Fairy tales and crime fiction

Crime writers are rarely in the business of delivering happy endings, but our books may have more in common with fairy tales than we think.

Reading some classic children’s stories to my young nephew I was struck by how much criminality lay between the pages of these seemingly innocent bedtime yarns.

Next time you’re stuck for a plot, you could do worse than peruse your children’s bookshelves for inspiration.

BURGLARY AND TRESPASS – GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

Is it any surprise that the three bears are angry when they come back from their walk not only to discover someone has broken into their property, but also eaten their food and slept in their beds?

In one of the original endings to this tale, the bears throw Goldilocks onto the fire in retribution. The 21st century version is much tamer – Goldilocks runs away. Let’s hope she didn’t leave any fingerprints…

KIDNAP – HANSEL & GRETEL

The Witch lures Hansel and Gretel into her house with the promise of gingerbread. Once there she captures her young victims and puts her cauldron on the stove, intending to eat them.

Kidnap with a threat of cannibalism – and we read these stories to children?

POISON – SNOW WHITE

Toxic relationships are a common theme in both fairy tales and crime fiction. As the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family!

Snow White’s jealous stepmother puts her to sleep with a poisoned apple. Modern day equivalents might be Rohypnol or GHB.

INTIMIDATION – THE THREE LITTLE PIGS

‘Let me in, let me in, or I’ll blow your house down!’ cries the wolf outside the little pig’s door. Intimidation is one of the building blocks of a good thriller.

GASLIGHTING – THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES

The Emperor loves his clothes – so much so that he is easily tricked into believing in a special cloth that only wise men can see. Everyone around him keeps quiet as the naked Emperor parades around the town in his birthday suit. A lesson in vanity or a pitiable victim of fraud?

These days you are perhaps more likely to fall foul of cyber fraud – online retailers selling you something that doesn’t exist. Or how about creating a rich, influential character that no one dare stand up to?

Some plot devices found in fairy tales will feel very familiar to crime writers:

THE UNINVITED GUEST – SLEEPING BEAUTY

The doors are closed, the party has begun, but is there a killer among the guests? The premise of the closed-door mystery has a lot in common with the opening to Sleeping Beauty.

THE TICKING CLOCK – CINDERELLA

If Cinderella hadn’t had to leave the ball by midnight, there would be no tension in the story. She could have danced with the Prince all night, left her number and lived happily ever after. That midnight deadline is what makes all the difference. No time to stop and pick up your shoe, Cinders, get out of there before disaster strikes!

AN OFFER YOU CAN’T RESIST – PINOCHHIO

Pinocchio is all set to go to school like a real boy when he encounters the fox and the cat who tempt him to go to the fair instead. Things go badly wrong and get even worse when Pinocchio tries to lie his way out of his predicament. The only thing that can save him is listening to his conscience and telling the truth. Good job our characters don’t feel the same way, otherwise there wouldn’t be much mystery!

THE QUEST – THE BRAVE LITTLE TIN SOLDIER

In many fairy tales the heroes are put to the test before they can achieve their goal. Similarly, detectives have to overcome a series of obstacles before they can unmask the killer.

Spare a thought for The Brave Little Tin Soldier. He falls out of a window, nearly drowns, is swallowed by a fish, thrown into a stove, and set alight before he wins his true love.  

All writers know the importance of an atmospheric setting in our fiction, and fairy tales are no exception.  

INTO THE WOODS – LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD

Some of the best fairy tales are set in woodland for a very good reason. Darkness, shadows, plenty of places to hide. The forest serves as a departure from the safety of home and a threshold to adventure.

Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Goldilocks are all tales of disobedience and straying too far off the path. In the modern era, it’s also a good way of losing your 4G…

CASTLES – THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA

The castles in fairy tales are often occupied by people of great power and privilege. To gain entry, peasants have to be very clever or very beautiful. The contrast between rich and poor, and the abuse of power and privilege, is fertile ground for crime fiction writers.

TOWERS AND LOCKED ROOMS – BEAUTY AND THE BEAST / RAPUNZEL

Always check your exit! The creepy castle or mansion house is a stalwart of crime fiction for good reason. Once you’ve entered, it’s not always that simple to escape. Rapunzel grows her hair to evade her capture while Beauty wins over the Beast. Modern day criminals might not be quite so easy to win round.

At the heart of every fairy story is a morality tale. Perhaps crime fiction is the contemporary equivalent?

This article was first published in Red Herrings, the magazine for members of The Crime Writers Association.

Photo by Cederic Vandenberghe on Unsplash

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