Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Who needs crime fiction?

I had sat down to prepare the day's post when I realized that my copy of the novel about which I'd intended to offer some remarks for which exact quotation was necessary was some miles away, resting near the top of the literary compost heap known as my living room. In its stead I've dug up a post from this time last year that asks an always pertinent question.
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Let's stay in South Africa awhile longer. A provocative discussion in the Crime Beat section of the South African Books Live Web site asks "Is crime fiction redundant?"

Site keeper/novelist Mike Nicol writes about an e-mail exchange with the crime-fiction reviewer Gunter Blank. “I would say,” Blank  wrote, according to Nicol, “that in a society like Germany, Sweden, the US, crime fiction is becoming more and more redundant.”

“I agree it has become pretty difficult finding a decent crime novel that’s not chewing up the same ol’, same ol’." Blank added. "I mean how many serial killers, people with troubled childhoods, old Nazi criminals, heists gone awry and adultery turned murder, can you invent to keep the genre fresh?"

“In turbulent or haunted societies," according to Blank, "societies that are trying to find out who they are – there are still hundreds and thousands of lives and experiences to tell."

What do you say? Is crime fiction becoming redundant in the rich world? More relevant in the developing world? Both? Neither? If it is becoming redundant, as Blank suggests, how can it become relevant again? And if crime fiction is still relevant in "turbulent or haunted societies that are trying to figure out who they are," WHY THE HELL ARE U.S. PUBLISHERS NOT BUYING UP AND PROMOTING THE BEJABBERS OUT OF CRIME WRITING FROM NORTHERN IRELAND?

Before you chuck your Stieg Larsson box sets at Blank's noggin, head over to Crime Beat, read the Nicol-Blank exchange, then feel free to comment here, there, or both. (In addition to his provocative propositions, Blank offers an impressive list of favorite and underappreciated crime writers. The man's got good taste.)
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Read a Detectives Beyond Borders guest post from Mike Nicol. Read more from Nicol on South African crime writing, including his own. In a related blog post, It's a crime! (Or a mystery…) discusses "New clichés in crime fiction." Think dentistry.]

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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21 Comments:

Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I think that the crime boom is only getting into its stride.

The laws that surround the management of work forces worldwide alone could give an army of writers enough material for generations to come.

I still remember UB40 and wandering round with a P45 clutched in my frozen fingers as I tried to find work during the last recession.

Work is now so controlled by governments it is a wonder anybody bothers to go for it.

March 27, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

If it is becoming redundant, it is only because of the imaginations of the writers paired with the tastes of the readers. There will always be new crimes, and different ways and reasons for committing the old ones. When speaking of writing, a fresh style can make an otherwise old story feel anything but redundant.

Anyone who thinks crime writing in developed countries is the same old same old needs to read some different crime writers. They're out there, and they're very good.

March 27, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I'm also chafing under same-old, same-old novels. Part of the reason for them is that they are safe bets to sell, so writers keep cranking them out and publishers publish them. The customer decides that sort of thing, and customers like to know what they are getting. They don't like to be blind-sided by novelty.

Every single success story has instant imitators. I think most serial-killer thrillers are utterly simple-minded and predictable. That doesn't mean they don't sell like hotcakes (yes,cliche).

What's a new cliche, by the way? How many of a particular type of book will it take before you can call it a new cliche? The "noir" thing has been going for a very long time.

I think critics will have to become more outspoken in the future if they want to stem the tide of look-alikes.

March 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tales, that's a provocative comment. I think that Blank says political thrillers still have much life and potential left in them. Management of workforces as a subject of crime novels? Dominique Manotti sometimes approaches that.

March 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, take a look at Gunter Blank's lists of favorite and underappreciated crime writers. I think you'll agree he has an eye for good, interesting crime writing past and present. Also, I'd think about pairing the business practices of publishers in with the imaginations of authors and tastes of readers.

March 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., it's a fact not often discussed that economies of scale wind up limiting consumer choice. I think you nailed down some of the reasons for this. Henry Ford said: "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black." Today's consumers, even in the globalized world, are limited in similar ways.

A new cliche is a device that has been around a long time but only newly admitted to cliche status. I'm not sure there's an Academie de Cliche that decides who and what makes it.

Amen on critics. Gunter Blank has made a good start, and I like what Adrian McKinty and Declan Burke have to say about the state of crime writing.

March 27, 2012  
Anonymous Tim Mayer said...

I'd like more spy fiction. Damn that Cold War for ending!

March 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tim, some discussion I just read, maybe the Nicols-Blank one, suggested that Chinese movement into Africa would be the new fertile ground for spy fiction -- that, rather than Islamist terrorism.

March 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tim: Here’s that speculation about where new thrillers and espionage novels will come from.

March 27, 2012  
Anonymous aaron said...

I believe that the thing to keep in mind-in crime fiction as well as anything else- is that 95% of everything is garbage. The trick is to find the authors who do have something to say and are able to say it well. And given the history of crime fiction, from the sensation novels of the 1860s and 70s (Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood, Charles Reader) and their immediate predecessors in Dickens and the gothic novels up through the Golden Age (Sayers, Christie, Marsh) and then to the hard boiled school before veering off to the metaphysical mysteries of Pynchon and Auster, this is an enormous amount of great material. And I haven't even included non-English crime novels from the likes of Vidoq and Dostoevsky! Or the infinite Sherlock reboots! Or any of the great international fiction represented in this blog! TV has only exacerbated this crime overload, though I choose not to watch TV because life is too short so I have no cogent examples to offer...

