I got in touch with Adrian McKinty (right) earlier in the week, asking, for the purposes of a newspaper feature, why he believes there’s such an explosion in Irish crime fiction right now. Being McKinty, he answered the question asked, and then followed it up with a mini-essay on why crime fiction whups every other genre’s metaphorical ass. To wit:
“Why is crime fiction so much more interesting than romance, horror, sci-fi and increasingly literary fiction? Here’s my attempt at an answer:
“When I used to work at Barnes and Noble I was punished for minor infractions of the corporate code by being put on the romance fiction information desk. This is a genre written by women of a certain age for women of a certain age. Most of the books resemble that second division musical Brigadoon: dodgy accents, dodgy historicism, dodgy plots. Once you meet the central characters in a romance novel you know how the book is going to finish. A long tease, a few obstacles, happy (or increasingly) unhappy ending.
“Romance novels are often written by people who don’t understand that what makes Jane Austen good is her story arcs. There are some romanciers who relish wit and ironic humour but these, alas, are the exceptions rather than the rule – you can usually tell the ironic ones by their brilliantly outlandish covers. (Chick-lit is a sub genre of romance novel, with more sex and worse jokes.)
“I have never read a horror novel because I don’t like to be scared and also because of their daunting size. I’ve seen cinder blocks with less heft than most horror fiction texts. I’ve read some of Stephen King’s non-horror books, though. Apparently he wrote a lot of them while drunk in the early mornings. I hope that’s the case. I remember one sentence that had more clauses than a Kris Kringle convention.
“Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein. When I was about 12 I read everything these guys wrote. Asimov alone published 400 books, so that’s no mean feat. Early science fiction wasn’t interested in multi-dimensional characters or exacting prose. The idea was everything. Nothing wrong with that, but sixty years later, pretty much all the ideas have been used or recycled. JG Ballard, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick and to some extent William Gibson tried to take science fiction on an inward journey but their path has not been followed by the majority of the genre’s novelists. Space opera, time travel, the future and exoticism still dominate. Character, psychology and prose are not as relevant as the hook, the central premise, the pitch. Sci-Fi today leaves me uninvolved and largely unmoved, but I’d be happy to renew my love if anyone has any suggestions.
“A sub genre of sci-fi is fantasy. I’m not going to dwell on those books. I grew out of fantasy when I was 13 or 14. The best in the field seems to be Stephen Donaldson, who I worshipped as a kid. My students rave about Robert Jordan and maybe he’s good, I don’t know. If you like that sort of thing good ’elf to ya.
“Yeah, don’t get all snooty, you’re a genre too. Lit-fic’s problems are social and philosophical. First the social: there’s a clubby atmosphere in the New York and London literary worlds that pushes depressingly unreadable novels down our throats. Lit-fic people review each other a lot and they all seem to have gone to the same schools, live together in Islington or Brooklyn Heights, and have the same upper-class vaguely lefty view point and tax bracket. They’re all basically nice middle-class white people (although they occasionally let in a dishy foreigner) writing / whingeing about the problems of nice middle class white people.
Philosophically, literary types are ill at ease. The conventional novel is too dull for them but Joyce already did everything you could with the form, so what can they do? Their books try too hard, shouting “Look at me!” instead of focusing on what the reader wants: good stories and good characters. Their prose is a distillation of what Cyril Connolly called the ‘mandarin style,’: either rip off Henry James or rip off Evelyn Waugh. For me Salman Rushdie, David Mitchell, David Park, Ronan Bennett and Zadie Smith are exceptions to this sweeping and probably completely incorrect generalisation. In the U.S., Cormac McCarthy has kept his distance from Brooklyn and that’s why he’s the best writer in country (after Kansas-dwelling James Ellroy).
“So what makes crime fiction so great? Its diversity for one thing. If Peter Rozovsky’s website Detective Beyond Borders is to be believed, every country in the world seems to have a flourishing crime fiction genre. Do you want Icelandic private eyes? We’ve got ’em. Are you after American wheelchair-bound lesbian detectives? We can do that too. Even within the regions crime writing can be your guide. The thinly populated west of Ireland for example: Want to know about Sligo? Declan Burke’s your man. A few miles down the coast to Galway and you’re in Ken Bruen country.
But it’s not just the diversity; I think something bigger is going on as well. Nineteenth century Russia, Elizabethan London, Periclean Athens – all produced exemplars of high art because the artists had to work within the boundaries of harsh censorship. Drawing inside the box allowed authors to become more creative and more interesting. Obviously repressive censorship is bad too, but greater freedom doesn’t necessarily lead to greater artistic triumphs. In today’s London, New York, Paris etc., you can say whatever you like but little of it is worth listening to. Crime writers work within certain conventions and are allowed to be social commentators, psychological explorers and innovators as long as they stick to the basic rules of the crime or mystery story. The box helps the writer and the reader. You’re not going to get many crime novels that forget that plot is important or that characters have to be real and that dialogue has to sound authentic.
“Crime writers don’t worry about the views of literary London or New York, they don’t feel they have to conform to any house style or clichéd way of rebellion. Crime fiction cuts at the edge of prose, story telling and character. It is the genre for exploring contemporary mores and, I think, the best literary mode for understanding our crazy mixed up world.
“So, to sum up: like the young Cassius Clay, crime fiction is the prettiest, nimblest and deftest of the Olympians, easily overpowering the lumbering horror and sci-fi athletes, dodging that lady with the romance handbag, and knocking cold that weepy young fogey from Kensington whose father never told him he loved him. Except nobody’s father told them they loved them. Get over it mate, stop gurning and go read THE COLD SIX THOUSAND instead.” – Adrian McKinty
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “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.