Crimes of the Heart

Is crime fiction a lesser genre than literary fiction? Is fantasy fiction the poor cousin of science fiction? How do all the genres hustle up against (or on top of or beneath) one another?

John Sutherland, former Chairman of the Man Booker judges, has said that long-listing a crime novel for the prize is like putting “…a donkey into the Grand National.” And despite Tom Robb’s Child 44 being long-listed in 2008 and Peter Temple winning the Australian equivalent of the Booker (the Miles Franklin award) with his novel Truth in 2010, the donkeys never do seem to make it out of the stable into the literary prize-winning arena.

Whilst John Banville says that there should be no distinction between genres – there is merely good writing and writing that is not good – can the answer to crime fiction’s lowly reputation be sourced in its emotive content? Or lack of – according to Tony Parsons.

Parsons has recently been doing the rounds, flogging his foray into the genre with his new book The Murder Bag. In an interview with The Guardian and repeated on BBC Radio 4 on Open Book, Parsons claims he wants to put a new spin on crime fiction. He wants to write a crime thriller with “…the emotional power of a book like Man and Boy.” He says he wants to write crime fiction with heart.

This has sent myriad crime writers into a bloody tailspin, hurling various murder weapons in an attempt to prove that their brand of crime writing does indeed have the emotional pull that Parsons seems to have missed in his readings. Cue the amusing Twitter hashtag #tonyparsonscouldread – followed by whichever heart-rending crime novel you wish to suggest – from Rendell to Chandler to French.

I’m not sure Parsons is doing much other than creating a dust swirl to draw attention to his book. It’s clearly wrong to say that crime fiction has no heart. But it is perhaps a truism that crime fiction is patronised for what’s seen as its commitment to plot, rather than its observations on life.

One of my biggest reading disappointments was The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. The set up was one of pure mystery – the unexplained death of a young child. Tartt mixed up the plot with her reflections on life and family in the Deep South but, for me, it never quite worked. The plot didn’t resolve and I was left unknowing and frustrated by the loose ends Tartt had woven throughout the book but failed to conclude. Was her book crime fiction? Or literary? It certainly didn’t work as the former – did that make it more of a read in literary circles? Is the lack of a plot something to champion in order to win prizes??

People denigrate crime fiction for its tropes – dare we call them clichés? The lonely booze-sodden detective; a penchant for music of one genre; an inability to maintain a relationship. In his interviews, Parsons talked witheringly about these – how his protagonist, Max Wolfe, would avoid them – no staring into a whisky glass for him, thanks very much. And yet he went on to say that Wolfe would be a single Dad so as to leave him free in the plot to be able to get it on with women young and old. Listening to him, I think this is genuinely what Parsons thinks of as putting heart into a book.

To use the Parson-ism, “heart” in a book – crime or otherwise – isn’t about merely having a character be a single parent, or lonely, or grieving, or any obviously signposted ways to make the reader think – “oh, this person feels things very deeply….” Think of the nuance in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone; the tortured ramblings of Rankin’s Rebus; even the moralising of Marple. These are fully drawn, fleshed out, beautifully written books and characters which can’t help to connect with the reader – isn’t that the nub of a great book? The heart of which Parsons means to speak? And let’s not forget that these books have more tightly knitted plots than a jumper sale at the Women’s Institute.

Wherever crime fiction stands in relation to the cool rankings of prizes such as the Man Booker is a subject that will incense as much as it bolsters self-regard. In my humble opinion, crime fiction is one of the hardest genres to write and certainly one of the best to read. It puts characters in space and time, gives them the slap in the face of life and death to contend with; puts them on the edge of humanity in that regard.

For any novel to succeed, it must be infused with heart – that which makes the reader care about it. Successful crime novels do this as well as other genres. And if not, then there it is that they, or any other book, will fail.

What do you think? Is crime fiction lacking in heart? How does it compare to literary fiction? Let me know!

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. malcolm mckay
    May 22, 2014 @ 08:58:47

    There’s no such thing as genre. John Banbury is right. There’s only good writing and bad writing. The idea of genre is merely a series of categorisations created by non-writers to enable them to create a hierarchy of writing that they will be the judge of. This is because most of them don’t actually know the difference between good and bad writing so need to have some way of being important or relevant to the process. To tell the story of a crime is just to tell another story. You can either do it well or not. Camus was a great crime writer, so was Capote, so was Dosteovsky.


  2. Alice Clark-Platts
    May 22, 2014 @ 09:04:44

    I agree. But Parsons is saying that crime stories have no emotional punch. Rubbish of course…


  3. malcolm mckay
    May 22, 2014 @ 09:25:28

    Of course it’s rubbish. Why should a story about a crime have no emotional punch? Crime stories needn’t necessarily be about detectives. If they are then they usually bring rationality to bear on an event which has had a very powerful emotional impact. The depth of feeling expressed will depend on the writer’s viewpoint. There aren’t any rules. Or genres. Perhaps Tony Parsons is worried as to how others might categorise his work.


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