I have Russel D McLean below who has shared his encyclopaedic knowledge of crime fiction to look at the status of the whole genre.
Russel D McLean
The best crime novels aren’t about solving the crime. They are not about catching the criminal. They are not about finding out Whodunnit.
There, I said it. And I know that as usual someone’s going to be shaking their head and thinking that somehow I don’t understand the genre, that in order for a crime novel to be a crime novel, it has to follow the pattern of crime committed, crime investigated, guilty punished.
Its one of the reasons I’m a little antsy about the American term for the crime novel: “a mystery”. Because the term seems restrictive, as though crime fiction is restricted to the presentation and (probable) eventually unravelling of a mystery, be it a mysterious theft or a murder or whatever.
And that’s not what crime fiction is. Sure, mystery is a valid genre, but as a subset of a wider whole. That’s my point: the Whodunnit or the traditional procedural or whatever are absolutely valid examples of the crime genre, but as part of a wider whole.
Crime fiction is about the intrusion of the morally transgressive onto the everyday. Its about how people cope in extreme situations. Its about the cause and effect of criminal acts.
And yes, sometimes that will involve a policeman or a detective tracking down criminals. But that aspect is not essential to a good crime novel.
Think about these books:
Jack’s Return Home.
The Killer Inside Me.
None of these books are about cops and robbers in the traditionally accepted sense of the idea. Yes, some of them (Jack’s Return Home, Savages and The Hunter) are about hunting down a guilty party and punishing them, but the very nature of normal good vs evil in these books is very much subverted (often one kind of criminal hunting another who has broken accepted rules of engagement, in which case the books become less of a whodunnit and more of an exploration of ethical norms, which sounds dry when you put it like that but in practice is a hugely exciting approach).
They are all about people whose lives are affected in one way or another by criminal activity. As is, say, something like Trainspotting. Yes, whether or not Irvine Welsh is willing to admit to it he is a crime writer. His books are about people who transgress the normally accepted laws of society and the consequences (good and bad) of them doing that. Its what makes the books so appealing and exciting, and yet so few people think of them as crime novels because our idea of what the crime novel is and what it can do has become restricted.
But even those that work within established parameters can be writing about more than the simple thrill of seeing the bad guys get their comeuppance. Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder books are, on the surface, accomplished PI novels that riff off a long history of the archetype, echoing works by
MacDonald and so forth. But what Block wound up doing - the thing that made his
books far more interested - was making his novels not simply about solving a
crime, but also about a place: Chandler . These books show the changing face of the
Big Apple as Scudder and the city age together. People, places and feelings
change as the novels move in more or less real time. And more than that -
because many crime novels can be about place, although few will be as evocative
as Block - they are also about alcoholism and addiction. Making Matt an
alcoholic - and dealing with that in a very emotionally honest way, exploring
what that means and allowing the reader to gain a deeper sense of a difficult
topic. Its part of what crime fiction does so well; give the reader a
rollicking story on which to lean, while dealing (often more effectively than
literary novels) with sometimes difficult topics, or opening us up to worlds we
might not know or understand (which is why I’ve never understood people who
read books only about places or thing they know; the joy of reading is being
opened up to new worlds and new ideas, even when that may make us uncomfortable
or somehow challenge us). New
It was the same with Ross MacDonald, who frequently explored family dynamics and psychology under the guise of a classic PI novel. Or James Ellroy who explodes the cliches of the hardboiled and procedural genres while exploring deep-set corruption in people and establishments, and hightighting the all-consuming power of obsession. Or - to bring it closer to home - Ian Rankin exploring Scottish politics through the medium of police procedural; dealing with real-world situations right alongside the fictional cases (I’m thinking very specifically here of when he used the G8 summit in his novels but he has of course at various fictionalised crimes that cut to the heart of the Scottish landscape). The best crime novels use the so-called constraints of genre to explore a wide variety of issues. And of course the best ones don’t offer easy answers, but challenge the readers to explore their own reactions to the story.
Crime novels - and especially msyteries, when done well - can be the ultimate red herring, in and of themselves. They can be far more than they appear. And they can be wider, deeper-reaching, than perhaps popular consensus might give them credit for.
Russel D Mclean’s J McNee novels (The Good Son, The Lost Sister and Father Confessor) are dark, violent PI tales set in Dundee Scotland that are as much about guilt, loyalty, betrayal and family as they are about very bad people doing very bad things. Visit his website at , or follow him on twitter @russeldmclean
I have just finished Father Confessor and it is a cracking read which epitomises everything he has said above. If you enjoy and agree with his post then read his book and see him put his money where his mouth is.
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