The Crime Readers' Association

Changing Genres by Leigh Russell

29th March 2021

Writers are wordsmiths. We spend our time playing with words, seeing how we can use them to communicate. But ideas as well as language inspire the books we write, and these ideas can pop up unbidden from all sorts of places. So when a character from a dystopian future slipped into my mind and started whispering her story in my ear, I was intrigued and felt compelled to follow her.


At this point you might wonder why a successful crime writer would choose to write a dystopian novel. But my reading has never been limited to one genre, so why should my writing be circumscribed? The books I’ve read so far this year range from Mervyn Peake’s surreal fantasy Gormenghast trilogy, to The Other Bennett Sister by Janice Hadlow, an entertaining period romance, The Monk, a strangely compelling eighteenth century Gothic novel by Mathew Gregory Lewis, to the twenty-first century crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith.


Since my reading is so wide-ranging, I like to think my writing can be varied as well. Hopefully I’m not overreaching myself in attempting something so different to my crime novels. I suspect all writers enjoy flexing their writing muscles by exploring different kinds of narratives from time to time. It’s an exciting challenge to step outside your comfort zone.


Ideas spring from the most unlikely sources. One strand of the story occurred to me while I was watching a small child being introduced to solids, tasting different foods for the first time. In fiction we have the opportunity to discover different worlds, but to small children the real world is constantly novel and exciting. Perhaps that’s why writers are supposed to never grow up, because we are constantly creating and experiencing new worlds.


Although I’ve never considered myself a fan of dystopian fiction, quite a few novels I’ve enjoyed fall into that category. Titles that spring to mind are The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, The Hopkins Manuscript by R C Sheriff, On the Beach by Nevil Shute, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, PD James’s Children of Men, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. All of these books fall into the dystopian category, and many of them explore the effect on humanity of a cataclysmic event that threatens mankind’s existence on earth.


Having enjoyed writing my very first dystopian novel, I am now anxiously awaiting its reception, and wondering how readers who know me for my crime novels are going to react. I hope Rachel’s Story will be enjoyed by both existing and new readers of my work, but am steeling myself for an indignant outcry from fans of my existing books who were expecting another crime novel from me. They have not been neglected, as the most recent title in my crime series, Evil Impulse, was published in January, with the next one out in August. So I trust that readers who like my crime books will support my venture into a different genre, and hopefully enjoy Rachel’s Story.


Dystopian stories explore how characters cope with dangerous changes to our way of life that threaten our personal freedom and even the survival of mankind itself. In a way these concerns are not dissimilar to those of crime fiction. Ultimately both dystopian fiction and crime fiction explore how we cope with the unalterable truths of the human condition, most notably the certainty of death. So perhaps a crime writer producing a dystopian novel is not that much of a leap after all.


Rachel’s Story is out on 6 April and is available to pre-order now. For more info, see Leigh’s profile here.

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