“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.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

On The Essential Relevance Of Crime Fiction

Mack Lundy (right) was kind enough to drop by and blow smoke up my fundament re: a recent piece I wrote for Crime Always Pays. Quoth Mack:
“I believe that crime / mystery fiction can be a vehicle for presenting morality, ethics, good, evil, innocence, sacrifice, moreso than Literature with a capital L. I would like to know why you think crime / mystery fiction ‘is inarguably the most relevant and important fiction out there.’ Perhaps you could touch on it in a future post on Crime Always Pays. Your readers would be interested and it would stimulate interesting discussion.”
  Mack, bless his cotton socks, wildly overestimates (a) the number of CAP readers; (b) their ability to stimulate discussion, interesting or otherwise; and (c) the miniscule amount of reaction anything I might have to say might generate.
  Happily, his email coincided with a piece I wrote for the Sunday Independent last weekend, which touched on the importance and / or relevance of crime fiction, and why I believe that if journalism is the first draft of history, crime fiction is its second.
  Even though I don’t touch on this in the piece, I should probably add that crime fiction is the most important kind of fiction out there simply because it speaks to the greatest number of readers. If anyone doubts that, do the math.
  Anyhoos, on with the show …
How Crime Novels Reveal Truths About Our Dark Age

ARGUABLY the most seductive, and perhaps even compelling, aspect of contemporary crime fiction is its relevance. As with the best journalism, the best crime writing speaks to us of where we are now and how we are coping with the indignities that assault our notions of civilisation. Rape, for example, has been with us in fiction since THE ILIAD, although Homer tended to celebrate his triumphalist male protagonists and gloss over how a woman might feel about being subjected to such gross violation.
  It’s in the realms of modern crime fiction that you will find rape’s most authentic documentation …
  For the rest, clickety-click here

10 comments:

John McFetridge said...

Maybe our newspapers' front pages and TV newscasts should be filled with philosophical discussions of Big Themes and personal journies to enlightenment, but at the moment they're filled with crimes. So, it's crime I'm interested in, and as you say, novels are the second draft, the way of getting beyond the headlines.

And, of course, even capital L literature very often deals with crime.

Stuff that is marketed as "mystery" or "crime" fiction makes up less than half of my novel reading, but there are plenty of crimes in that other half as well.

marco said...

I should probably add that crime fiction is the most important kind of fiction out there simply because it speaks to the greatest number of readers.If anyone doubts that, do the math.

So James Patterson,Tom Clancy,John Grisham and Janet Evanovich are the crime authors the greatest number of readers looks up to in order to understand the thruths about our dark age?
Now I understand what's wrong with the world!

Mack said...

Yikes! It is startling to see my photo on another blog. Maybe I should switch from the serial killer image the the one of me as a school boy in South Africa that I use on Facebook.

Regarding your statement "...wildly overestimates (a) the number of CAP readers; (b) their ability to stimulate discussion, interesting or otherwise; and (c) the miniscule amount of reaction anything I might have to say might generate."

I figure that there is a chance that Adrian McKinty or that chap at Crime Scene NI will happen upon your blog post and thus get stimulating discussion going.

Marco, you would leave a comment like that when I don't have a beer in the house and have to ponder the implications while sober.

Mack said...

I've been thinking about the relevance of crime fiction a lot lately which is what prompted me to ask Declan to elaborate. I am employed as a librarian at a university in the U.S. which might might account for my desire to intellectualize the subject but I think it is justified. The very popularity of crime fiction that Dec cites works in favor of the relevance of the genre. Sure there is dreck but the way Ken Bruen shows Jack Taylor's struggle against alcoholism is as real and wrenching as anything I've read in Literature. And the way Walter Mosley handles race issues in the Easy Rawlins novels is remarkable, and, for me, moving.

I can find articles on crime fiction in academic journals and my library has hundreds of books that examine all aspects of crime fiction but those sources are not read much outside our ivy covered walls. And look at the reception of the news that Child 44 was nominated for the Man Booker Award.

I need to get some work done but I hope the blogging community can work toward meeting Declan's challenge that

"the critical work on crime fiction needs to develop of and through its own metier, that the Johnsons of the crime / mystery community require their Boswells, and that I believe heart and soul that crime / mystery fiction needs and deserves the kind of widespread, top-to-bottom critical work that would in turn inspire the writers to strive towards ever-higher standards of work."

Gerard Brennan said...

It's a stock answer, but it's still relevant -- crime fiction has a lovely way of tying up the loose ends of a crime. Crime happens, criminal caught, justice served, the end. It's been said before that people like to see the judicial balance that crime fiction, for the most part, offers. So I guess that's a big contributing factor.

Personally, I have a fascination with the personal ethics people live by. We've read stories about the honourable thief or the crooked cop. The victim fights back and the bully gets beat down. It's all great.

And there are so many grey areas crime fiction can draw on. I'm talking about the kind of grey areas people operate in in all areas of their lives. Maybe you steal a couple of grapes when your shopping. Maybe you cheat a little on your tax form. Take it a little further. You poison your neighbours dog because it snapped at your child. Keying a car that stole your parking space. Start a fight in a bar because you've had a bad day. All decisions made by people with consequences that may or may not be realised.

