Sunday, 21 February 2010

Why I Enjoy Crime Fiction

Here's an interview with Alan Bissett. Lovely bloke, and I adored THE INCREDIBLE ADAM SPARK. I agree with a lot of what he says. I do, however, take exception to this comment (I'm posting the whole bit because he is at great pains to say that he is not against crime fiction, or crime writers per se):

"While it’s absolutely not a comment, for me, on Crime authors themselves – who are writing passionately within a genre for others who are passionate about it, and that’s a good transaction for me – I do think it’s the case that Crime fiction has taken over Scottish literature. It gets a huge amount of attention on shelves, at festivals and in the broadsheets – because it’s supported by massive bookchains and supermarkets – and that makes it more difficult for those of us who aren’t writing in that genre to break through. Scottish literature in the 80s and 90s was on fire – you only have to look at the names of Kelman, Leonard, Lochhead, Gray, Galloway, Smith, Welsh, Warner, McLean, Kay, Butlin, Banks – who were utterly fearless. These were the people who gave me a real sense of what it meant to be Scottish and working-class. Without them, I’m only half a person. That’s absolutely a tradition I want to keep alive. Unless the younger generation find those same reserves of energy and will to pass on then a really significant Scottish culture will be crushed. There seems to be signs of that happening, with things like Gutter magazine, Cargo Press, Two Ravens and the spoken word scene (hello, Golden Hour!), but I really don’t think the Crime genre is the place where Scots are going to discover a renewed sense of purpose about their nation. No disrespect to those writers, but as good as they clearly are, that’s just not their remit."

First, I don't think that crime fiction has taken over Scottish literature, secondly, Scottish crime fiction is a broad church which encompasses all aspects of Scotland and Scottish society and culture. At least two of the authors mentioned above (Welsh and Banks) write what I would class as crime fiction. And not all of those authors mentioned above give me a sense of "what it means to be Scottish and working class". I'm also not sure why it's important that Scottish fiction should give Scots "a renewed sense of purpose about their nation". Knowledge, understanding and enlightenment perhaps - it's just the word 'purpose' I'm not sure about.

Not all Scottish crime fiction is about Mrs McTwee discovering a dead body in the scullery of her Morningside home, or a Highland police force investigating the theft of a sporran. The two most recent books I read were Russel McLean's THE LOST SISTER and Tony Black's LOSS. Both of them made me cry. Between them they deal with family secrets, domestic abuse, loneliness, fear, betrayal, guilt, alcoholism, trafficking, the economy, despair, poverty, pain and loss. I defy anyone to read either of those books and tell me that they don't reveal something about what it means to be Scottish and working class. Or just Scottish. Or just human. And not just McLean and Black - how about Allan Guthrie? Karen Campbell? I could go on.

For me, the reasons I love crime fiction are many and varied. Crime fiction can tell so much about life, society, how people live and the human condition - all wrapped up in a plot that is thrilling and entertaining. I don't need a happy ending - often, I don't want a happy ending. I don't read for the puzzle, or the mystery, but the fact that there is a crime is a great focal point. There are varying degrees of solution and resolution - but it's how the characters deal with the situations they are put into that fascinates me. We're thrown into their lives at an extraordinary time, we see how their lives are affected, and what they do. And not just their own lives, but how that ripples out into society - their family, friends, colleagues - anyone who is touched by the crime, no matter how remotely. The victim is at the centre but the wider impact of one particular crime might be far-reaching.

A crime is a good way of getting onto the page a wide and deep approach to characterisation that says a lot about society and humanity in quite a short period of time. I love noir and dark and bleak, but I also want hope and warmth amidst all the carnage. I want to see the characters' souls shine through despite the dreadful things that are happening in their lives. I don't want just black and white and shades of grey. I want colour and vibrancy. Even if things turn out badly, as in the deepest, darkest noir, the best crime fiction gives me that humanity.

The crime fiction genre is huge and varied and wonderful. There are a lot of books out there that I find dull and bland or at the other end of the spectrum so gory that I need to wash the blood off my hands after I've read them. I don't enjoy books where crocheting cats with a degree in astrology solve the murder, but I have friends who do. I don't like books which make me feel I could carry out an autopsy if pushed, but I have friends who do (I'm not sure which of those groups of people scare me more by the way). I even have friends - and a partner - who don't like crime fiction (shock, horror). There is something for everyone and, like most people, I don't want to exist on boiled rice all the time, but neither do I want a juicy steak at every meal.

