I have repeatedly pointed the similarities between crime fiction and fantasy and how both genre frequently overlap; what irremediably separates them however is that crime fiction is a deeply materialistic genre.
First because as Nick Fuller pointed out it embraces methodological materialism – the notion that natural phenomenons always have material, as opposed to supernatural, causes. That guy found strangled in his locked office was not killed by a poltergeist but by another human being; though some writers may like to tease the reader with hints of the former hypothesis it’s always – well, almost always – the latter that turns out to be the right one. As Sherlock Holmes famously quipped, summarizing the whole traditional mystery genre in the process, « No ghosts need apply ». Few crime writers dispute this, though some do (see for instance John Connolly’s introduction to his genre-bending novella « The Reflecting Eye »)
Crime fiction doesn’t just adhere to materialism on a methodological level, though: it also does on a – for lack of a better word – philosophical level. What I mean so is that crime fiction as a whole is not much interested in abstract ideas. It concerns itself primarily with the concrete, the palpable, the hic and the nunc. That’s why most of the crime fiction that aims to « say something about the world we live in » focuses exclusively on material issues; the genre is more preoccupied with political and social ills than with the Big Questions. As a result it is both more accessible to the casual reader whose main concerns it shares and less intellectually fecund than its « imaginative » cousins like fantasy or science-fiction can be in some hands.
It doesn’t have to be necessarily that way. Chesterton is a prime and admittedly somewhat solitary instance of a crime writer who used the genre to both comment on social foibles and make moral/philosophical/metaphysical/theological points. Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night , some of Ellery Queen’s books or even Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose are other examples of crime fiction that « elevate the debate » and venture into the land of ideas. They are however at best anomalies in a field which often frowns upon such initiatives because of their perceived « pretentiousness ». Keep it earthy folks, it’s just about crime.
And yet it would be great – to me at least – to have sometimes, just sometimes, crime fiction that makes you think rather than just telling you about what the author thinks about this or that subject that is in the news today. As I said in a previous post, there are many subjects that our genre doesn’t touch upon, mostly because it thinks it isn’t its job or that there are much more pressing issues to ponder. Both are false, and self-limiting – but then self-limitation is something crime fiction is very good at.