“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “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. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

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?

12 comments:

Maxine said...

I'll be back later, but I'm still reeling from the [non]mugshot ;-)

Barbara said...

"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."

Dude, that Karl Marx guy was smart. I missed this bit in Das Kapital.

Peter said...

"(C)rime fiction is as an inevitable consequence of social evolution and the democratisation of culture as is policing, house alarms, car insurance or pepper spray."

Must that crime ficiton be written by a member of the culture that is its subject? I've posted some comments about The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Beynon Rees (a.k.a. The Bethlehem Murders by Matt Rees). One of the characters is a Bethlehem police officer who, like some of the first professional police in the United States, has a criminal past. Here, then, is an example of policing and crime fiction emerging together in the Palestinian territories even if the author is a Welsh journalist.

I make it a practice to look for local crime fiction when I travel. I found none in Tunisia, and a Tunisian from the delightfully named city of Sfax chalked that up to poverty. People don't have money to buy books, he said.

I have also read that even in such a large nation as Egypt, the reading public is small. This can militate against the development of popular literary genres such as
crime fiction, can it not?
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Declan Burke said...

"Must that crime ficiton be written by a member of the culture that is its subject?"

Peter, I have no idea. I don't see why it should.

"I have also read that even in such a large nation as Egypt, the reading public is small. This can militate against the development of popular literary genres such as
crime fiction, can it not?"

I'd imagine it'd militate against all books, and all reading. And a small reading public is usually an elite, or an elitist, reading public. In that context, newspapers and the web would be more important reading than crime fiction, or any fiction. But people generally find their own cultural outlets. It could be argued that gangsta rap is a branch of crime fiction, telling contemporary versions of the kind of stories Paul Cain and Edward Anderson and Horace McCoy and WR Burnett used to tell.

I'd say the Tunisian guy hit the nail on the head about poverty.

Peter said...

It might militate against all reading, yes, which could magnify the importance of those few revered (or reviled) authors, such as Naguib Mahfouz.

Your point about gangsta rap is interesting. A small sub-genre of urban, African American crime novels has begun to spring up in the U.S. Perhaps those writers and publishers realize that widespread appeal of crime writing.

Re Paul Cain: Would that he had told more stories than he did! If he'd written a few more novels, and if those novels were as good as Fast One, Chandler and Hammett would be numbers two and three in the pulp pantheon.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

crimeficreader said...

From Matt Rees's bio page on his website:
"Matt Beynon Rees is a mystery novelist who lives in Jerusalem... As a journalist, Rees covered the Middle East for over a decade. He was Time magazine's Jerusalem bureau chief from 2000 until 2006, writing award-winning stories about the Palestinian intifada. He also worked as Middle East correspondent for The Scotsman and Newsweek.

He was born in Newport, Wales, in 1967 and studied at Oxford University and the University of Maryland. He published a nonfiction account of Israeli and Palestinian society called Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East in 2004 with Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster."


Having read The Bethlehem Murders, I think it is a fine example of writing about a culture from which the author does not come. However, with all that experience in the Middle East, I suspect that Rees could easily be considered "a member of the culture that is its subject" if not a son within that culture.

Sarah Weinman said...

With regards to the Kilroy, I always viewed it as a suspense novel, but not a crime novel - and I liked that, because why shouldn't a literary novel be suspenseful?

Declan Burke said...

Peter - Re: the new African-American crime writers ... Chester Himes, Clarence Cooper Jnr, Iceberg Slim, Gil Scott-Heron ... that's a sub-genre with a noble heritage.

Sarah - I wish more literary writers shared your opinion. And, to be fair, the best of them do.

Crimefic - Writing about a culture with a stranger's eye, providing you're not simply a tourist using the subject matter for titillation (as could quite easily have been the case with THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS), can offer the kind of perspective those steeped in the culture can't. The same applies to writers working in an unfamiliar genre - Ray Bradbury's DEATH IS A LONELY BUSINESS is a classic, for example. And I'll always have a soft spot for Bukowski's PULP.

Peter said...

I know about some of those guys, but this is new phenomenon, if only from a marleting standpoint. One will see the books shelved as "urban novels" in bookstores, among new books targeted at African American readers, rather than among crime and myster.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Declan Burke said...

Peter - I like the sound of that - 'urban novels'. Very interesting.

Peter said...

We also have "urban contemporary" radio stations here, which really means contemporary black music: hop-hop, rap or reggae, sometimes, as opposed to old-line soul music.

This is a potent mix of sociology, history, race and marketing -- an altogether interesting phenomenon.

===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Karen C said...

Could it also be that some cultures have more of an oral tradition than a written tradition. I can think of one good crime fiction book written by one great Aboriginal writer here - who has written other books about issues to do with being Aboriginal - but that's a drop in the ocean in terms of the general size of the book writing population in Australia (which is small by comparison with the overall population).

What's my point - buggered if I can remember now - but I think it's a possible explanation for sizes of reading populations sometimes - their stories are told in other ways.