Take it further. The guy who mugs grannies versus the shoplifter stealing from Tesco or Walmart. Somebody holding up an family owned shop for what's in the till or the gang that specialises in robbing banks with insurance out the wazoo. How each person justifies the action. Where's the line? What shade of grey are you comfortable with?

It's a question of personal philosphy, morality, ethics... How could that not peak your interest?

Cheers

gb

(That chap at Crime Scene NI)

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, Gerard, all that ethics stuff is great and the crime fiction in the grey areas especially.

I like the stuff that deals with the point at which crime becomes acceptable - during prohibition there was a lot of crime because so many people didn't think alcohol should be illegal. We have the same issue today with drugs. So, we have an industry that many people see as almost completely harmless (I'm talking about marijuana here) when they come into contact with it, but it finances a while criminal community involved in other crimes.

A lot of that criminal community is conflicted as well - either they started with some noble political ideals and used criminal money to further a cause, or they really were digging themselves out of some deep poverty, or they're just anti-social crooks who don't care about anyone else.

Following the tail of that ethical snake is being done everyday in crime fiction.

marco said...

We already had a very similar discussion here ,instigated by none other than mr.McKinty.
The points brought up at the time remain valid.
While I don't necessarily disagree with the arguments in favour of crime fiction ,I'd be more careful in declaring that it is "inarguably" the most relevant and important fiction out there.
When I think about the phrase "fiction can be a vehicle for presenting morality, ethics, good, evil, innocence, sacrifice" the first names that come to my mind are Ursula K.Le Guin and Octavia Butler,for instance.
I think that people are drawn to different genres for reasons that have much more to do with the way they emotionally respond to a particular form or set of conventions than conscious decisions over quality- therefore attempts to justify this preference are always rationalizations.
As I said before,I read a lot of crime and a lot of science-fiction-sure I can name books in both fields that should be read by anyone,but I can also think about well-written books that I enjoy that probably wouldn't have particular appeal for people who aren't interested in their genre.
It's more complicated than simply dreck vs brilliance.
And then there's the marketing aspect of genres,which straitjackets creativity -genre should be a consequence of the kind of story you want to write,not the other way round.
On Csni Stuart Neville has said he was worried about the cathegorization of his novel,which straddles the line b/w thriller and horror.
Some of my favourite contemporary spec-fi writers have also written crime fiction-maybe with a slightly oblique perspective,but less extraneous elements than,say,John Connolly- often to rave reviews by critics like Sarah Weinman,at times winning prizes-but they are still largely ignored,because move in different circles.
Similarly,The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly is a dark fantasy in the Gaiman/Barker style,but I doubt it reached that audience.

Maybe I should switch from the serial killer image the the one of me as a school boy in South Africa that I use on Facebook.

Your right hand comes straight from a horror movie.And Lundy is a good name for a serial killer.The Librarian could be the nickname for the papers.

It's a stock answer, but it's still relevant -- crime fiction has a lovely way of tying up the loose ends of a crime. Crime happens, criminal caught, justice served, the end. It's been said before that people like to see the judicial balance that crime fiction, for the most part, offers. So I guess that's a big contributing factor.

This explains much of the appeal of crime fiction-a fantasy of order and justice,just like romance or chick-lit is a fantasy of love,or science-fiction is a fantasy of change.
But this is also a major accusation levelled against it-the inherently conservative, (in more than one sense), consolatory nature of its formula.
There's no question that the works I prefer are those that shortcircuit this formula-Sjöwall and Wahlöö,Derek Raymond's I was Dora Suarez,the French and Italian Noir of Manchette,Izzo,Carlotto,etc.

Ciao
Marco

Gerard Brennan said...

"So, we have an industry that many people see as almost completely harmless (I'm talking about marijuana here) when they come into contact with it, but it finances a while criminal community involved in other crimes."

Yeah, John. That's a great example of peeling away the light grey layer to find something a lot darker underneath.

And yeah, criminality to fund a cause is something that'll no doubt be explored again and again in crime fiction, especially that of the Northern Irish variety.

Marco - I don't know where to start with your comment. Quite a bit going on in there. So I'll just say I like how you classified science fiction... "a fantasy of change." That's nice. Would you not start up a blog? You certainly don't lack opinions.

Cheers

gb

marco said...

Gerard -thanks!
Short answer-I have more fun this way

Slightly longer answer-If I were to start up a blog,I'd probably end up writing nearly exclusively about Italian politics-This is also a form of escapism for me.


My slightly insulting v-word is fackadin

Ciao,
Marco

Declan Burke said...

Marco - I appreciate what you're saying about science-fiction, and that all genres and none can deal with the issue of "presenting morality, ethics, good, evil, innocence, sacrifice" etc., but I think the difference with crime fiction is that it's a QED thing - crime fiction's raison d'etre is contained in its name. Like John, I read pretty widely, and crime fic accounts for about a third of my reading, and it's always possible to engage with immorality / criminality / illegality in other genres and none - but to my mind the finest exponents will be those who are unashamedly writing crime fiction, and particularly those who, as you say yourself, short-circut the formlaic tropes of the genre.

Cheers, Dec