When is a crime not a crime?

In my recent post about two new books, Purge and one with a rude title*, I and some of my lovely commenters were having a discussion on a frequent theme: whether these books are "crime", "literary", either or neither. They have both won prestigious literary prizes, yet both have crime themes, and one of them, Purge, is being compared explicitly with Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, which is certainly "crime" rather than "literary". All rather puzzling.

Although I am no fan of squeezing books into genres, I nonetheless frequently find a lack of comprehension among "normal people" when I tell them I read mainly crime fiction (a bit like the puzzled reaction when you tell someone who isn't a blogger that you have a blog). I suppose that "normal readers" assume that "crime fiction" equals blood, guts and gore, with explict descriptions of murders? Or that one exists solely on a diet of Agatha Christie? I don't know, but I thought I'd create an archive of books – classic novels that were written before the genres were invented, and which if they were written now would or could be marketed as crime; and modern novels that could be or have been sold with the crime-fiction tag but in fact are "novels" on a range of rich themes, rather than clearly "crime" books (such as written by Michael Connelly), or "thriller" (such as Lee Child). All of these have a place in my own personal reading repertoire, so I assume (?) I use the adjective "crime" as a shortcut to exclude commercial fiction (eg chick lit), other specific genres (eg horror, sci fi), and high literature.

I appreciate I am going to come across some grey areas, but never mind – I hope people will help with contributions to these lists, whereupon I'll make a page that I can update with new additions (as I do with my book review archives by year, and my book reviews by country).

Category 1: Classics that would or could be classified as "crime novels" if published today (arguably!). I omit books that have detectives in them and that are primarily about (solving) a crime, eg The Moonstone – though I allow Bleak House.

Jane Crime and Punishment
Bleak House
Our Mutual Friend
The Woman in White
Therese Raquin
To Kill a Mockingbird
Catcher in the Rye
In Cold Blood
Brighton Rock
Jane Eyre
Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Lord of the Flies
Animal Farm

Category 2: Modern novels that have crimes in them, or are about the effects of crime, or have been sold or promoted as "crime fiction", but which are not "crime fiction" in the sense of Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. That is, if they had been published 50 or more years ago, they'd just have been "novels". 

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
A Secret History by Donna Tartt

ShreveThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn 
Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Broken by Karin Fossum 
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Lost in Berlin by Hans Fallada
Unless by Carol Shields
The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve
A Crime in the Neighbourhood by Suzanne Berne
We Have to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Shadow by Karin Alvtegen

What do you think of these lists? Any suggestions?

*Title given in linked post but avoiding writing it again because I don't want to attract unwelcome traffic.


16 thoughts on “When is a crime not a crime?

  1. Very interesting,Maxine.
    The fact that there is a crime or a murder in a novel-
    does not make it a ‘crime’ novel necessarily.I don’t
    think Dostoyevsky or Camus in ‘The Outsider’ were writing
    crime novels–per se. They were more concerned with more
    existential issues. Conversely -because one is deliberately
    writing a ‘crime’ novel–does not mean that the author has not
    a great deal to say about individual and societal concerns.
    Also–much is down to nomenclature and classification.

  2. Lovely list, and I am glad to see Our Mutual Friend on it.
    What I meant by calling Purge literary, not crime, was that as far as I could see the writer did not focus on solving the crime. I read a Danish novel recently which a blog friend called anti-crime because it began with murder, but ended in confusion and lose ends: the author was simply not interested in the solution but in the influence the crime had on the victim´s wife.
    Hope this makes sense, and good luck with your interesting project.

  3. Thank you, Simon and Dorte. I think these are fascinating points, about the presence of crime and what a book is really “about”. I think this is one way in which much translated fiction can differ from English-language genre fiction – one so often feels with the translated books that the author is more interested in the wider issues than the crime per se. But – perhaps this simply reflects the small proportion of books that are translated. Maybe there are many “standard crime novels” written in other languages that don’t make it that far.

  4. Maxine – I love this post!! You are so right that there is often a blurred line between what people call literary fiction and what people think of as crime fiction. When I read your list of novels we don’t think of as crime fiction, but really, they are, I thought of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I’ll have to think of modern novels for your second category…. What a wonderful post : ) : ).

  5. Thanks, Margot, I think Of Mice and Men and Simon’s suggestion of The Outsider (L’Etranger) are great examples of crime/literary/fiction/non-crime!

  6. I could perhaps add to those wonderful classics with The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas a story of betrayal and revenge, but perhaps an adventure story more than a crime novel?
    I watched a fascinating program about the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird last night, and did not realise Harper Lee and Truman Capote [In Cold Blood] lived close to each other as children in Monroeville AL.
    Interesting what you say about translated fiction because I have just started The Woman from Bratislava and the style is much more like an “general novel” than a crime fiction book. I am really enjoying it so far and perhaps we should scrap all genre segregation and just call them books.

  7. Yes, wasn’t Harper Lee his neice or some other relation? Agreed on the Woman from Bratislava – though it does have its crime/thriller elements it is also a history/geography lesson of WW2 and post-war Europe – fascinating if complicated – and an account of some of the human costs. It is a hard book to “categorise” you are right, Norman – looking forward to your review.

  8. In view of Simon’s comment, I think I may add a third category, “crime books that are great writing and more than about the plot” – eg Peter Temple’s Truth, Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road.

  9. I could add several books if I think about it, such as Fred Vargas’ books and Tana French’s first two (haven’t read third yet), some of Indridason’s, and more.

  10. Saw an interview with Camilla Lackberg. She began reading Agatha Chrystie mysteries at 8 year of ago. She said the best book ever written is Donna Tartt’s “A Secret History.” I’ve never read this but see it on this list so it must be a very good book.

  11. The Secret History is very, very, long, Kathy. I quite liked it but it should have been half the length. To my mind it fell into the trap of taking itself too seriously, and being a bit pretentious – like other “non-crime fiction” writers, I think the author thought the crime build-up and elements were a lot more original and shocking than they actually were. I did like the book, though, but only mildly – and I have not been tempted to read her next, The Little Friend, which is equally long and has been on my shelf for years, guilt, guilt! The Secret History has echoes of Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell’s novels, but is much more detailed, long, and “highbrow”.

  12. Well, back to “Truth” for now, to be quickly followed by “Gunshot Road.” Then back to “The White Gallows,” and then (ah, relax) a Michael Connelly before “The Janus Stone,” appears and then I am besieged by Book Depository birthday gifts which are coming from this very blog’s recommendations (and Bernadette’s lovely reviews, too).
    I have one nonsequitar: have you read “The Lorraine Connection,” by Dominique Manotti? Was it as good as “Affairs of State”? (for my “to be purchased” list)

  13. Sounds a great selection, Kathy! I have not read The Lorraine Connection by Manotti but I have read Rough Trade which I enjoyed a lot, though it is very intense and very, er, rough. Quite different from Affairs of State (a political thriller). I must read Lorraine Connection and Dead Horsemeat one of these days…

  14. I’ll try to buy “Affairs of State” then since I like political thrillers. And coming from Europe–even better!

  15. I haven’t thought of “Unless” as a mystery although why the daughter is sitting on a street is mysterious, but understood once explained. It’s a good book.
    I would add “Gunshot Road” to the list of “mysteries” which would have been considered a novel or that transcends the mystery genre. I’m was reading it last night and was so interested in the characters’ discussions and eccentricities that I forgot for a moment that it was crime fiction.

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