Horror in crime fiction

Lindqvist While scrolling through the (hundreds of) posts in my RSS reader the other day, my eyes idly passed by an article, I think it was on one of the Guardian blogs, that opined that the boundaries between crime fiction and horror are now so blurred that they are pretty much one and the same. I wanted to write a post disagreeing, of course, but I haven't been able to track down the original article. So instead of disagreeing with the specific article, I'll disagree with the premise.

Books that are said to blur the distinction between horror and crime fiction are, for example, American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist and almost anything by Stephen King. I haven't read either of the former two books, and have not read any Stephen King for years, until I attempted to read "Cell" over Christmas (a book I bought purely on the strength of its title, but it turned out to be about phones not biology). I didn't get very far with it, as it was a series of set pieces describing deaths in nauseating detail, with practically no plot (such as it was, the plot was done much better in the same author's The Stand many years ago).

I don't read the horror genre, but looking at the best selling "crime" novels, one sees books that dwell on the minutiae of dead bodies, ancient dead bodies, deformities, torture by, respectively, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Mo Hayder and Karin Slaughter. Whether one would call these in any sense "horror" novels, rather than an excessive interest in decay and pain, I don't know. I don't think I would.

The best-selling crime novelists in the world are, to my knowledge, James Patterson, Dan Brown and John Grisham. James Patterson writes fairly up-front violence as part of his plots, but in a comic-book sense. Dan Brown writes conventional action thrillers with a religious/symbolic element.  John Grisham mainly writes legal, courtroom-style dramas. No horror there, then.

Detective The best-selling crime authors in the UK are Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. The former writes conventional police procedural detective stories, and the latter, although she has flirted with the torture-porn genre, has moved away from that in the past few years and now writes books without that element (her initial Tony Hill novels were quite gruesome, but no longer are).

People who read crime fiction regularly will be familiar with Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Harlan Coben, Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves, Peter James, Peter Robinson, Janet Evanovich, George Pelecanos, Susan Hill, Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, Sue Grafton, J. D. Robb, Linwood Barclay, Mary Higgins Clark and many other top-selling novelists. One thing all these writers have in common is that their books are based on plot, not on gruesome grisle: their appeal lies in the fact that they tell a good story - sometimes dark, sometimes not – about interesting characters.

Moving to mainland Europe, the most popular authors at the moment include Andrea Camilleri, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson, Arnaldur Indridason and Camilla Lackberg. No "blurring of the horror boundaries" in any of these novelists' work – although Jo Nesbo does like his set-pieces of baroque violence, these are limited to a (skippable) few pages in each tome, the vast majority of each being a traditional police-procedural story.

Of course I have missed out many examples here. I have also ignored some authors who do write visceral books, eg Stuart MacBride, Simon Beckett or Mark Billingham, or who like to describe lots of violence in the form of fights, shoot-outs, etc (I can't give many examples as I don't read many in this subgenre). However, a fascination with violence is not the same as horror.

To my mind, "horror" involves the supernatural in some sense – the book is about events that can't be explained. This genre goes back to Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James and stretches to James Herbert, Clive Barker and many others of whom I've never heard – culminating in the current teenage vampire fad (soon to be replaced by angels and dogs I gather) represented by Stephanie Meyer and countless other similar authors. Crime fiction, on the other hand, is about a plausible, real-world story, perhaps not explained but certainly explainable. Perhaps an analogy is the difference between "science in fiction" (Arrowsmith, Intuition) and "science fiction" (Foundation, Contact, Dune). In my mind, therefore, if it's about ghosts, vampires and other impossible constructs, it isn't crime fiction.

9 thoughts on “Horror in crime fiction

  1. Interesting post, Maxine! I’ve noticed recently some new books which seem be blurring the crime/horror boundaries. Have you read Stephen Leather’s NIGHTFALL — it’s pretty close to horror. Good book, even though that genre isn’t usually for me.
    MacBride and Billingham aren’t really as gory as Beckett (I read the first of his and passed on the next one!) MacBride is also pretty funny.

  2. I wasn’t sure about Beckett, Sharon, having read his first two. However, I picked up his latest, Whispers of the Dead, on special offer at WHS for £2.99, and enjoyed it. I have heard peopel rave about Stephen Leather but he looks a bit Andy McNab macho for me – but I’ll check out Nightfall. Thanks for the recommendation. I was so upset by Mark Billingham’s debut Sleepyhead (the modus operandi, and that being sold as entertainment) that I was put off for life I think. I read one MacBride (his debut) and didn’t mind it but didn’t think it that great. I do have another somewhere so maybe I should try it.

  3. I agree that the very best crime writers have not resorted to horror. There are still several books out there that rely on a good plot and compelling characters. But as a teacher of literature I can see that genres do overlap more often today. The good thing about it is that crime fiction seems to gain more respect – if you write well, your book is good, no matter which genre you write in.

  4. Maxine – What an excellent way to lay out the differences between the genres! I agree with Dorte that there is more overlap than there was. Perhaps that’s because there is more variety in each genre than there was. Whatever the reason, there is ample evidence (you’ve listed so many fine authors that I won’t add here) that a well-written crime novel does not need to rely on horror or gruesome details. A well-written horror novel is not necessarily a crime or mystery novel.

  5. You’d have to wonder how much of either genre someone had read before making such a claim. Of the 120-odd crime fiction books I’ve read in the past 12 months only one could be said to have a slight cross-over to horror (called Blackout by some Italian guy whose name I can’t remember because the book was awful).

  6. Very interesting post indeed. The overlap between crime and other genres – horror, sci-fi, ghost story – does fascinate me. (I know there are overlaps with romantic fiction too, but I find those a bit less fascinating!)
    In my youth, I read a lot of horror short stories – I have seldom found novel length books where horror appeals to me that much.
    I’d like to suggest that the most appealing way to introduce horror into a crime novel is to do it rather subtly, and not in excessive detail or at enormous length. Some great crime novels have truly horrifying scenes – but the novels are great, in part, because the horror element is a shock, and sometimes wholly unexpected.

  7. John Connolly has also (successfully, in my opinion) blurred the lines between crime and horror. His strange meld of genres is quite good. I think the reason for this is because his novels started with just a subtle note of the supernatural. He left it up to the reader to determine whether these strange happenings were actually occurring or they were manifestations of psychosis in the mind of protagonist. As the series progresses, though, there is a definitive element of the supernatural that I believe works quite well.

  8. I enjoyed the first two or three John Connollys but went off them when they veered into the supernatural/horror. The genre is large enough to provide plenty for all reading tastes, I am sure.

Comments are closed.