It's a mystery to me
Does crime fiction's peculiar power to please, to bind character, place and reader make up for the constraints of genre?
by Brian Bethune | Oct 25, 2004
The audience on hand for the panel talk on could have cared less. It was every bit as much inclined to say yes as the writers on stage were. Speaking on the subject were Stephen Booth, English author of the up-and-coming Peaks District police procedurals; Canadian writer Kim Moritsugu; Christopher Rice, son of vampire novelist Anne Rice; and--most intriguingly--Irish author Michael Collins, one-time Booker prize nominee(2000)and, now, crime novelist.
Collins: an eminent, however briefly, literary novelist who had crossed from the snobbish side to the mystery team. A rapt crowd was thrilled to listen to him tell the tale of his conversion. "After I was shortlisted for the Booker, I learned that no one reads literary fiction any more."(Is it safe to assume that his sales didn't take off?)"That's because the action--the novel's crises--are all in a character's head, not in on-page action. So I got to thinking about using crime to critique American society, perhaps a dismemberment murder mystery to echo the dismantling of the U.S. middle class."
The applause then started to turn increasingly perfunctory among the mostly American audience, as he went on to describe the peculiar suitability of U.S. society for crime novels. Europeans, he said, tend to visit only coastal America, and have no idea of the bizarre religious beliefs and brooding violence exhibited by the mad inhabitants of the territory between New York City and San Francisco. It all sounded as though his next novel, should he find a publisher, is liable to feature nuke-wielding Amish terrorists from Ohio.
Collins' naked ambition and political paranoia did point to one underpinning of critics' sympathy for crime fiction. To the extent that it features moral agents, PIs or cops, walking Raymond Chandler's famous mean streets, defending marginalized individuals against official corruption, persecution and conspiracy, the more crime fiction charms a left-leaning intelligentsia. For instance, reviews of Ian Rankin's newest John Rebus thriller Fleshmarket Close--and no crime writer stands higher in critics' approbation--tended to focus on Rebus as a conscience for our time; in this case, a battler against racial prejudice.(This works best when society is merely indifferent or corrupt; in a more conspiracy-obsessed work--say, like Collins'--readers can reasonably wonder why the powers that be don't simply drop the annoying detective down a mine shaft.)
The other Bouchercon panelists gamely tried to avoid being sidetracked by Collins. Two insights emerged from their discussion. First, there's no genre so picked-upon that it can't kick downwards--a couple of speakers made disparaging cracks about romance authors.(Who are, for their part, quite capable of biting back. "Odd that mysteries are acceptable because of their ‘realism,' " romance writer Jo Beverley once acerbically remarked. "Everyone falls in love sometime; how many corpses have you tripped over?")
More germane was a point made by Rice. Booth argued anything could be discussed in a crime novel, as long as it was character-driven: "If readers believe in your characters, they'll follow you anywhere." True, echoed Rice, but a sense of place was equally vital. "It's the intersection of place and character that makes critics elevate some mystery writers, and not the rest of us."
He spoke as though he were making a technical point, merely remarking on something he'd noticed. But Rice is clearly on to something. The best, most compulsively readable stories and unforgettable characters come from that combination. Sherlock Holmes, so eternally alive that the British post office accepts mail for him, is inconceivable without his accompanying images of gas-lit London or foggy country moors. And Holmes is so set in the collective mind because he both solved problems and did so repeatedly. The crime genre is biased towards series, towards casting a new set of ephemeral variables(the crime)against the same backdrop of character and place, cementing Rice's "intersection" over and over in readers' imaginations.
But that just tells us, in part at least, why mysteries are so popular, not about their aesthetic achievement. So what's the answer? Does crime fiction's peculiar power to please, to bind character, place and reader make up for the constraints of genre--the problem-investigation-solution paradigm? Can a mystery be a great novel?
Join the discussion. Send your thoughts to