Crime pays has long been the adage within the publishing world. Check out the bestseller lists and you’ll soon see why. Yet writing good crime fiction (and within that broad arena we can consider and incorporate all manner of sub-genres from the police procedural to the high impact, high action thriller, from the logistical to the psychological, even to the physiological) is really not very easy, and certainly not at all simply formulaic, despite an abundance of preconceptions.

What’s more, crime fiction (broadly) can be as literary and certainly as urgent and relevant as so-called literary fiction. Labels, in a way, only serve to get in the way. And yet labels will persist, especially when it comes to crime and genre fiction, even though, arguably, literary fiction has become a genre all of its own. It’s not just the publishers’ and marketers’ fault, or the teachers’ and writers’ fault for that matter, but a greater need, I believe, when it comes to fictional narratives, or ‘fictions’ if you like, for the reader, and actually the writer, to have some idea of not just positioning, but what to expect (and where to go) – down that mean street, as Raymond Chandler would have it (The Simple Art of Murder,1950), or into, as E M Forster liked to think, some part mystical realm where lies the heart of literary creation (Aspects of the Novel,1927).

But busting boundaries and preconceptions and certainly genres is where the real business or art of real writing should of course actually lie, however bloody or dirty you get. My own writing (and my teaching) has become increasingly concerned with this (thorny/barded/spiked/loaded – you name it) issue. It began almost imperceptibly, though markedly: my long, slow shift from soft, provincial (albeit dysfunctional) countryside and manners, to harsh, unreliable, metropolitan neuroses (possibly psychopathy). Frankly my fictional body count started to build well before I realised my work could possibly be described as crime fiction. Indeed, it wasn’t until a review of one of my novels appeared in a crime and thriller round-up, that I had any idea that I might have actually slipped into a (Patricia) Highsmithian dark side.

What indeed this might mean, however, has become something like a cause, or at least a question, I find I’m continually addressing to not just my work, or the work of my students, but almost everything I read. Actually, and for what it’s worth, I think I’m a (broadly) literary writer, interested in aspects (primarily psychological) of crime, though also and conceivably and in contradiction very much humour and satire too, and so on. What really still turns me on as a writer, reader and teacher, is the sentence, how it’s constructed, where it falls, what it says. And then on and out from there – how a narrative, a world is created, and under what urgency and vitality, and dare I say uniqueness.

However, while labels and subgenres exist and indeed continue to be created, it’s always helpful to cast about for like-minded souls, or commentary that might aid or at least abut my/your cause (which is really a question, the key question to me, and one that’s wholly bound up with intent, though intent being subtly different from positioning). Of course this topic, the literary/genre divide, has been debated one way or another forever. What gives it any more currency right now is the fact that (so-labelled) crime and thriller fiction is so staggeringly popular, with sales in the UK alone up by 80 per cent over the last 10 years, while general, and so-labelled ‘literary’ fiction has started to slide quite noticeably.

Lee Child, the UK’s most successful crime and thriller writer, with worldwide sales of over 40 million for his Jack Reacher novels, is particularly vocal on the great rift (as he sees it); perhaps exhibiting a certain amount of not bravado, but actually insecurity on his part. ‘To have us judged by the literary establishment, is like a dog being judged by a flea,’ he’s said. ‘We’re doing our thing and they are doing their thing – ours is very big and theirs is very small. They [literary writers] know that we could write their books but they can’t write ours.’ Is Child really suggesting that literary writers are stuck in a limbo of self-indulgent freedom, while genre/crime writers have other, more immediate and approachable concerns, not to mention acute literary talent? Maybe. Certainly he believes, as he’s stated more than once, that literary writers don’t get ‘what it takes to create suspense and evolve a story, with a non-stop, seamless narration’.

And yet good crime writing, good genre writing, like all good writing, isn’t just about non-stop, seamless narration. Shouldn’t be. Can’t be.

What seems to rankle both literary and genre writers most is the idea that neither can change their approach, their intent, and that they’re somehow stuck with what they were born to do, and that one (usually, canonically the literary) form is more important than the other. As E. M. Forster famously said (in that book), ‘There is no rule relating to the novel which a genius can’t circumvent . . . The process of creation remains mysterious.’ In other words there’s this unquantifiable abstract governing ultimate literary endeavour, while genre narratives are more ‘formulaic’, relying on rules and givens.

Perhaps surprisingly (though not if you know him), from the literary corner, we have crime champion John Banville, who’s not too taken with much literary fiction nowadays. He believes it to be weak, that the novel here and in Europe is in the ‘doldrums’. ‘The modernist experiment is over,’ he’s claimed. But what excites him is crime fiction – something he himself has turned to under the pen name Benjamin Black. While he argues that an important novel has to be about life, not just language, he also believes that the current popularity of the crime novel has a lot to do with the reassertion and enjoyment of the traditional literary values of plot, character and dialogue.

Perversely, crassly even, others might argue it’s to do with a portrayal of ever more graphic violence coupled with a ravaged sensibility – that we actually get off on this stuff, as it’s a little more extreme and thrilling than our daily lives. There’s no doubt that many leading crime and thriller titles are extraordinarily violent. Do we really live in such violent times? Can these works at all be considered some sort of social barometer, important even, beyond any literary context?

