|Written by Leigh Russell|
Like many writers, I fell in love with books when I was a child.
Accompanying a hobbit on his adventures was far more exciting than listening to a math teacher; following other children through the back of a wardrobe into a land of talking animals was much more fun than learning about oxbow lakes in the real world.
And in common with many crime writers, the books that have influenced my writing don’t all fall into the crime genre.
That said, many of them involve a crime of some sort, as most serious literature does.
It’s impossible to narrow my favorites down to just five titles, but here are five I’ve selected from the many that have made a lasting impression on me.
Written as a warning against totalitarianism, 1984 is an iconic novel about the individual pitted against the powers that control society. The protagonist, Winston Smith, discovers that not only is he outwardly controlled, but even in his most secret thoughts he is not free. In this chilling narrative, the main character has nowhere to go to escape his antagonists who invade his home and, ultimately, his mind. Winston Smith is the ultimate lone individual fighting the system.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
To Kill a Mockingbird is memorable, and interesting for a number of reasons. It offers us an insight into a different era and culture, as well as presenting the characters in the book. As in 1984, this is the story of an individual who pits himself against the society in which he lives. But unlike Winston Smith, Atticus Finch is a classic hero, a brave good man who stands up against intolerance and injustice. Harper Lee succeeds in making him not only virtuous and admirable as a character, but also intensely humane and believable. Told through the eyes of a child, the narrative works on different levels, as the reader understands what is happening more clearly than the narrator who is sharing the story.
Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Frankenstein examines the issue of man’s intolerance of his fellow man. The novel resonates far beyond the story, which is why the monster has become such an iconic figure. In the original novel, Frankenstein is the name of the scientist who creates the unnamed monster, one of the most misrepresented characters in fiction. Film representations portray him as evil through and through, but the novel evokes our sympathy for the monster who is universally rejected because he looks hideous. If the novel sends a message about man’s intolerance towards others, and about how hatred can embitter and twist us, it is also a warning about the dangers of using our scientific and technological knowledge to create monsters that could destroy us. The story, subtitled ‘A Modern Prometheus’ was written a hundred years before the atom was first split, and is probably the first serious psychological examination of the psyche of a serial killer.
Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
Heathcliff is a character I feel ambivalent about. Like many teenage girls, I fell in love with his all consuming passion for Cathy. Only as an adult did I realize that this romantic hero is a violent and abusive sadist who beat his wife and thought nothing of striking horses and hitting and even killing dogs. The wild and isolated setting is the ideal environment for Heathcliff’s almost preternatural passion. Away from the civilizing influence of society, Emily Bronte’s characters are free to give their passions free rein with devastating results. The novel is a brilliant example of how setting can influence a narrative and the characters who act in it.
Lord of the Flies (William Golding)
In this novel, Golding speculates about the consequences of removing a group of young boys from normal society. When they are marooned on a desert island without any adults to guide or control them, social order rapidly deteriorates, until the boys start to hunt each other, and several boys are killed. The novel is a frightening and powerful comment on the fragility of the veneer of civilization that governs society. Remove any form of control, Golding suggests, and the true violence of human nature quickly takes over. Many crime novels examine a similar question of what happens when the forces of morality and socialisation break down in an individual.
All of these powerful novels examine the darker side of human nature and, apart from To Kill a Mockingbird, they all put forward an ultimately depressing view of human nature. Crime fiction by definition focuses on terrible acts of inhumanity, usually focusing on murder. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the great crime stories, with fratricide, regicide, and numerous murders. Responsible for a string of deaths, Hamlet is told as he dies, ‘flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’. Because ironically, crime fiction is not ultimately depressing.
However terrible the events in the story are, we know that by the end of the book some sort of moral order will be restored. This is one of many reasons for the enduring popularity of the genre.
Leigh Russell is the internationally bestselling crime author of the Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson series. Having reached #1 on Kindle and iTunes, Leigh’s work has attracted glowing reviews in the UK and USA. Her titles regularly appear on bestseller lists and have been shortlisted for prestigious industry awards including the CWA Dagger. After studying English at the University of Kent, Leigh went on to teach, specialising in supporting those with learning difficulties. Leigh guest lectures for the Society of Authors, teaches creative writing courses in Greece and runs the manuscript assessment service for The CWA. She is married, has two daughters, and lives in London. Leigh’s latest book, Journey to Death, can be purchased on Amazon.