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Hard Rocks, too: The Death of Crime Fiction?

By Tom Benn

I’m not one of those people who believe there is no such thing as genre. Yes, there are good books and bad books, but both good books and bad books are loaded and coded with shared tropes: iconography, cultural narratives and formulae (whether they’re conforming to them or subverting them). By simply witnessing the world, by reading and watching and hearing stories, most of us learn to recognise architectural similarity in style, character and plot. We categorise stories in a plethora of cultural, historical, and academic ways; and we give those categories names. This helps us navigate through and contextualise the cacophony of human data around us. Placing said categories in a false hierarchy, running from ‘highbrow’ to ‘lowbrow’, is where things get problematic.

No matter how broad a church the crime genre becomes – police procedural, forensic unit, lawyer, P.I., serial killer, hit man, domestic crisis, spinster sleuth etc., etc. – there will still, for the foreseeable future, be a distinction between the crime novel and literary novel. I’m not talking about a faux distinction of merit, with ‘literature’ lording over ‘genre’. I wouldn’t want to insult an author by saying her exceptionally well-written crime novel escapes the genre ghetto and becomes ‘literary fiction’. An exceptionally well-written crime novel is a crime novel, and that’s enough. There are tremendous crime novels. Some are tremendous for defining the genre’s conventions, others for refining them, and others for breaking them. Of course there are stale, overwrought, clichéd, and trend-chasing crime novels: bad sentence after bad sentence. And of course there are also anaemic, obvious, timid, and trend-chasing literary novels, with bad sentence after bad sentence. There are many more bad crime novels than good ones. There are many more bad literary novels than good ones. There is more bad art in the world than good art – but that is because good art is hard, and good art should be hard because good art is brave, and because good art is often divisive.

So what are some of the differences between crime fiction and literary fiction? Well, compared with literary fiction, dramatic stakes in crime fiction are often louder, offering readers more immediate thrills. Crime is more ostensibly eventful, and there can, sadly, be a reduced emphasis on prose quality, compensated by this thirstier narrative engine. But there shouldn’t have to be.

We all know a crime novel when we read one. Even if its jacket art weren’t so patronising, we’d still recognise where we were once we ventured inside; we don’t need to be told any more by its shelf location or its sub-tag on Goodreads or Amazon (although such groupings can be as useful as they can be harmful).

The longevity and proliferation of the crime novel means it has picked up some rules – all of which can be broken. The reader will begin the book with certain expectations, the first usually being a dead body. But having a dead body in a novel doesn’t always make it a crime novel. Crime novels don’t have exclusivity over human conflict, whether individual or sociological, the bread-and-butter mystery of why-we-do-what-we-do-to-each-other in all drama. Luckily, that’s not all the crime novel is. If it were, there’d be nothing you could do in a crime novel that you couldn’t do in a literary novel, or elsewhere. I often hear other crime writers answering the ‘why crime’ question by claiming that the genre’s proclivities offer a way of scrutinising contemporary society, examining race, class, gender, and violence. But it makes me think – you can do all that with space opera too, if you liked. Or romance. Or literary fiction. Maybe what they mean is, at its best, the crime novel can tackle these issues in the most direct way, in their most literal forms. But that still doesn’t necessarily make crime the best medium for the job. Perhaps that’s just my opinion though; I’ve never been literalism’s biggest fan.

My reason for liking crime is simpler: I enjoy having rules to break. I like knowing there are reader expectations. In genre writing there is always the challenge and opportunity to defamiliarise the familiar, to embrace what you already love about a world, and to shed what you don’t. You can almost make it your own. You can do all this while still examining race, class, gender, violence, and much more; in specific eras and specific locales. But at this point, resisting genre can only be a good thing for genre. There needs to be a certain degree of self-awareness guiding the genre writer. Otherwise, what’s the point? Why write in a set of well-trodden conventions if you’re not exploiting and cross-pollenating them with the rest of literature? We have to offer more than just the comfort of the familiar. New blood! New blood! That’s what readers deserve; not the same old, same old.

Redemption (and its bastard cousin, closure) is such a tired and fraudulent cultural narrative. It still plagues much of crime fiction, and features heavily in other genres; far more than in the literary novel. If the crime novel can overcome the certainty of redemption, the offensive false promise of the neat restoration of order, then nothing can stop its continued relevance and success with this and future generations of readers. I was twenty-one when I wrote my first crime novel, The Doll Princess. I’ve done readings where the majority of attendees were three or four times my age. (Disclaimer: these are always my favourite events.) If the genre doesn’t cast off its dated adherence to redemption narrative – in essence, its conservatism – then the crime-devoted hoards attending Harrogate will continue to age, and the genre may tragically die with them.

So what is the best thing about the crime novel that can’t be reapplied so easily to other types of novel? I don’t know. But this is the best I’ve got (and, for me, it’s enough): While good writing is about the search for truth, this can remain a dormant subtext in a literary novel. In crime fiction, this is rarely anything other than the text itself.

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