Crime Fiction Is People!

by J.D. Rhoades

Back when I was in college (UNC-Chapel Hill), I took some classes in the creative writing curriculum. At the time, I was writing short stories in the genres I loved: science fiction and mystery. My professor was rather sniffy about genre fiction. Mystery, he claimed, was a lesser form of writing because it relied on puzzles and on “tricking” the reader. But he reserved his special scorn for science fiction. Sci-fi, he claimed, could not be real literature, depending as it did on gimmicks and deus ex machina. But, I protested, what about Kurt Vonnegut? What are Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle if not science fiction? He just smiled indulgently and told me that Vonnegut wasn’t really a science fiction writer, he just used the conventions of the genre in literary fiction.

I could have strangled the man. Some days, I’m amazed that I didn’t.

It’s an old and irritating prejudice: genre fiction can’t possibly be real literature. If it’s good enough to be real literature, it’s not genre fiction. I was pondering this recently while reading a book lent to me by a friend, Tim O’Brien’s 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods.

By any measure, this is a mystery story: Kathy Wade, the wife of failed Senatorial candidate John Wade, has disappeared from the cabin where the couple went to regroup after the collapse of the campaign. Did he kill her? Did she run off? Did she die by accident? As the story unfolds, the crimes of Wade’s past come to light. It’s a riveting book, gripping from the first page to the last. It’s brilliantly and evocatively written. And, as I said, clearly a mystery, or, to be even more accurate, crime fiction. Yet in none of the reviews or accolades I’ve read for this book is it referred to as such. That, I suppose, would make it less literary. Less serious.

As Nero Wolfe would say, Pfui.

Another book I’ve read and loved recently is Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing, which I got for Christmas.

Like In the Lake of the Woods, The Most Dangerous Thing deals with the repercussions of an old crime that casts a long and blighted shadow down through the lives of five childhood friends. It’s a fantastic book, filled with complicated and realistic (and seriously screwed up) characters. The prose is simply stunning. I’d put this book up against any so-called ‘literary’ fiction you’d care to name.

Laura, bless her, is unapologetic about calling her books crime fiction. And yet, inevitably, some reviewer has to come along and claim that her work, or some other other work of crime fiction, or sf, or romance “transcends genre”, because it’s well-written, as if being good disqualifies it from being genre.

These works don’t transcend genre; they show us how good the genre can be. They do that because the authors realize that, at their heart, these are stories not about crimes, but about the people affected by them. It’s not the mystery that pulls us in, it’s the people. It’s not the mysteries that bring us back to series characters like Casey Jones, Robin Hudson, Simon Shaw, et. al.; it’s the characters themselves, and often the supporting cast.

Don’t get me wrong, plot is important. But plot alone without characters you care about is…well, it’s exactly the sort of crap that my professor looked down on. And characters without plot…well, it’s exactly the sort of crap that all to often passes for literary fiction these days.

Tell us, if you would, about some books you’ve read that weren’t called mysteries—but should have been. Or some books that you think, in the words of critic Oline Cogdill, don’t “transcend” the genre, but instead elevate it.

6 thoughts on “Crime Fiction Is People!”

  1. As someone who went through a similar experience at UNC-Chapel Hill’s creative writing program, I am of course DYING to know who that professor was. Could have been any one of four, in my time, however.

    Thank you for giving examples as part of this post. Those two books make your case every bit as eloquently as you did.

    I have never been able to figure out what why so many contemporary writers who pen bestsellers praised for their insight and style can write book after book centered around a crime, and yet not be labeled as crime fiction writers, while others are slotted into a genre position. Caleb Carr is a good example. He writes hysterical mysteries, really, but is not labeled as such. Meanwhile, I could name three writers whose books are labeled as historical mysteries who capture Carr’s favorite era better than he does. And it would be very easy to give you examples of literary bestsellers that I thought were no better and no worse than the dozens of crime fiction books issued that same month. But it’s harder for me to name crime fiction authors who deserve more celebrated status. Quite honestly, just as few mainstream fiction writers achieve great heights, I find very few crime fiction writers do either. But many of us have flashes of it in our books, those moments when we stumble upon some great insight about being human and say it eloquently. I’m honestly not trying to pander when I say that your short story in the DEAD OF WINTER anthology broke my heart at times because it painted such a true and evocative picture of what it feels like to be one of the down-and-outs, with nowhere to go but down and nothing to grab onto to slow your descent. Showing what it’s like to walk in the shoes of those who are different from, yet somehow show that we are nonetheless all connected, is the very best a writer can do, IMO,

    There are some full-length books, though, that have knocked my hat in the creek and I am appalled I cannot think of them off the top of head! My excuse is that I am deep in a manuscript at the moment and trying desperately just to remember the names of my characters. I am going to check my bookshelves and get back to you, though — they deserve recognition .

    My hope? That e-books will help us all transcend labels and help good books of any stripe find their audiences.

  2. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me when I was going to write a “real” book, I’d be a lot richer than I am now.

    As you’ve noted…many books are really crime fiction…and as Oline says…good writing just elevates the genre. But for most of us, good writing is at the heart of what we do. Digging deeply into character, looking for resonances, for larger stories, for language that is both particular to our characters and that conveys the meaning of the stories and deepens them.

    BTW…always want to study at UNC Chapel Hill. Lucky you!

  3. How about this year’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, touted on the cover as a “atmospheric drama”? Which it is. But it’s also also a mystery/crime novel, though the publisher seemed loathe to call it that. I think when we get into the labels of literary vs commercial fiction or literary vs genre fiction, we all end up losers both as writers and readers.

    1. >> I think when we get into the labels of literary vs commercial fiction or literary vs genre fiction, we all end up losers both as writers and readers.<<

      well said, Diane!

  4. I’ve learned that I simply mention one title to anyone who claims crime fiction isn’t literature–To Kill A Mockingbird, Pulitzer Prize for the book, Oscar for the screenplay. Enough said. Oh, and Jane Austen wrote romances!

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