Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Stop the presses: Crime stories are no longer just whodunits, or crime novels that transcend transcending the genre

Professor David Schmid has posted a link to an interview whose headline announces that "there's nothing crime fiction can't do." The statement came from Ian Rankin, who proceeds to offer some interesting thoughts on his evolution as a crime novelist, notably his coming more and more to ponder what makes humans commit crimes:
“I think at first my books were whodunits, but as I got more confident about the form and about what the crime novel could do, I thought, ‘Well there’s nothing it can’t do.’ If you want to talk about politics, if you want to talk about society, if you want to talk about good and evil, if you want to talk about big moral issues, big moral questions: here’s the perfect form for doing that.” 
That's an unexceptionable thought, but why, fifty-two years after Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Roseanna first appeared, after decades and decades and decades of Dominique Manotti and Jean-Claude Izzo and Andrea Camilleri and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Didier Daeninckx and Carlo Lucarelli and Adrian McKinty and Jean-Patrick Manchette and Leonardo Sciascia and Ross Thomas and Garbhan Downey and Stuart Neville and John McFetridge and Gary Phillips and Alan Glynn, do the article's author, Daneet Steffens, and publication, Lit Hub, think crime novels' ability to do more than tell a whodunit story is so newsworthy as to be the story's main subject and the subject of its headline? And that's not even to mention, say, Georges Simenon, who probed human psychology and the margins of society long before Daneet Stevens discovered that crime stories can be more than whodunits.

This is no knock on Rankin, who singles out some of the authors on my list as noteworthy practitioners of the crime story. The problem is that Steffens and Lit Hub are either ignorant of crime novels' evolution over the past fifty or or so years, or, worse, assume that their readers are so ignorant. At least Lit Hub did not tell us that Rankin's work transcends its genre.

Much more interesting are those crime novelists whose books work as character studies and dissections of society and all those things that intellectually respectable crime novels are supposed to do these days and at the same time are so confident of their writerly chops that their books work as locked-roomed mysteries or whodunits or some other traditional form at the same time. You might say that they transcend transcending the genre.  Adrian McKinty does this in In the Morning I'll Be Gone and Gun Street Girl, part of his Sean Duffy novels.

Or take the traditional English mystery, a genre so out my wheelhouse that I was surprised when I discovered that Martin Edwards, that award-winning practitioner of and expert on traditional mysteries, dealt with certain social problems much more subtly than, say, Stieg Larsson.
"I've just opened Martin Edwards' Waterloo Sunset," I wrote a few years ago, "and I've noticed reflections on urban growth and boosterism, not to mention a character who just might be disturbingly demented. I hadn't expected this from an author who has proclaimed his allegiance to traditional mysteries. Heck, the man even named his novel for a song by the Kinks. 
What are your favorite crime novels that are thoroughly contemporary in subject and tone yet brave enough to explore traditional crime fiction forms at the same time?

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Blogger John McFetridge said...

Sam Wiebe has written a couple of very contemporary and at the same time traditional PI novels.

January 25, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I hear an especially good report on his second book.

January 25, 2017  
Blogger Dana King said...

The first person I thought of was Dennis Lehane, but with a few seconds contemplation, what you describe here was pretty much the criterion for David Simon when picking novelists to write for THE WIRE: George Pelecanos and Richard Price leaping to mind.

Joseph Wambaugh's novels feature the cops, but also probe a lot of socioeconomic causes of crime. There are plenty and they tend to be the better novels i the genre because they take Raymond Chandler's comment about Dashiell Hammett's work ("Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse;" and moves it up a notch by providing the motivations behind many of those reasons.

January 26, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Pelecanos came to mind, though I've read far more European crime writers than Americans, as my list suggests.

I'm listening to McKinty's Rain Dogs now, and there's plenty of traditional-mystery material in it amid the social and political observation and the story and the character and the jokes. I suspect the Daneet Stevenses of the world may catch on in a couple of years.

January 26, 2017  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

Fascinating post, Peter, and I very much appreciate your reference to Waterloo Sunset. When I started writing that series, a long time ago, my concept was to marry Golden Age tropes with a portrayal of a deeply troubled urban environment. What interested me was that in the 90s, all the reviews focused on the sleazy city stuff, and ignored the traditional elements. It was a bit frustrating, but there you go. One of the great things about ebooks and reprints is that a new audience gets a chance to look again at books - whether from the Golden Age or my early efforts - and perhaps to find things there that weren't immediately obvious. Which I think can be rewarding.

January 26, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I feel gratified that I got the point, then. To me, the book revealed vitality and potential that I did not know traditional mysteries possessed. I can recommend the series heartily to anyone who needs a similar lesson.

January 26, 2017  
Blogger Ron Smyth said...

John D MacDonald's series about PI Travis McGee was filled with social commentary regarding urban sprawl and environmentalism back in the sixties, though admittedly only a minor note in the books.

January 27, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have also heard that the Travis McGee books would sound a rare conservative note, or am I imagining that?

January 27, 2017  

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