Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Crime Fiction: Guilty As Charged?

It’s probably because she’s some kind of science-y boffin-type that the ever-lovely Maxine Clarke gets right to the nub of an issue. We like to think of her as a classic Bond villainess (Maxine’s body-double pictured right), a radiant vision of foxiness possessed of a ruthless logic which will at some point cause her to try to kill us all with a single dart of her poisoned stiletto heel. Still, it can’t be Mills & Boon every day, right? Anyhoo, Maxine left a comment last week on the post from last week in which we apologised to Claire Kilroy for dragging her into the mire of a pointless row over what is and is not crime / mystery / thriller fiction. Quoth Maxine:
“I often find it hard to find a one- or two-word ‘shorthand’ to describe a book. I haven’t read TENDERWIRE but the dilemma reminds me of Stef Penney’s TENDERNESS OF WOLVES -- could you call that crime fiction? It is a murder investigation in one way, but is mainly about literal and metaphorical journeys. Another example is one I read over Christmas, THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield -- I had no idea that there was going to be a crime in it and a mystery to solve -- but there was, as we discover about 3/4 of the way in. Does this make it crime fiction? I have never heard this book described thus, but it could be … it would not be wrong to do so, I think. Personally, I find the adjective ‘literary’ somewhat pretentious in describing books (or blogs, etc). I don’t see a problem with calling something a mystery, thriller, crime or detective story, if that’s what it is even if only in part.”
Thank you kindly, ma’am. And now for the bit where we get Maxine reaching for her poisonous stilettos: we think Maxine is wrong. Yep, we know, sacrilege, blasphemy, Maxine’s the font and oracle of crime fiction UK, yadda-blah, we’ve heard it all before. But we still think she’s wrong, albeit in a nit-picky way. Y’see, we agree in broad principle with Maxine’s thoughts, and with the general thrust of her arguing in favour of inclusiveness. But we have a tiny problem with this bit: “Does this make it crime fiction? I have never heard this book described thus, but it could be … it would not be wrong to do so, I think.” Fair enough, and generously put. In our opinion, though, it should read, “It would be wrong not to do so.” By which we mean the book or story, if it is to be considered crime fiction, should have a clarity of purpose in how it approaches the possibilities, complex motivations and scenarios the genre allows, and a clarity of intent in the way these are presented. This is not about body counts or style or offer platforms, and it has nothing to do with subjective opinions on good or bad writing. It is about the writer having the moral commitment to explore the reasons why crime fiction is such a perennially popular source of solace, entertainment and even joy for readers all around the globe, why Karl Marx could say, “Crime never pays – not so!” The worth to the economy of anti-crime measures is virtually inestimable; crime fiction is as an inevitable consequence of social evolution and the democratisation of culture as is policing, house alarms, car insurance or pepper spray. If a writer understands that the fictions of crime in books or movies serve as a lightning rod to the inevitable fears and paranoias of the modern world, and has wit enough to render our most primal instinct entertaining, then he or she is a crime writer and the book is a crime novel. Otherwise, and even if there’s only the tiniest doubt, it’s not. And that’s our two cents. Anyone else want to jump in here?