A friend of mine who enjoys a successful writing career decided to try her hand at romance. The accepted narrative arc for romance starts in antipathy and ends in love. Which is exactly the arc my friend followed. But romance readers see love as leading to a Happy Ever After ending, though Happy for Now is increasingly popular. And neither of those is the ending my friend gave them. As she wrote it, the female protagonist saw that, instead of disliking the male protagonist, she was now in love with him. But she didn’t want any man to be part of her life, and that included him. So she moved house – not just to a different city but to a different country.
I’m one of her team of beta readers, just as she is one of mine. Beta readers, if you don’t know the expression, read a book in draft form before it goes for its final edits and make suggestions on where it goes wrong and how it could be improved. I told her I thought she was playing with fire, but she was determined to go ahead. She said romance readers are in the 21st century with everyone else and will recognise that not everyone loves in the same way.
Well… Maybe. But readers savaged her book with one star reviews. No-one said there was anything wrong with it – technically and stylistically it was well up to her usual standard, the grammar was excellent and it had been thoroughly proofed. But it had failed to meet the strict requirements of followers of that genre, and genre writers do that at their peril. She withdrew the book from publication, never mentions it, and gives the evil eye to anyone who does, which is why I haven’t named her. (A coward? Me?)
I write police procedurals under the pen name JJ Sullivan. So far, there are three in the Batterton Police series, starting with Drawn to Murder. I’m 14,000 words into Book 4 and I have a pretty clear idea of what Book 5 will look like. Readers expect police procedurals to end with justice being done. It isn’t necessary to show a sentence pronounced in court; it’s usually enough to show that the police have established who committed the crime and arrested the guilty person. And I am less than totally in love with that idea. I know, just as you know, that in reality justice is very often not done. The police may have a damn good idea who committed the crime, but they can’t prove it. Or their manpower and other resources mean that they can’t complete the investigation and the malefactor gets away with it. So I wanted to write about justice NOT being done. Once I started thinking about that, I realised it wasn’t the first time. Under my own name, I published Sharon Wright: Butterfly in 2014.It isn’t a police procedural but it does involve crime. Sharon inveigles the hapless Jackie Gough into helping her steal £400,000 and leaves him penniless. She seems to have got away with it – but has she? The ending is very ambiguous. Then there’s Poor Law, a historical mystery I published in 2018: a man kills a number of others in revenge for what happened to his own family and evades capture – but he dies when the ship in which he is sailing to the colonies founders.
Neither of the two female killers in Drawn to Murder is brought to trial, but only because they have placed themselves beyond any earthly law. There’s more than one murder in Batterton Police Book 3, Murder Under Surveillance, and someone is found guilty for each of them – but in one case the person sentenced to life imprisonment is not in fact the killer.
And now, in Book 1 of a new series, someone gets off scot free while someone else serves more than thirty years of a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. Whatever your definition of justice, that isn’t it. Will I get away with it? Will lovers of the police procedural genre forgive this breach of the rules? We’ll have to wait and see.
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