The Myth of « Crime fiction »

As a fan and amateur historian and critic, I have always found terminology to be of paramount importance. You can thus envision my frustration when it comes to settle on a name for the genre, either in French or in English – especially in English. I have used them all, from the Gallic « Polar » to the American « Mystery » to the British « Crime novel » without ever finding one that truly satisfies me as they fail to paint an accurate portrait of the thing they claim to describe. « Mystery » in particular is deeply misleading as it applies equally to books that deal with mysteries and those that don’t. « Polar » is used so casually and interchangeably, often by people that have no clue about the genre, that it is ultimately meaningless. « Crime novel » is paradoxically both more accurate and less specific as it allows any book dealing with crime to some extent to be labeled as such. When you hear about « science-fiction », « horror », « fantasy » or « western » you know more or less what to expect; there is no such thing with our genre, which is arguably one of the most diverse of all and thus the most difficult to summarize with one word.

Hence why the terminology suddenly becomes so specific when it comes to its many varieties. Each specialty or so has its own name, from whodunits to noir to psychological suspense to hardboiled to whatever you like. The amateur thus often refers to his favourite stuff not by its generic name but that of the subgenre. When someone tells you they’re into locked-room or P.I. mysteries you have a clear idea of what they like. Only readers with catholic tastes (they do exist but they are rare) scholars or professional critics do read or claim to read « polars/mysteries/crime novels » without any qualification.

As I said above I have used then discarded every possible generic name for the genre on this blog in the past. From now on however I will no longer use any. The reason for this move is quite simple: I no longer believe they describe something real – in other words, I don’t believe anymore in the existence of a single, unified genre called « polar », « littérature policière », « crime fiction », « mystery » or any other name is in use in your culture.

I first made my ideas clear in a French-language article that I posted this Monday and was well received by the few readers of mine that could read it. Since the majority of my readership hail from English-speaking countries or at least are more familiar with the Bard’s idiom than Molière’s, I will now restate my case for them.

« The genre » – let’s call it so for now – is an artificial construction, like most genres but to an even higher degree. Genres rarely choose their own names; they rarely choose to be genres at all. Most of them are accidental creations. Mary Shelley had no idea she paved the way for science-fiction when she wrote Frankenstein and Edgar Allan Poe would probably have been baffled at the posterity of his « tales of ratiocination ». Only when their progenies were important – and popular – enough did critics then writers themselves feel the need to give them names, not just because they wanted to be specific but to make clear that they were not part of the mainstream – that they were something else: Genres like dogmas exist both to describe and exclude. In drawing the lines they often ignored the different origins and traditions of the works and writers they lumped together; they went for the lowest common denominator and for « crime fiction » it was, predictably, crime. The resulting « genre » was actually basically two genres, completely different and in many respects antagonistic – and yet grouped together in a single entity because they both happen to deal with criminous events.

On the one side we have crime fiction taken in its literal meaning – fiction that concerns itself with crime, seen from the viewpoint of criminals. It is the oldest of the two, harking back to the story of Abel and Cain and was not initially seen as a separate genre. The Literary Canon is rife with violent deaths and murderers from Macbeth to Julien Sorel. As often/always happens the necessity for a new category to fit such works emerged when they ceased to be the exclusive province of « respectable » writers and became the stuff of popular, i.e. bad, fiction. Even then it is probably the form of the « genre » most readily embraceable and embraced by the mainstream with its emphasis on character over plot and comparatively straightforward narratives reminiscent of literary fiction.

On the other side is the genre most of us have in mind when talking about « the genre »: the mystery. It also deals with criminal events but seen from the outside from the viewpoints of people either in charge of elucidating them or that are affected by them. Whereas the identity of the criminal and their motives are established from the start in « traditional » crime fiction, the mystery hides them from the characters and the reader and the narrative hinges on their uncovering, preferably but not exclusively by purely rational means. Though some scholars have tried to trace it to the Arabian Nights or Voltaire’s Zadig, the genre’s ancestry is far more recent, its roots broadly being in the clash of two literary movements, the Gothic novel that provided the basic core of seemingly supernatural or apparently inexplicable events receiving a rational explanation in the end, and Romanticism with its cult of the Poet as a solitary and eccentric genius that alone can see things that the hoi polloi cannot see, a figure that the genre reworked into that of the Great Detective. While it evolved over the years from near abstraction to relative greater surface realism, the genre in all of its incarnations has always retained the same problem-investigation-solution structure; while they loathed each other, John Dickson Carr and Raymond Chandler ultimately belonged in the same tradition and Agatha Christie and Ian Rankin are not as different as you might think at first sight.

Now the fact that both genres are fundamentally different doesn’t mean they can’t breed for they did, mostly in the sense of influencing each other. Mysteries became darker and more « realistic » with a greater attention paid to characterization. Crime fiction on the other hand became more convoluted and even welcomed some detection on its edges on occasion. Still, their aims and methods are at odds and to insist that they belong together, while convenient for marketing purposes, makes no sense and ends being more confusing than actually enlightening. There is no way you can honestly say that Ellery Queen and Vin Packer or Jacques Futrelle and Jim Thompson were colleagues unless you define « crime fiction » so broadly as to open its doors to everybody and everything that has to do with someone being killed. That’s indeed what some in the community would like to do, and that’s why you find them downplaying Poe’s importance or primacy while inviting the likes of Balzac, Dostoyevsky and Zola to the table, not to mention handing out awards to writers whose relationship to the genre is sketchy at best. The French have been early pionneers of that approach, and now it seems to be increasingly popular abroad too.

Mine is, not surprisingly, different. That genres were initially ghettoes locked from the outside don’t mean that we should renounce them and/or welcome everyone that knocks at our door. I’m not fond of identity as a political or philosophical concept, but I believe every genre and subgenre’s integrity and individual features should be preserved and when needed fought for. Mystery fiction is not crime fiction. Crime fiction is not mystery fiction. Mistaking one for the other and lumping both under a single name does none good. A friendly divorce would be the ideal solution but I can’t see it in the near future. Perhaps the French for once have found the right way by insisting that there is not one but several « littératures policières ». Anyway someone has to come up with a way to make some sense of that Czechoslovakia of a genre that is « crime fiction ».

3 commentaires sur “The Myth of « Crime fiction »

  1. Genre is a fairly inaccurate labelling at the best of times — alas, I can’t agree that picking up even a « science fiction » novel gives you that accurate an idea of what you’re about to encounter: it could be Frankenstein, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Caves of Steel.

    More importantly, do we really need (or expect) a single, catch-all term to describe everything inside the possible scope of such a loose association? I prefer to read what I call « detective fiction », but will stoop to an inverted mystery or an adventure story if it contains elements of crime and detection. If there’s a two-word phrase that covers — accurately — everything in a single genre, that genre would probably be prone to huge repetition and boring after reading three books in it…

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  2. At least one trouble with classifications is that they are human constructs rather than absolutes and depend therefore on the person who is making the determination as to what belongs where. Take for example a diamond and a piece of coal. They are both made of carbon and so a person interested in where they belong on a periodic table finds them the same. Another person who cares only about their use in a ring for his fiance would be ill advised to make the same determination.

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  3. I agree with your problem-investigation-solution triad. Good inverteds still have that: much of the plot and the interest involve the finding or hiding of clues/traces. Stendahl’s Red and Black is my favorite novel, but it is not a mystery because it isn’t about what is unknown and how it can be made known — your triad. A good PI novel, like the Chill, is.
    I like term “mystery”. The essence is after all that there is a mystery to be solved.

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