It has been said that a crime novel has to have a crime in it, but just because a novel has a crime in it doesn’t mean it’s a crime novel, and that what it comes down to is craftsmanship, and particularly now making the crimes life-like. In other words, there has to be an authenticity to the action, the place and the time. But, to me, this should be no less important for a non-crime orientated, realist ‘literary’ novel. Realism might be the ultimate point; it is for me, a loather of anything purporting to be magic realism, anyway.

Interestingly, and stretching the point of realism, there is a key difference between ‘literary’ true crime and ‘literary’ (or any other for that matter) crime fiction. Fiction, of whatever register, necessitates a moral stance and organisation, or if you like artistry. And that it therefore should somehow always aim to rise above the purely factual, purely graphic fray. As Martin Amis once memorably wrote (The Moronic Inferno, 1986): ‘Facts cannot be arranged to give them moral point. There can be no art without moral point. Otherwise, when the reading experience is over, you are left, simply, with murder – and with the human messiness and futility that attends all death.” He was specifically arguing against the literary merit of true-life crime stories, or narrative non-fiction, as produced so memorably by Truman Capote (In Cold Blood, 1965) and Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song, 1980). In a not dissimilar vein, you could argue that the literary merit of any overly violent fiction is compromised by the shear tedious fact that it’s simply there to remind us of mankind’s infinite capacity for brutality and sadism, and our horrible appetite for lapping it up.

Good crime fiction and extreme violence most definitely need not go hand in hand, however you want to use a moral point, or a moral compass (if you like) to drive the narrative, and wherever indeed you want to place some notion of redemption (an old ally of the ‘genre’). For good crime fiction – and perhaps this is where a literary distinction, or analogy might arise (though shouldn’t in my realist mind) – to be ultimately effective, it simply has to ring true, with the authenticity of intent more important than any accuracy of procedure or description (it’s fiction after all). A good novel (in my mind), and here comes/should answer the literary question, is about life not just language, however the crime’s positioned. A good novel, of any form and true intent, also requires exquisite craftsmanship.

Dorothy Sayers notoriously wrote in the introduction to her first Omnibus of Crime (1929), that the detective story ‘does not and by hypothesis never can attain the loftiest level of literary achievement’. She went on to say that this was because it was a ‘literature of escape’ and not a ‘literature of expression’. This outraged Raymond Chandler for one, who always championed the need to depict life in all its messiness. ‘Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality – there are no dull subjects, only dull minds,’ he wrote in The Simple Art of Murder.

Interestingly, pertinently, agelessly he went on to talk about man’s need to escape reality every so often: ‘Everyone must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings.’ Chandler believed, not solely in the detective story by any means, but that all reading, for pleasure at any rate, is a form of escape.

What Chandler hated most about detective (or genre) fiction were how so many authors, Agatha Christie being a prime example, tried to impose such artificial patterns and wooden characters on the plot. For him realism (or life) starting with dialogue was key. He never forgot that most murders were unplanned, often random, and were indicative of a certain flavour of life (and death) found in a certain neighbourhood. He never forgot too, the victim, and that murder is an act of infinite cruelty. And that solving it is no parlour game, conducted by fop called Lord Peter Wimsey (Dorothy L. Sayers’ long-serving sleuth). For Chandler, and myself I began to realise – the more I looked into a genre I’d suddenly been associated with – the formal or classic mystery that poses a formal or exact problem around which neatly labelled clues are arranged, couldn’t be more removed from reality and the beating heart of what makes a murder, a crime story really lift off the page.

What’s more Chandler was quite categorical about one other thing. ‘Brutality is not strength,’ he proclaimed. He never once relied on cheap, graphic gore. He was interested primarily in investigating human conflict. The significance of his work and the significance of all decent crime fictions rely on the fact that, as he put it, quite possibly the tensions in a novel of murder are the simplest and yet most complete of the tensions on which we live in this generation – or, one could add, any generation.

Though for these crime stories to be believably escapist, to contain any true significance, and thus real power and depth (and we can incorporate literary worth in here if we want, and I do manifestly, believing that that ultimately comes from not just language but life and how you capture it), there has to be a brilliantly observed and understood sense of reality. (I always thought Gabriel Garcia Marquez was hugely overrated and badly misunderstood.)

Well conceived and well-executed, and wrongly (in my mind) labelled escapist or for that matter genre fiction (like all serious fictional narratives) doesn’t rely on raw, bloody fantasy, woefully contrived plotting, let alone a desensitised aesthetic, but acute perceptiveness, and a willingness to explore the human mind in all its flux. Which of course is where the tension, and any page-turning drive should really come from – the human mind, not the human heart, you could say. There’s entertainment and then there’s entertainment (not that Graham Greene thankfully really knew the difference). Escapism, and escapism. Or if you want realism and realism.

Nevertheless, all good writing should (in an ideally non-commercial, yet realistically believable world) both transcend any genre or label, yet be incorporated in something bigger called, for the moment anyway, literary. I’m happy with that (finally, perhaps), happy too to continue the journey, regardless of whether there is light or darkness at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, as if one could even determine such a thing (thinking of you, unavoidably, E. M. Forster).

Oh, and actually there is one other thing, which of course shouldn’t really be important, but seems as ever unavoidable. I once asked Elmore Leonard (for me, the greatest crime writer on the planet) why he first went down those fictional mean streets, especially as he’s always credited Hemingway as his greatest literary influence. ‘Money,’ he said. Like he had a choice, an artistic choice.


Originally in Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA

AuthorHenry Sutton