by Brian Thiem
When I first began writing crime novels, I discovered that every crime novel (call them mysteries, police procedurals, crime thrillers, or whatever) consists of two main stories: the crook’s story about how and why he committed the crime, and the detective’s story about how he solved it and brought the crook to justice.
The crook’s story
As I begin working out an idea for a new novel, I always start with the crook’s story, because if there’s no crime, the detective is just sitting at his desk reading the newspaper. And that doesn’t make for much of a story. After thirty years in law enforcement, I’ve investigated many thousands of crimes and talked with—and arrested—plenty of crooks, so I have plenty of material to draw from.
Since most crime novels begin with the results of the crime—usually a dead body appearing early in the book—much of the crook’s story about how and why he committed the murder is backstory and doesn’t appear on the pages. At least not yet.
The detective’s story
The second part of the story—and what the book is really about—is the detective’s story. I spent much of my career working homicide, so it’s not much of a stretch for me to let my fictional detective loose to work the case and solve the crime. Keeping up with my detective when he’s hot on the trail of the killer with my slow typing is not always easy.
The crook’s story might continue in the present time of the book as he tries to conceal his crime and maybe even commit more crimes, killing off witnesses, destroying evidence, and such to evade arrest. But the detective stays on the case, uncovering evidence and eliciting information from witnesses, which eventually reveals how the crook committed the murder and the motive behind it.
When their stories intersect
Toward the end of the story, if my detective did his job well, the two stories intersect as the crook and detective meet (and in my stories, the crook either ends up in handcuffs or a body bag).
One thing I love about writing crime novels over investigating actual homicides is in my writing, my fictional detective always solves the case. I wished I were that lucky during my years as a homicide investigator.
BRIAN THIEM is the author of Red Line, Thrill Kill, and Shallow Grave (Crooked Lane Books). He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is an adjunct professor with the MFA Program at Western Connecticut State University. In his previous life, he spent 25 years with the Oakland Police Department, working Homicide as a detective sergeant and later as the commander of the Homicide Section. He’s also a veteran of the Iraq War, and retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel after 28 years of active and reserve duty. He lives in South Carolina, where he’s at work on a new novel.