“I’M SICK OF THESE murder people, every book has to have its murder. It’s ridiculous. Why is it so unpleasant to people, to consider reading a book actually about life, as close as one can get to it, to what things are really about? Why is that so horrible, whereas reading a million gory murder things is apparently good for the soul and very satisfying when you go to bed?”
Thus spake Lucy Ellmann in the February edition of the Scottish Review of Books, since when her questions have swum around our heads without reaching an answer that satisfies. One thing is in no doubt however: the vast popularity of the crime genre shows no evidence of contracting. Moreover, the genre as a whole continues to attract burnished plaudits.
In this issue of the SRB, Hamish Whyte, examining just what’s so intrinsically Scottish about Tartan Noir, elegantly puts the case for Conan Doyle’s inheritors. He is not alone. There are universities now that teach classes in murder fiction. ‘Literary’ authors are straying onto the scene; Kate Atkinson, for example, publishes her second foray into the genre this month, which Ajay Close examines in this issue.
A respected author writing detective novels is hardly a new development; Julian Barnes, for example, penned four thrillers featuring his bisexual sleuth Duffy. The innovation is that whereas in the past slumming writers saw these books as deviations, a bit of fun issued under a pseudonym (Barnes re-christened himself Dan Kavanagh), they now put their name to them and talk them up.
And why not? It is, as they say, a no-brainer. The genre is a proven money-spinner and the field is wreathed in respect. Look at the Edinburgh International Book Festival line-up; there are so many crime writers appearing they’ve been accorded their own strand.
Dare we ask then – is the murder mystery genre any good? Really? One is drawn to recalling Anthony Burgess’ verdict on Agatha Christie, which stands as an indictment of her peers and descendants: Burgess criticised the “flimsy characterisation, plentiful cliché, implausibility, and verbal vacuity”. One might add they’re numbingly formulaic. Make these criticisms though and you risk being ridiculed as a fuddy duddy, or worse,“an elitist”. Crime fiction has reaped richly from postmodernism’s undermining of objective quality and that New Labour-ish calculus whereby money is equated with quality.
In their campaign to make their vice respectable the fans have been joined by the authors whose choral whinge is that they’re not taken seriously enough. Here we agree with them. Detective novels are usually reviewed upon the basis of how well they compare with other examples of the genre. We’d like to see them judged on the criteria we evaluate ‘serious’ novels. How, say, would the latest Rankin or McDermid fare against that Ishiguro or Banville novel? Ah, for another Mickey Spillane, whose recent death reminded us of the days when crime writers would have looked incredulous if you tried to talk up their critical reputation.
There is another issue, one rarely alluded to, but which Lucy Ellmann nailed. Why read crime fiction? Fans often talk about it as an entertainment, a break from more serious reading. But what’s so relaxing about murder, some of which is gruesomely rendered on the page? What psychological need is being tended to there? Writers and fans often claim that they are actually better adjusted than non-crime fiction readers because they get it all out on the page and so, presumably, not in real life. Heaven help us all if the libraries and book shops ever go on strike.
This is not, by the way, a dismissal of genre writing per se. Science fiction, for example, may have a geeky reputation but in fact provides a platform for a writer to take his imagination anywhere. The very greatest writers in the sci-fi field – J.G. Ballard, say, or Kurt Vonnegut – need no apologies. Nor do they have to make the case for their worth themselves; it is self-evident. One might say the same of horror (Neil Gaiman) or even the western (Cormac McCarthy).
The last defence one might essay in crime’s favour also applies to celebrity memoirs or sudoku compendiums; the money they bring in makes it possible to publish authors less likely to (horrible word) ‘crossover’. This is the optimists’ defence, and has never been satisfactorily proven. Indeed, a wander round your local chain bookshop will reveal that crime fiction’s boiling success has led to an epidemic of…more crime fiction. Diversity has been murdered, and not even Rebus is on the case.