Monday, August 19, 2013

My Bouchercon 2013 panels: John Lawton on being a "crime" writer

I first heard of John Lawton on crime fiction blogs, and I first heard him read at New York's late Partners & Crime mystery bookshop. His series protagonist, Frederick Troy, is with London's Metropolitan Police, and Lawton attends crime fiction conventions now and then. But when I wrote that Lawton reminded me more of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell or even, in spots, P.G. Wodehouse than of crime writers, a reader huzzahed all the way from Canada. He wrote, too, that he was baffled by the occasional descriptions of Lawton's books as spy novels. So, is Lawton a crime writer, or a spy writer, or what? If not, why do some people say he is? And does it matter? I sought answers from the source, and here's what Lawton had to say:
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“I can't recall any discussion with my editor at Weidenfeld – Ion Trewin, who edited all my work until the move to Grove – as to genre. Black Out had no tags. Nor did any subsequent novel. I was reviewed as either fiction or crime. It wasn't an issue. `Genre' is a tag neither to be sought nor resisted. Like a book prize – neither sought nor resisted.

“It's flattering to be told `this book transcends genre,' but it's not a phrase that holds up to scrutiny. Five nano-seconds later, you're asking yourself, `What does he/she think is inferior about genre writing?' And when toastmasters at crime gigs harp on about crime being `as good as literature,' you think, `So what?' And when a crime novel is deemed `too literary,' you think, `Ain't no such critter.'

“It's marketing ... whatever gets you on the shelves and then off the shelves and into hands. And marketing is different country to country.

“I first became aware of an `invisible' crime tag only when the CWA called in (so I was told) Riptide for consideration for the Ellis Peters Award. As I said, you don't seek it and you don't resist it. It's only an issue if you win – who in their right mind, after all, would want to sit through an award ceremony they didn't have to?

Paint and drying come to mind.

“The book after this was Sweet Sunday. Ion and I agreed this wasn't `crime.' Still ... it got reviewed as crime. But a review is a review ... not to be knocked. Better by a yard and a half than being ignored.

“And a few years later I was asked in an interview to categorize myself. I said something like ... `historical, political thrillers with a big splash of romance, wrapped up in a coat of noir.' What they're not is mysteries, and I think there is a tendency to assume that crime and mystery are synonymous. They're not.

“There are crimes in most of my novels. Occasionally unsolved. They aren't there to be `solved;' they're a propellant to drive the book along.

“Pretentious bit coming up ... I don't think I'm doing anything different from my immediate contemporaries. ... McEwan, Faulks, Amis, Hare, Turow (all born within months of me). ... In intent.

“That said, I've never written anything set in the present, and none of them has written a series around a policeman. Scott Turow is regarded as `crime' – he has no problem with this. (I asked him.) And at this point the sensible thing to say is, if Scott has no problem with `crime' neither should I.”
— John Lawton
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Here's Lawton's Web site with essays and other information about the Troy novels. Here's a New York Times review that asks: "Is there any genre convention John Lawton hasn’t boldly disregarded, often to brilliant effect? "
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John Lawton will be part of my "World War II and Sons" panel at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany, on Thursday, Sept. 19, at 4:00 p.m.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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12 Comments:

Anonymous kathy d. said...

I read John Lawton's essay, posted at his website, the background to Second Violin.

It's about anti-Semitism among the British establishment and the exiling of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, off the coast, ironically and strangely, along with Nazi sympathizers.

It's excellent. I intend to reread it. Have not yet tackled his fiction.

July 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Second Violin is the first of Lawton's novels I read; you could start there now that you have some background. And, since he leaps back and forth in time between books, you need not start at the beginning of the series.

July 16, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

What they're not is mysteries, and I think there is a tendency to assume that crime and mystery are synonymous. They're not.

Yes, isn't this a persistent annoyance? I read lots of crime fiction but few of the novels have more than an element of mystery in them, and even then, mystery is peripheral to the story. I don't ready crime fiction of the whodunit variety, i.e. introduce lots of suspects and then spend 300 pages baiting the reader with red herrings, dead ends, until the ah-ha! moment that wraps up the "mystery".

This is one reason I find it odd that so many (of the remaining) bookstores that specialize in crime fiction of all varieties contain the word "mystery" in the name of their store.

I think Lawton is one of the best writers I've read in the last decade, period. I'm willing to pick up any book written by him on almost any subject. But I will admit to a bit of melancholy to see that his latest does not contain Frederick Troy, one of the most complex and intriguing detectives I've ever encountered.

July 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't think too many people read whodunnits of the old-fashioned kind anymore, at least not in my circles. But Lawton doesn't really have much in common with non-whodunnit, non-mystery crime writes, either. He's just not a crime writer in any sense that people mean when they talk about crime writers.

I might not have learned about his work had he not been labelled a crime writer, though. I wonder if any potential readers have had the opposite exprience. That is, does the crime label keep his work under the radar of certian raders?

July 17, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

does the crime label keep his work under the radar of certain readers?

That's a good question. It would be interesting to compare the circulation statistics of his Troy novels at the Beverly Hills Public Library, where some are shelved under "Fiction" and some under "Mystery".

I see the novels are categorized under the "Genre/Form" heading in OCLS's WorlCat as "mystery fiction" and/or "historical fiction". And I love that Troy gets his own heading: Troy, Frederick (Fictitious character) -- Fiction.

July 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It would be interesting as an experiment to shelve the same title in both sections and compare circulation (or sales) figures.

July 18, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I don't think too many people read whodunnits of the old-fashioned kind anymore, at least not in my circles

My circles neither. But plenty of people (women) must be reading these things based on all the cozies featuring amateur (women) sleuths solving murders in whodunits that feature pets, the domestic arts, bed-and-breakfasts, etc. etc. that I have to paw through to find a tiny handful of Richard Prathers, John D. MacDonalds, and Dan J. Marlowes these days! Most of them have toothache-inducing sweetsie-poo titles, too.

Yes, let's pull the switcheroo on the Lawton titles and watch how the sales go up or down depending on the section of the bookstore or library they are shelved in.

July 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I claim partial credit for one of those titles!

July 18, 2012  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

Espionage is a crime...

Paul

July 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, yes. But I was even more surprised to learn that Lawton's novels are considered by some to be espionage fiction than that others consider them crime.

July 19, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

As much as I adore Wodehouse, I don't have any desire for Wodehouseian crime.

July 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, Lawton's novels are Wodehousian in just two senses: he will include an occasional (and highly effective) allusion to Wodehouse, and, more broadly, they offer incisive portraits of their times. (Yes, Wodehouse did that, too.) They are not all faces with country houses, butlers, and scaly aunts. I may drop the reference to Wodehouse lest it mislead anyone else.

July 20, 2013  

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