The Lost Art of Entertaining Crime Fiction

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.


13 commentaires sur “The Lost Art of Entertaining Crime Fiction

  1. I question the extent to which there is any interest in plot in the current tranche of crime fiction — it all seems based around situational suspense rather than steady development of plot. Case in point, I recently attempted to read Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh and pretty much the entire plot is on the cover of the book: « The serial killer’s not on trial…HE’S ON THE JURY ».

    Firstly, that sets up a clear suspense expectation — « Oho, I wonder how they’re going to find out about that killer on the jury! » — but secondly it removes the opportunity for a wonderful mid-book twist which could have been built towards in the manner of the best plotting the genre has allowed in the past. And it’s not just that one book: the new The Girl/Woman/Person in/on/by/with/without a/the/her/their Object tide currently floodinf the market all seem to be based around suspense much more than actual plot development…as if the reader must know exactly what to expect going in (these movie-style tag lines on book covers are a pox on the publishing industry, they really are).

    So to a certain extent, the plot is known before you even pick up the book, so that only really leaves the writing to talk about. And, in my limited experience, too little of that is worthy of comment.

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. Well, it depends on the meaning you give to « plot ». If you take it to mean that something happens in the book and is the main reason why you keep turning the pages, then such books are definitely plot-driven. If you consider however that plot equates careful construction building up to a final effect, then those books are bloody messes. The problem as I see it is that readers as whole, regardless of genre, are not after plots these days – they are after stories, and both words are by no means synonymous.

      Still, the books that you describe – and I haven’t read any of the kind, since I’m actively boycotting anything modern that deals with serial killers, the drug trade or has « Girl » in the title – have arguable claims to be crime fiction and have no higher ambition than being read… on a train and then forgotten. Completely different is the kind that I was referring to in my article – books that aim at being judged as « literature » and deliberately eschew the trappings and basic requirements of the genre as traditionally understood, and are praised – by the hundred people who read them – for that. A good example which actually prompted the writing of the article but which I didn’t link to as I didn’t intend to launch a flame war with someone I respect despite our differences, is Sarah Weinman’s Best Crime Fiction of the Year over at Buzzfeed – as I said on FB there is nothing there, nothing, that I feel like reading and the rationale behind her choices is more that of a mainstream literary critic than a mystery fan. Please go read it and tell me what you think, I find it very symptomatic of the state of « serious » crime fiction and a dire warning for the future (and the present)

      Aimé par 1 personne

      1. I definitely take your second definition of « plot » — as the verb, rather than the noun — but I appreciate the need to clarify, so thanks for raising that.

        I’ve read the list and, well, yeah, I see your point. I’m always tempted to dip my toe in a pool before pissing in it, and so I can’t dismiss any of these outright, but the rationale is very much in keeping with what genre fiction is being made to feel it should aspire to be: reflections of society, melodrama, navel-gazing pontifications on the private eye novel, etc. It’s enopugh to send me back into the arms of Raymond Chandler, except that even he is picked to death these days. I’ll stick with the obscurity of John Dickson Carr, methinks!

        Aimé par 1 personne

      1. You have put far more thought into this than the author did, Ken. No, the big twist is…leas good and more transparent than that. Though this does clear the way for you to write such a book…

        Aimé par 1 personne

  2. I share your attitude but I wonder if your theory that reviewers care about originality is true. Or even remotely true. It isn’t true of “serious” reviewers of “serious” literature. A few years ago 5 of the 6 novels shortlisted fro the Booker were novels about novelists writing a novel. I think such reviewers are instead looking for *confirmation of membership*: books that prove people like us are better than people like them.

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. Oh jeez. I just read part of the Weinman article you mentioned. Blech. But I think, perfect confirmation of *my* theory of what motivates such reviewers. Example:
      “Historical fiction, and in particular historical crime fiction, has to feel of its time and of our time. Katrina Carrasco has mastered this duality in her first novel, which introduces the gender-fluid hero and general badass Alma Rosales as she fights toe-to-toe with men, runs her part of a smuggling operation, and matches wits — and so much more — with bootlegger Nathaniel Wheeler in 1880s Port Townsend, Washington. I loved it all, from the crackling chemistry, the unapologetic sexuality (hetero and queer)”

      Aimé par 2 personnes

    2. I think such reviewers are instead looking for *confirmation of membership*: books that prove people like us are better than people like them.

      Yes, that’s very much the case. To some extent it’s always been true. Academics and critics have always felt that they were better than ordinary people in terms of intellectual sophistication and aesthetic taste. But these days they are driven to demonstrate that they are morally and politically superior to ordinary people as well.

      And of course the irony is that they demonstrate their superiority by being utterly conformist and avoiding any hint of original thought.

      Aimé par 2 personnes

  3. 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 ».

    I very much agree. And today, with the political climate in academia and the media becoming more and more stiflingly conformist, that desire for respectability becomes more overwhelming.

    And the best way to achieve respectability is to conform and to play safe. To praise the books that other critics praise. To condemn the books that other critics condemn.

    It’s also worth pointing out that science fiction tried terribly hard to achieve respectability back in the 60s and 70s. Those were the days of the New Wave, and New Wave science fiction authors strove desperately hard to be literal. It didn’t work. Science fiction continued to be despised as mere genre fiction, and those New Wave writers are now largely forgotten.

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. I wouldn’t say that all New Wave writers are now forgotten: Ballard and Aldiss are still remember and widely read, though the former tellingly gave up science fiction. I wouldn’t say either that their strategy was a complete failure; it certainly was with the general reading public but it was well received in the highbrow literary circles it targeted. Snobbery always recognizes snobbery.

      This being said, and while I find New Wave science fiction unreadable, it was at least modern in both approach and outlook. Contemporary crime fiction fails both standards; it is up to date, edgy, whatever you want but it is not modern.


      1. Contemporary crime fiction fails both standards; it is up to date, edgy, whatever you want but it is not modern.

        It is quite amusing that golden age detective fiction is more modern than contemporary crime fiction.

        Even the edginess is rather old-fashioned now. It’s like still trying to shock the bourgeoisie, which was edgy when Baudelaire did it in the 1850s. Now it’s rather sad.

        Aimé par 1 personne

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