Meta-fiction done well can be so much fun. For those unfamiliar, ‘meta-fiction’ is fiction that knows what it is (made-up, unreal, a fabrication of the author’s) and comments upon it. It’s self-conscious, it reminds the reader they are reading a novel or a short story, deliberately breaking the illusion of the story-world in order to play around with the techniques of storytelling. Meta-fiction is often a little bit cheeky in this way.
I find these books work best when done in genres that have a concrete set of tropes and rules – like in romance novels or crime fiction. So, ‘meta-fictional crime’ is crime that is aware of the conventions of the genre and decides to wear those conventions on the outside like an exoskeleton. Meta-fictional crime says to the reader ‘hey, I see you. I know you know that A, B and C is supposed to happen in a book like this, and that there will be a twist, and that some of the clues are meant to be red herrings and some real…but what if we mess around with those expectations, together?’
Maybe that’s all as clear as mud. But if any of the above intrigues you, or raises questions you’d like answers to, put the following crime novels on your ‘to-read’ list…
Everyone in my Family has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson
This book is ‘meta’ in every sense of the word: it opens with an ode from the ‘Detection Club’, 1930, in which classic crime writers such as Agatha Christie promise to write detective fiction in which their detective truly detect (and are not aided by such things as Divine Intervention – otherwise known as sloppy writing). Then, on the very next page, we proceed to a list of rules for both crime fiction writers and readers. The rules take you through some of the agreed-upon pillars of crime fiction, such as ‘not more than one secret passageway or room is allowed,’ and ‘the stupid friend of the detective, Watson, must not conceal any thought which pass through his mind’ (poor Watson!). Already, Benjamin Stevenson is referencing other books and writers in his chosen genre, and is sharing a joke with his readers that we all know what to expect from the well-trodden path he’s taken – and that’s even before the story has begun!
I won’t go too much more into it here, as our book reviewer Melina has written a wonderful low-down on the book recently (read here), but suffice to say that this is crime fiction looking in the mirror at itself and laughing. Fun, playful, this is for the tricksters amongst us.
The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill
Strap yourselves in for this one, because it’s brilliant and a bit tricky: the true protagonist, Hannah, is an Australian crime writer working on her next novel, which is set in Boston. The chapters of the book are her manuscript, and in between those chapters are emails from ‘Leo’, her first reader and man-on-the-ground in Boston, making sure that her Americanisms and details of the city ring true and giving general feedback on how her crime novel is progressing. Then, in the novel Hannah is writing, a crime writer called Winifred is working on her next novel in the Boston Public Library. She scans the people around her in the Reading Room looking for ideas, basing her characters on the three people sitting closest to her. Then, a scream erupts somewhere in the library, a body is found nearby, and the four strangers get caught up in the investigation that ensues, and in each other…
The Woman in the Library is like the Inception of crime novels: a book within a book within a book. But it’s not a gimmick — it’s brilliantly handled by Sulari Gentill, the actual author! The layers of this novel allow us to witness how crime fiction is written, and indeed many of the passages in the book describe the various writers’ methods and considerations when working in this genre: like when the killer should first appear, how many red herrings is acceptable, at what point should someone otherwise harmless start to seem suspicious…
Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson
I couldn’t resist this novel for a few reasons: firstly, it’s set in a bookshop. I love anything set in a bookshop (and therefore highly recommend the Netflix series You starring Penn Bagley). Secondly, it’s a twisty-turny psychological mind game that will have you going ‘ohhhhh aha” at least three times.
The premise is: a man runs a bookshop that specialisies in crime fiction (already, we are somewhat ‘meta’), and so he writes a post for the bookshop’s blog on the ten perfect murders in fiction. He writes about classic crime novels by household names such as Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith and why their made-up murders were ‘perfect’. Some time goes by, and an FBI agent shows up at the bookshop asking about the blog post — it seems someone is using the list as a template for ten very real murders, and both the bookseller and FBI agent must find them and stop them before they reach the end of the list.
This contemporary novel riffs on the puzzle-like structures of classic crime novels, and, if nothing else, will leave you with a comprehensive list of recommended reads in this genre (just as any good bookseller should!).
The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz
Sulari Gentill does not appear in her book The Woman in the Library (despite the presence of two different proxies, Hannah and Winifred). Anthony Horowitz, on the other hand, does insert himself into his novels, The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death. This is a classic meta-fictional technique, where the boundary between the world of the book and real life is broken, like breaking the fourth wall in theatre.
The Word is Murder is the first in Horowitz’s ‘Detective Hawthorne’ series, in which ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne and Anthony Horowitz – the author-as-character – work together to solve puzzling murders and, eventually, pen page-turning novels about them! If this concept takes your fancy, the third installment in this series is set for release this month and is called The Twist of a Knife.