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.

7 thoughts on “Bernadette and why I read crime fiction

  1. Maxine – This is just wonderful! You’ve done such a terrific job of explaining what the appeal is of crime fiction. I couldn’t have explained it better, myself : ). Thanks for this.

  2. I’m honoured that you would respond to my little rant so thoughtfully Maxine.
    I do wonder when story telling lost the battle to ‘worthyness’ because if I think about the classic literature that I studied through school – Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare etc – there were stories and characters and all that good stuff that is now, as you say, ‘ghettoised’ into ‘genre fiction’ (a phrase which is always pronounced disparagingly by literature aficionados). I am not ashamed to say that my leisure reading is done for my enjoyment, relaxation and entertainment which for me can include learning new things, having my thoughts provoked, having my assumptions questioned, having my emotions pricked and all of that but at the end of it all I don’t want to feel worse about myself or the world when I started.
    I did read last year’s Booker winner – The White Tiger – as I was assured it was not a ‘normal’ Booker pick and found it a terrific read – even though it tackled the gritty subject of extreme poverty it had light and shade and tears and laughter and I was stunned that the Booker people even looked at it let alone selected it as the winner.
    I’ve got Wolf Hall in audio format and will be getting to that one soon. Could they have gotten it right twice in a row?

  3. Well said! I got so depressed when, for some obscure reason, I read every Anita Brookner novel. I’m glad I’m back where I belong, with children’s books and crime.

  4. Maxine, Excellent stuff! I agree –often putting
    books into the ‘crime fiction’ box is not helpful.
    Three of my all time favourite books
    Crime and Punishment–Dostoyevsky
    The Outsider–Camus
    and the Swedish classic
    Doctor Glas–Hjalmar Soderberg
    loosely involve a crime (murder in all 3 cases).
    I wonder if they were published today they
    would be dismissed as ‘mere’ crime fiction–and therefore
    not attain the ‘classic’status they all deserve.

  5. Very true, Simon. By the way, I have added a link to your Amazon reviews in my blog sidebar for crime fiction websites.
    I do exaggerate a bit for effect in my post, of course (as you write, Bernadette, and I agree) – there are plenty of good “literary stories” being written that don’t involve crime, and I myself enjoy the odd delve into “sad” fiction (eg Anita Shreve’s Light on Snow…but hang on, that involved the aftermath of a death and how the rest of the family lived and coped — though the death wasn’t a murder). But I certainly find that, in particular among the international (non-English language) crime novels available, there is a very high proportion of excellent books that would stand up in any “category”.

  6. Intriguing piece on crime fiction (and prizes). Just a gentle nudge tho’, it is Rosemary Sutcliff without an E … mind you, you are not alone in this (or maybe it was a typo). The blog http://www.rosemarysutcliff.wordpress.com might interest you (and also includes reference to suggest august institutions as The Times have got it wrong ten times in the last five years!)?
    Anthony Lawton

  7. Sorry, Anthony, poor memory (my childhood was a very long time ago!) and an unforgiveable lack of fact-checking.

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