“THE BIG O is a comic crime caper – think of Carl Hiassen strained though a noir filter. The story is broken into a succession of short scenes each written from the perspective of one of the six principle characters. The structure works to provide a nice, quick pace and enables Burke to flesh out the characterisation, where each person is slightly larger than life with certain foibles … The only thing that grated after a while was the use of coincidence, which was clearly deliberate but edged towards excessive … THE BIG O is a very enjoyable read and a comic crime caper that is genuinely comic.” ****Obviously, it’s nice to know that Rob Kitchin liked - for the most part - the novel, and very generous he was too. What I liked about the review, though, is that few punches were pulled, when it would have been easier for Rob to gloss over what he didn’t like and simply emphasise what he did like (full disclosure: I’ve met Rob Kitchin once, and thought he was a nice bloke). He’s not the first to point out that the story of THE BIG O turns (gyrates) on an excessive use of coincidence; and whether that conceit was deliberately intended or not, readers are fully entitled to find it grating, irritating or simply unbelievable. They’re also fully entitled to call me on it.
For what it’s worth, I think that that kind of robust critique is welcome and entirely healthy. It certainly beats having him gush about my book and me gush about his (Rob Kitchin has just published his second novel, THE WHITE GALLOWS), an all too common practice these days, and one that serves neither writer nor reader.
On an altogether more rarefied level, the venerable Sarah Weinman recently blogged on a similar theme, when she mused aloud about ‘awards fatigue’. The gist of the piece was the proliferation of crime fiction awards (Anthonys, Barrys, McCavitys, Shamuses, Edgars, et al), the difficulty in differentiating one from another, and the overall worth (or otherwise) of having so many awards, all in the context of whether or not the awards are successful in raising the profile of the winning and nominated authors with an audience beyond that of crime fiction aficionados.
Both EIGHTBALL BOOGIE and THE BIG O were nominated for awards, bless their cotton socks, so I’m in a position to say that, yes, it’s lovely just to be nominated. By the same token, and looking at the big picture, there appears to be a very real danger that crime writing, even with the very best of intentions, is creating a closed-loop feedback of mutual celebration. In a nutshell - and this is where Rob Kitchin comes in - when everything is good, nothing is good.
Running parallel to the mutual celebration is the occasional statement from an author or critic from outside the crime fiction circle, which suggests that crime fiction isn’t as well written as it might be, or is too formulaic and predictable, or too simplistic in terms of form to reflect the complexity of the human condition. The reaction tends to be one of closed ranks, and dark mutterings about snobbery and prejudice, and reverse-snobbery accusations about ivory towers and self-indulgence.
In one sense, that’s actually nice to see - it demonstrates the all-for-one and one-for-all nature of the crime fiction community. It’s failing, however, is that it’s a short-term view. All criticism is valid, and particularly when it offers opinions we’d rather not hear. We’re coming up hard now on the centenary anniversary of what I consider to be the birth of the modern crime novel - those collections of pulp short stories that would eventually crystallise into novels by Paul Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, et al - and yet the form, structure, intent and ambition of the crime novel has hardly changed in almost one hundred years. Content has changed to reflect contemporary concerns, certainly, but society, culture and civilisation have mutated in ways that would have been scarcely conceivable even to Jules Verne in his pomp.
Is the proliferation of awards doing the crime novel any favours? Are we being honest enough with ourselves as to the enduring worth of crime fiction? Are we too stubbornly closing ourselves off to valid criticism that threatens (and apologies for the tortured metaphor) to prick the bubble of our closed-loop feedback?
I’ll be honest with you: I want more from the crime novel. I want more than a response of ‘Oh, it’s the classical Greek structure’ when someone complains about simplicity of form. I want more than ‘Oh, it’s what the market demands’ when someone complains about shallow characterisation. I want more than ‘Oh, the crime novel is traditionally a conservative art form’ when someone complains about predictability. And I definitely want more than ‘Oh, you don’t want to make the reader so much as blink’ when someone complains that the writing wants for challenging prose or narrative conceits.
Oh, and I’d also like a week in the Greek islands, preferably paid for by some commercially suicidal publisher who wants to publish one of my novels.