Getting Away With Murder: 4 Books Every Crime Writer Should Read


Photo credit: Ian Britton

It is an old truism that all good writers are good readers. The starting point for writing any book is to read as widely as possible. However, upon embarking on writing a crime thriller last year I soon saw a difficulty particular to this type of book. I realised that to write well I needed some specific technical knowledge that I did not possess. Perhaps more so than in any other genre of fiction, crime writing demands attention to detail, to get the small stuff right.

Even within your fictional world there are right and wrong ways to do things because crimes really exist. Your story won’t ring true unless you do your due diligence by way of research. Creating (and possibly solving) convincing fictional crimes has become both easier and harder with every new scientific breakthrough. Easier because there are any number of ways to track down a murderer – DNA, mobile phone triangulation, credit card trail etc – but harder because to maintain tension you have to give your crook a fighting chance. Imagine how quickly even the notrious Jack The Ripper would have been caught if DNA profiling had been around in Victorian times! It is therefore important to know how investigations work and their limitations.

From many hours of research involving reading books about murder in public and getting funny looks in coffee shops, I have selected my four most useful books to give your crime writing the edge.

Forensics (Val McDermid)

Crime writing supremo, Val McDermid, creator of such characters as profiler Dr Tony Hill in the Wire In The Blood series, has drawn on her years of research and experience and put together a bible for the next generation of crime writers.

Examining historical cases and in depth interviews with experts in the field of crime detection, this book covers everything from the crime scene to the courtroom, stopping off at pathology, blood splatter, DNA and forensic psychology along the way. If you only read one book about writing crime, make it this one.

Cause Of Death (Dr Geoffrey Garrett & Andrew Nott)

Dr Geoffrey Garrett was for more than 30 years the Home Office pathologist for the North West of England. In this memoir he takes us through some of his most memorable cases including the infamous Moors Murders, gangland slayings and the murderous consequences of international drug smuggling.

This book gives a good introduction to the role of the pathologist both at the scene of the crime and during the post mortem examination. If you want to make your pathologist a more rounded character rather than just a font of exposition for your detectives, this book is a good place to start.

Murder On The Home Front (Molly Lefebure)

During World War Two Molly Lefebure worked as secretary to renowned forensic pathologist, Dr Keith Simpson at Guy’s Hospital in London. Whilst the blitz bombs fell from the sky she and the pathologist concerned themselves with the day to day business of murder.

This work is similar to Cause Of Death’ above, but a less technical manual. However, it is useful if your crime novel is not set in the modern day. No DNA here. A handy guide to crime detection the old way.

The Crime Writer’s Guide To Police Practice and Procedure (Michael O’Byrne)

As the title suggests, this is a handy guide to police procedure in the UK. The author, a former Chief Constable of Bedfordshire Police, sets out clearly matters such as the police rank structure, including which ranks of officer investigate which types of crime. He also deals with police actions at the crime scene as well as the rules that govern things such as ‘stop and search’ and the detention of suspects.

The book deals in detail with the police computer systems, the process for suspension of officers (very useful if your hero cop is a bit of a maverick!) and the relationship between the police and other agencies such as the fire and ambulance services. This is a brilliant little book which will give your writing that extra credibility and realism.

So there you have it. The tools you need to bring your perps to justice. Or not. But whether they end up with a life sentence or a life in the sun, these books will help ensure it rings true.