Saturday, March 20, 2010

Crime fiction a great way of looking at society? I agree with Ian Rankin, and here's why...

Following on from my post earlier in the week on Crime fiction as a window on culture and society, later in the week eminent Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin gave an interesting interview with German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, which touched on some similar issues (hat tip to Graham Beattie of the excellent Beattie's Book Blog, and fellow EuroCrime reviewer Maxine Clarke, who also pens the crime-centric Petrona blog)

Ahead of a stop at Cologne literary festival LitCologne, the best-selling crime novelist spoke with Breandain O'Shea, about crime writing versus literary writing - and why they're not so different after all. You can read the full interview here.

When Liam McIlvanney (ALL THE COLOURS OF THE TOWN) was talking to me last year about the way in which it was Scottish crime writers, rather than literary writers, who had actually addressed the major changes in Scottish society during the 1980s and 1990s, he was of course referring in large part to Ian Rankin, and those that have followed the man considered by many as being at the very forefront of the 'explosion in Scottish crime writing'. As an interesting aside, Rankin himself actually credits McIlvanney's father William (a renowned 'literary writer', and author of the 'Laidlaw' series of detective novels) with being a key influence on his own writing.

"In the case of Scotland you had the added dimension that throughout the 1980s and the 1990s we had a growing campaign for a Scottish parliament," said Liam McIlvanney. And in that context, you had the feeling that there wasn’t a proper political forum for these issues to be aired and interrogated, and in a sense it was crime fiction that played quite a potent role, in that it gave the reader a place in which those political issues were explored."

Rankin says something similar in his interview with Deutsche Welle: "the best crime fiction today is actually talking to us about the same things big literary novels are talking about."

And this is something that I think is key; crime writing of course can be frivolous and fun, quick-reading light entertainment that is read, enjoyed, and forgotten. But it can also be about more than just the uncovering of a murderer, or the solving of a crime. Like Shakespeare, who wrote stories for the people (ie, 'popular' fictions), entertaining them with plot and character while providing enough underlying themes and insights into society and humanity that we'd still be talking about it in millions of classrooms all over the world several centuries later, modern day crime writers can, as Dennis Palumbo so eloquently put it, 'hold a mirror up to society'.

Crime writers shouldn't be treated as second-class citizens, to be looked down upon by the literati and academia as producing something 'less worthy'. For in fact, it is through popular storytelling that humans have always best learned about the world around them.

As a non-crime example, growing up as a teen in the 1990s, I honestly think that some of the best books addressing racial prejudice that I ever read, were not 'literary fiction', but the New York Times bestselling fantasy novels of R.A. Salvatore. Salvatore has a main character that is traditionally from an 'evil' side of the fantasy world racial divide (a dark elf), but is in fact good-hearted, loyal, courageous, and all of the things that the the heroes in fantasy novels usually are.

So in amongst the exciting storylines, battle scenes, and adventure, Salvatore also often touches on issues of racial discrimination and prejudice. Despite who he really is, the main character (Drizzt Do'Urden) is regularly faced with those who judge him based solely on the colour of his skin, and the reputation of those who 'look like him'. Salvatore doesn't write a book solely dealing with racial discrimination; he writes an exciting, plot-based tale that readers will love, while also weaving in such issues. And this is what the best crime writers do.
More than fifteen years on from reading my first Salvatore book starring his iconic dark elf, I may have forgotten exactly how each book ended, or the details of the plots, but what Drizzt had to go through, and how he approached a world filled with prejudice towards him, have stayed with me. I learned plenty about Martin Luther King, slavery, the treatment of colonial peoples, and modern-day ehtnic issues such as the Bosnian and Rwandan conflicts, throughout my many years of schooling (along with my general curiosity about the world, which leads to ongoing reading about all number of issues, etc). But I honestly think in some ways I learned almost as much from following the tales of a dark elf fighting his way through a fantasy land.

In my opinion, popular writers often address such issues even better than many so-called literary writers, because their books are about more than just society, and such issues. They are also interesting and exciting stories - through which issues and societal insights are shared. And in that way, some part of those insights (like Shakespeare), will stick with you long after the pages have closed. The best literary writers, of course, do this exceptionally well also. It's just that many others who are tagged as 'literary', and so automatically placed on a pedestal by some, shouldn't be quite so quick to look down their noses at their crime-writing cousins.

Or as Rankin says in his recent interview: "It was a problem for me in the early days, but only because I studied literature at university. I was doing a PhD in literature when I started writing my first Rebus novel. I wasn't that fond of crime fiction. I just happened to think a detective was a good way of looking at society, and of exploring a city. So when the first book was published and it went in the crime shelves, I went, "What the hell is this?" and I moved it to the literature section. I wanted it beside the people I was studying - Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark. But then I started to read crime fiction, and I liked it… Everything I wanted to say about the world, I could say within the crime format. So I thought, "Why the hell not?"

Indeed, everything you want to say about the world, you can say via crime fiction. And have your readers excited to turn the page, and learn more about not only what happens in the story, but the world it is set in. Our world.

Why the hell not?
Thoughts and comments welcome.


  1. Craig - Bravo! Crime fiction is a reflection of the real world - or at least, well-written crime fiction is. So crime fiction authors are in an excellent position to comment on any aspect of, as Douglas Adams put it, "life, the universe, and everything." The crime format also allows for an engaging plot and a mystery, which quite often capture the reader's imagination. It's a very conducive context for any kind of message that the author wants to send.

    I might also mention that there are so many sub-genres of crime fiction that readers are likely to find at least some crime fiction that appeals to them. So it's got a much wider appeal than some more traditional "literary" genres. That makes the discussion, if you will, open to more people. To me, that's a good thing, too.

  2. Excellent point Margot - there are so many types of crime fiction now, from cosy mysteries, to hardboiled, to serial killer thrillers, to psychological, to amateur sleuth, to literary - and they're all different not just in terms of content, but also style, theme etc. It's a wondrous cornucopia of choices