The Overrated Nature of Crime Fiction

Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash

Saturday morning started well: I woke up early, enjoyed a bit of reading (my newly delivered copy of Warren Ellis’ The Authority) while listening to a new album (Red Hearse – a new discovery for me, and after a couple of listens recommended)  and planning a week up at the Edinburgh Fringe. Then I picked up The Guardian and read the Review where I flicked through the articles within. I’m always quite interested to read The books that made me section – even if the interviewees in question tend to be cut from very similar cloth in terms of their literary choices: they’ll admit ‘shame’ for not having read something obscurely dense in word count, language and theme and more often than not say the book they’d give as a gift is the sort of thing that would make the recipient smile politely and never get round to reading (probably so they could then have their own book they’re most ashamed not to have read at a later date).

This week the interviewee in question was Lucy Ellmann, whose been getting some headlines because her book Ducks, Newburyport has been longlisted for the Booker prize and is, apparently a ‘scorching indictment of America’s barbarity, past and present, and a lament for the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster’ – oh, and because it is 900 pages of a single sentence… (If like me, you couldn’t place the author’s name or the book in question it’s that little fact that made me say, “Oh, that..”).

In the interview Ellmann is asked “What book I think is most overrated/ underrated” and replies: Overrated: all crime fiction. Underrated: Philip Roth’s memoir Patrimony. It’s not talked about enough.”

Now there’s a lot to unpack there in that short response. (That’s something real writers do: a few short sentences – or in some cases, not sentences, that need to be considered, thought about, interrogated and critically analysed like a fine wine with complex flavours of autumnal evenings and wet car hair.) Later on, Ellmann take umbrage at the question of what her ‘comfort reading’ is – claiming it’s a demeaning term, like ‘cuppa’ or ‘undies’ (I’m not sure where the loss of dignity or respect is in either of those terms, but then I’m chugging coffee and not fully dressed typing this, so along with so much else – what do I know?) and that her ‘comfort reads’ are ‘good writing’ and include Jane Austen, Charles Dickens  (neither of whom were averse to including some strong dollops of crime in their work.)

So, ignoring the fact that Philip Roth – that most underrated of writers (whose memoir Patrimony received the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography) has been so cruelly ignored, let’s look at that most overrated of books: all crime fiction. (excluding presumably comfy old Dickens and Austen– talk about being hoisted by your own retard).

I was struck by two memories reading that badly answered question (and it’s a bad answer not just because I don’t agree with the sentiment, but because ‘all crime fiction’ is clearly not a book. It’s not even a genre when you get right down to it).

The first memory was of my mother asking my less-literary inclined cousin what he wanted for Christmas some forty years ago, suggesting he might like a book. He would not like a book, he explained with a 10-year old’s reasoning because he ‘already had one’. Nigel, bless him, didn’t realise that there was more than one book, and more than one sort of book in this world.

The second memory was a classic Bill Hicks routine recounting when he was in a Waffle House and being asked by a waitress, “What you reading for?” “Not, what am I reading, but what am I reading for?” Hicks points out  (paraphrasing), “Goddamn it, you stumped me…Well, I read for lots of different reasons. One of which is so that I don’t end up as a waitress in a Waffle House.” Ignoring Bill’s views on the occupational status and life goal of the service industry, there’s a pretty clear point there. People read. And do so for different reasons.

Now, to be completely fair for one moment let’s ask the question: Is ‘all crime fiction’ overrated?

According to the Oxford Dictionary (published by Oxford University Press – who themselves even deign to publish some less tawdry ‘crime fiction’ even if after 25 years of working there I could never get them to consider my own…) the definition of overrated is to ‘have a higher opinion of (someone or something) than is deserved.’

