One of my fondest memories as both a viewer and a mystery fan occurred some years ago as I was watching the French equivalent of Good Morning America, Télématin. The show’s resident book reviewer was discussing a recently published crime novel and as is now the rule when doing so, extolled its many literary virtues at the expense of one. Viewers were told at length about how well written and socially relevant it was, how acute was the characterization et alia. They (I don’t recall the reviewer’s gender) might as well have been talking about the latest Prix Goncourt winner. The host, growing impatient, finally interrupted them to enquire about the book’s main feature as a proper crime novel, namely its plot. « That’s what we read crime novels for in the first place, don’t we? » he asked wryly, to the reviewer’s obvious bemusement. I was and still am no fan of William Leymergie, but this time I was cheering for him before my TV screen, while feeling a little sorry that we’d reach the point where such obvious points had to be made.
I’m reminded of Leymergie every time I read « serious » reviews of crime novels that carefully avoid the words « plot » and « suspense » even when discussing books that feature both, and I wonder what he or any lay reader would make of them. I’ve often commented in the past about the gap between the kind of crime fiction that people actually read and the kind that gets good reviews and wins awards; such a gap exists in almost every art form and is easily explained. General readers look for entertainment; reviewers look for originality. Sometimes their tastes converge but most of the time they don’t. Still, this gap has been widening in our field over the last decades, with critics increasingly turning their backs on the genre as traditionally practiced and understood to embrace books on purely literary, social or political grounds, regardless of whether they fit or not conventional standards, which in turn are progressively abandoned.
« Best of the Year » lists that flourish each December in the mainstream media and on specialized websites are especially revealing. Most of the items you find there are unknown to the average reader, who wouldn’t even recognize some of them as crime fiction at all. What the books are about is barely discussed – I often have to Google them to find out – and as said earlier the P-word is rarely uttered. Like their Télématin colleague, our « serious » reviewers would rather tell us about the author’s smooth prose, their beautiful use of the setting, the warm humanity of their characters and their powerful treatment of such and such theme. These are books, we are told, to be read not because they’re crackin’ good yarns but because they teach us something and make us better. Having already outgrown ingenuity, the genre is now outgrowing entertainment. Time to be serious!
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against crime fiction that is well written, with great characters and something to say. These are highly appreciable qualities for fiction of any kind – but it’s not what the genre is about, nor why (most) people read it! Crime fiction is not literary fiction with blood splatters. I am perfectly willing to read a mystery with « added literary value » and actually have done so many times in the past – but only if the mystery element is strong enough to hold my interest. I’m a genre reader, I read for fun. Also, I think a good plot is a thing of beauty in itself, not merely the literary equivalent of a hanger on which to hang one’s personal concerns and obsessions, and certainly not something to be discarded or be ashamed of.
Literary fiction is dying of its mistaken and stubborn decision to do away with any kind of plotting; let us not do the same mistake in some vain hope of « respectability ». Reviewers and readers for whom plot and pacing don’t matter at all or are things of the past really should wonder what attracted them to the genre in the first place, and whether they might not find it even better somewhere else.