Bernadette and why I read crime fiction

Reading As I am a bit short of time and inspiration today, I thought I would return to that old chestnut of "why I read crime fiction". This thought was sparked on this occasion by an excellent post by Bernadette of Reactions to Reading blog (a must-read blog), with the title Am I a traitor to my gender? The question arose from the announcement of the Orange prize long-list, in which the chair of judges, Daisy Goodwin, is saying (in Bernadette's words):  she despaired over the number of the submitted novels (129) which were what she termed ‘misery memoirs’. Covering such topics as rape, bereavement and child abuse a lot of the novels, according to Goodwin, were lacking any pleasurable or joyful element.
I just want to say thank you Daisy. I don’t know you from the proverbial bar of soap but thank you from the bottom of my heart for expressing what I have been feeling for several years now

Bernadette goes on to highlight examples of "misery fiction written by women" over the years, and wonders who is buying and (presumably) reading it. Women, she assumes, rather than men. As a result, Bernadette turned to crime fiction, but now has the "hopeful thought that with someone of Daisy’s opinions on this matter guiding the choices for this year’s longlist it might be safe for me to venture back to the ‘literature by women’ shelves without needing a new prescription of Prozac."

Among other reactions, Bernadette's post made me recall why I read crime fiction. As I wrote in a comment there, for about 10 years I dutifully read the Booker shortlist each year, but got so dispirited and fed up with it all. All those miniature accounts of depressed, languid women, etc. In those days, I also consistently read new “good” literature, particularly American, as defined by the reviews. Talk about male self-indulgent rubbish! (Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Martin Amis etc) . Such horrific navel gazing self-importance that they would think readers would be fascinated by all the tiny details of their (often paralysed) existence.

So, ultimately I gave up and now I read mainly crime fiction – which is ghettoised by many opinion-formers as “crime fiction” but I always experience, and see, it as “traditional story telling” which has its roots in Greek drama, other classical drama to and including Shakespeare and beyond,  and the great Victorian and other period novels. The books I loved as a child and young woman were by Dickens, George Elliot, Arnold Bennett, the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, Emile Zola and so on,  and before that Conan Doyle, Lancelyn Green, Stevenson, Rosemary Sutcliffe, C. S. Lewis et al. – to me, crime fiction is a natural extension of those.

Crime fiction is plot-driven, true, but the better examples of it have much additional depth in terms of character, craft, setting, conviction (political or ethical beliefs, for example) and insight. Crime fiction, like children's fiction (think J. K. Rowling), is not afraid to tackle the big issues. Literary fiction, in attempting the same, is too often self-regarding, tentative (one can almost feel the author's awareness of the "literary" review, along the lines of "the goalkeeper's fear of the penalty" to quote Wim Wenders), and hence over-personalised or over-intricate. I would even go so far as to suggest that the better literary fiction has its roots in crime fiction, thinking of Ian McEwan's evolution as a novelist, for example.

Though the endings of crime novels are often overly complicated and let the book down, as if the author does not have enough confidence to let the book speak for itself but needs some artificial climax, the best of crime fiction does not do this. Non-English language crime fiction escapes this problem far more often than English language novels, in my reading experience. But it is great that we seem to be returning to a view that these exciting, dramatic novels are actually "worthy" (I use the term ironically in case that isn't obvious.) The prizewinning success of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (and its inclusion on this same Orange long-list) may indeed be the turning of a tide. From the Guardian review: Though set in Henry's court and, overwhelmingly, about his long, panting battle to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Wolf Hall is really the story of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's boy who became the king's right-hand man. When we first meet Thomas, he is sprawled on the floor, bloody and beaten. His father, drunken Walter, has just put the boot in and not for the first time. "Inch by inch forward," he orders himself, as he crawls, spewing and fainting, resolutely out of the life he was born to.