I’ve commented before that sometimes I think cover blurb and established author cover quotes can be a little over-the-top in crime fiction. I’ve read a lot of novels over the past few years which promise a ‘twist you never saw coming’ or promising a book that would ‘keep you awake, too scared to sleep’ or other promises only one-stop above recommending you read the entire thing on the toilet because this thing will shock the literal if not literary shit out of you. I’ve also seen the same big-name authors offering platitudes to newer writers’ efforts again and again to the point you might wonder who has incriminating pictures of this successful scribe at the publishers? Alternatively, and more charitably, you might think – Wow, Lee Child (as an example) might just want to support a fellow writer and encourage people to read: to read something in a way the waffle house waitress might not understand. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even find they liked reading this little piece of fluff and move on, when they’ve matured enough to understand it, to ‘real’ books with lofty themes like the meaning of life, society, the human condition, and philosophical issues around right and wrong. You know – the sort of things you’d never find in crime fiction.

All Crime Fiction… sigh.

Where do you even START with such an ignorant comment? You could try Reginald Hill’s wry comment at the 2009 Harrogate Crime Festival when, during a joint session with  Booker Prize winning John Banville (aka Benjamin Black when he ‘slummed it’ as a crime writer) the great man commented, “When I get up in the morning, I ask my wife whether I should write a Booker Prize winning novel or another bestselling crime book. And we always come down on the side of the crime book.” (that little anecdote is, interestingly, taken from a 2009 Guardian article on why crime still has such unpardonably low literary status – my, how times have changed in the decade which has followed…)

Earlier this year I attended and even participated in a literary crime festival: the rather brilliant Newcastle Noir. I facilitated a conversation between two authors who had written ‘crime’ novels that ‘said something’: there’s a recap of that session elsewhere on this site. At the end of the session, there were several attendees in actual tears at what the authors in (and under) question had said. About how important their messages were. I’ve attended a hell of a lot of ‘proper’ literary events over the years that I can honestly say never got the response that festival did.

What exactly is so ‘low brow’ about crime fiction?

Is it the narrative? It can’t be – for every serial killer storyline there are a hundred alternatives, and if you can find me a ‘literary’ piece that doesn’t contain some element of crime: large or small, real or imagined, then I’ll give it a shot (no pun intended).

Is it because the writing style hasn’t been produced via a tortured artist creating in a manner of Monty Python’s Tungsten Carbide Drills sketch? Hardly – I’ll take the elegance and variety of writing demonstrated by a Thomas H Cook or a James Ellroy or a Peter Straub or a thousand others over ‘proper’ writers any day.

Is it the lack of underlying themes and motivations? Doubtful – the complexity and multi-layered nature of character and actions in good crime writing from something like Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan through too many other examples to bother quoting are clear to see, and if you prefer it unclear enough to really delve into for study then there’s that too.

Is it the plot? It can’t be – the use of sub-plots, parallel stories and carefully researched facts blending seamlessly with fiction in many a crime work knock the ‘young person to the world’ or ‘mid-life crisis’ clichés of many ‘literature’ pieces into a cocked hat (Fedora or otherwise).

So why is it that even ‘respected’ crime fiction – take a The Secret History, for example, are not even thought of as an exception to the rule but rather thought of as a ‘real novel’ that happens to contain a crime? At the end of the day, I think it goes back to the age-old issue that ‘popular’ cannot equal ‘good’. Whether it’s Hitchcock ‘slumming it’ with a grubby little film like Psycho, or a Breaking Bad or The Wire or The Sopranos actually being good TV drama despite their subject matter, or a Silence of the Lambs, a Rebecca or a Spy that came in from the Cold having something to say rather than just being a ‘guilty pleasure’ the critics (and critically loved literary authors) seem to be at pains to consider them exceptions to the rule rather than the norm. The bigger question is, why having been ‘broken’ so many times, that ‘rule’ is still allowed to exist.

Is all crime fiction worthy or exempt from criticism? Of course not – and some of it IS over-rated. I’ve written previously about my own reviews of books which I’ve either felt guilty about because of a flippant tone or unnecessary need to try and be ‘properly critical’. There’s good crime fiction and there’s bad crime fiction. (There’s some high-level critical research and analysis right there…) But guess what? It’s fiction. If you insist on classifying such a massive body of work into one lump then so be it. But don’t then just dismiss the whole lot with one casual comment: otherwise, you may as well just ask ‘what you reading for?’


I’m lucky.

I don’t just slum it in Crime in either my writing or my reading. I’m wider-read than that. I loves me some Horror too…

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