My point is that, given this incredible amount of work in a genre that still sells well (and is sold to consumers), crime fiction must still be relevant. It would not sell if it were not speaking to some fundamental aspect of the human condition. But, the down side is that because it sells, there will of course be a legion of imitators and hacks who want to make a quick dollar. And that is okay, because it is a capitalist society...I have certainly enjoyed some less-than-great crime fiction, but haven't we all at some point? We all get to spend time finding our really great 5% material.

And, finally, why is both the list of great reads and underappreciated reads entirely by men, and vastly by Americans? I would hope that a critic, who ostensibly spends time with some great writers, would also know of a greater variety of authors (okay, one is Italian and Himes is black, but still!). I am happy to give any writer a try, so I'll look into them nonetheless.

March 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, those damned chauvinist American-loving Germans.

The thought had never occurred to me until this moment, but odds are that any list that purports to take in crime fiction since the dawn of its history might well tend to include disproportionate numbers of books and authors from the countries where that history began: the United States, France, and England.

March 27, 2012  
Anonymous aaron said...

Ha! I guessed that he was German, extrapolating from the name of his newspaper/magazine, but I wasn't entirely certain. And I like to think that someone who is reading the volume of material that a critic reads would have a wider variety in sheer numbers if nothing else. I have been wanting to read Jim Nisbet anyway as he seems like a good writer, although the word "noir" is becoming anathema for me as its applied to everything, it seems, that contains a crime or even an especially dark shadow, for that matter! And of course crime fiction sells...just look at the number of mainstream and literary authors also writing it. I just love the blurb that T.S. Eliot gave Collins' The Moonstone: (It) is the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels" (1928). He wasn't a noted crime fiction aficionado, and I'm not certain that "longest" is quite the superlative Eliot felt it to be, and Bleak House was published some 10 years prior to Collins' novel (although it isn't solely a crime novel, there is a detective), so I guess even the greatest critics are human beings too...go figure.

March 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I haven't seen Gunter Blank's passport, but I assume from his name and that of his newspaper that he could be German. In fact, he could be, who knows? Swiss, Lichensteinian, or from alpine Italy.

I, too, roll my eyes at the overuse of noir. When a story strikes me as noir, it is usually rife with such elements as doom, to which the protagonist goes inevitably, often knowingly or even with a certain fatalistic relish. In hard-boiled, a character may die. In noir, that character won't get the easy way out that is death.

March 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aaron, you ought to track down Ed Pettit, the Phlly Poe guy. He's big on Poe, Dickens, George Lippard, and so on. He has a blog; look for it.

March 27, 2012  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

There is still a lot of crime fiction from the States and abroad that is fresh and new. It takes intelligence, creativity and good writing -- and, of course, publishers willing to give new authors and global writers a chance.

Just read The Devotion of Suspect X, an inventive story, which also deals with human relations. Also read Leonard Rosen's All Cry Chaos, interesting, riveting.

If readers are willing to take chances reading-wise and publishers are willing to take risks, then there would be a lot of good books.

There are political issues to deal with. Henning Mankell's The Man from Beijing was rife with issues. There are also lots of financial ones in this time of economic crisis, globalization, stock markets, hedge funds, insider trading, losses of billions of dollars and more.
IMF and EU intrigues are also potential plot lines.

Somehow Sjowall and Wahloo found interesting issues, and there are a lot of world developments since their writings.

There is a lot to say; just need good writing and willing publishers.

April 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And willing readers.

And this, by the way (unless someone sneaks in ahead of me), is this blog's 30,000th comment.

April 07, 2012  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I was thinking there was nothing new under the crime fiction sun, but then I read 7 Ways to Kill a Cat by Matias Nespolo. It's set in Buenos Aires and it's definitely outside the norm in current crime fiction. My review.

March 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. You're right to note that much crime fiction is called noir, and I'd add that the description is often no more that a marketing stance.

That's an interesting gambit Nespolo makes in the novel's opening paragraph. Noir, or violence-porn? If nothing else, I'll want to keep reading to find out.

March 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should remind readers that Gunter Blank, whose discussion with Mike Nicol sparked this post, suggested, according to Nicol, “that in a society like Germany, Sweden, the US, crime fiction is becoming more and more redundant.” So Blank might nod with approval at a crime novel from violent barrios in Buenos Aires.

March 26, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Blogger ate my previous attempt at a comment, so here it goes again.

Perhaps the cliche is correct: there is nothing new under the sun.

Therefore, perhaps the next singularity in crime fiction will show itself in science fiction with a crime being committed and solved in a galaxy far, far away. It is simply logical.

Your readers (commentators) could now graciously fill in the blank by letting us know that _____________________ is the next new thing in a blend of SF and crime fiction. Live long a prosper!

March 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Greetings from the dimension where your previous comments disappeared

I suspect readers might name China Mieville as the next new thing in a blend of crime and fantasy, if not science fiction.

I've written before that I gave up thinking about the next big thing a little while after the Beatles grew up. But I can say that novelty in crime fiction can be that of location (Matt Rees, for one, has written about the problematic position of crime writing as we know it in the Palestinian world, and Yasmina Khadra uses it as a vehicle to write about the dark, dark world of Algiers) or subject matter. Declan Burke has an interesting post up at Crime Always Pays about a reader's inquiry concerning prostitution and the lack thereof in Irish crime writing.

March 27, 2013  

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