What I do want is characters who come alive on the page, people I can care about, a thrilling read; I want to be entertained, to learn something, to laugh, to cry, to have my emotions engaged. Sometimes I want to lose myself in someone else's world, sometimes I want to try and gain insight into why people in my world act as they do; and sometimes I just want to know which one of my work colleagues is a velociraptor. (Thanks to Eric Garcia's basil addicted dinosaur PI, I can even take a guess at that).

For me, crime fiction gives me all that - and more. With crime, there's a lot at stake. An author can take such huge subjects such as justice, morality, truth, right and wrong, good versus evil and look at how those subjects affect their characters, and they can write a great story to boot.

And then the charming Michael Malone sent me an e-mail to ask whether I'd seen a review in the Glasgow Sunday Herald which said of a crime fiction book that it is " let down by the thing that trips up most detective novels, namely undistinguished prose."

Well, phphphphthththththt to that. Again, I could give a whole list of authors whose prose is superb. I've read crime fiction which has 'undistinguished' prose. I'll go so far as to say that I've read crime fiction with crap prose. But I've also read prose in so-called literary fiction that is unmitigated shite (sorry Dad). Every genre has its good and bad examples and to dismiss a whole genre with a sneering comment like that boils my piss (sorry Dad). Oh, and Glasgow Herald? Why not let someone who actually enjoys crime fiction review the bloody crime fiction? That way, neither your reviewer, nor I, will have a need to be grumpy.

I just know that I love reading crime fiction for the same reasons I enjoy all good fiction - great writing, great characters, a thought provoking and entertaining plot. A good tale, well told. That's all I ask.

Well, I was going to do my usual Sunday links, but I seem to have ranted on pointlessly far too much, so links in the next post instead.


  1. Well said that wummin. I was also going to blog about this, but I'll just post a link to this blog. You've said it all and much more skilfully than I could have. And loving the "charming" thing. I didn't even have to pay you.

  2. Errrrr...when did I say you didn't have to pay me? :o)

  3. I agree on the use of the word 'purpose' and what comes with it. Quite the opposite of what Mr Bisset says i think that the strength of scottish crime fiction over the past decade or so, and the kind of authors on show, suggest a healthy number of authors are asking questions of the cities and country they live in.

    Thats a good thing, surely?

  4. A very good point Jay. And indeed, it is a good thing.

  5. I am of a similar age to Alan Bissett and I grew up devouring all of the same Scottish books I'm sure he did - Welsh, Gray, Banks, Kelman, Warner, McLean, Smith, McIlvanney and Hird. All magnificent writers who I could easily read again and again. I am still a lit fiction person, as opposed to a crime fiction reader.

    The problem for Scottish literary fiction it seems to me, is this:It has lost its way, ever so slightly. It is failing to replenish the stocks of great, or even potentially great writers. If you think of a list of truly great living Scottish literary writers, all of them will have been published for the first time in the 1990s at the latest.

    Crime fiction is presently flourishing, deservedly so. It has a whole clutch of Scots with first class reputations, with more emerging every year.

    It dismays me that some people, perhaps those who don't sell as many books as they would like to, seem keen on making this a Lit v Genre scenario. It isn't. One aspect of Scottish writing is enjoying a real high point, cresting internationally and inspiring a whole clutch of followers and emulators. Literary fiction in Scotland has produced many good books in the past decade, but let's be honest here, there hasn't been a single, zeitgeist-defining truly great Scottish novel for a long time. No Trainspotting, no Lanark, no Born Free, no Morven Caller has emerged for quite a while. One - hopefully more than one - will emerge very soon, of that I have no doubt. But let's stop the sectarianism within Scottish literature as a whole. We've got enough of that divisiveness elsewhere.

  6. Alex - many thanks for your comment. I totally agree. As I said in the post, I just want great fiction - whatever genre it is. We all have our favourite types of fictionand, even within a particular genre, we like different things.

    And yes, it would be great to have that "truly great Scottish novel". In the meantime there is LOADS of excellent stuff to enjoy.

  7. Couldn't have said it better myself, Donna. And Alex. I hate that false opposition between lit fic and crime fic.

  8. Val - thank you. But I'm 100% sure you would have said it MUCH better :o)