Monday, May 17, 2010

Crime Fiction—the Odd Cousin?

By Guest Blogger L.J. Sellers

“Does the crime writer sit in the same chair at the table of literature as a transvestite cousin at a family gathering?”

Say what?

That question came to me, via Facebook, from a researcher working on a PhD dissertation about the mystery/crime genre. The analogy both amused and disheartened me. Over the years, I’ve tried to accept that genre fiction isn’t counted in the same category as literary fiction. I’ve tried to ignore the occasions where a reviewer declared that a particular mystery or thriller “transcends the genre,” as if crime fiction had built-in limitations and readers had to approach it with low expectations.

But now that I’ve been compared to an "odd" cousin, I have to respond. What a load of nonsense.

From my perspective, crime fiction offers the best reading on nearly every level. The genre confronts the realities of life across various cultures more often and more honestly than mainstream/literary fiction does.

Crime novels are suited to exploring provocative social issues and showing how those hot-button subjects affect various people’s lives, often from diverse perspectives. Crime fiction can be surprisingly poignant and analytical about problems such as illegal immigration, human trafficking, and drug use. These novels highlight deep-rooted cultural ills such as racism, sexism, bigotry, and the dangers of stereotypes. Sometimes a mystery will show a stereotype in all its glory, reminding us of why stereotypes exist and how we all fit into one … at least a little bit. The crime genre often forces us to see the world from perspectives that make us think outside our comfort zone.

As crime writers and readers, we get to make sense of things that would otherwise haunt us. We learn why the family next door disappeared one day or what’s really going on in the creepy warehouse across the street. Sometimes that knowledge helps us sleep better and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least we learn one version of the truth.

Police procedurals and thrillers give us a medium through which we can experience the triumph of good over evil. For short while with each story, we get to be the good guy, the hero who rescues the kidnapped child or saves the president’s life. We get to drag the bad guys off to jail or shoot them dead if “they need killing”— fantasies we can’t act out in our everyday lives. The real-world events around us can be unjust and inexplicable. It’s important to our collective mental health to experience justice, order, and revelation through fiction.

Novels with well-written protagonists and antagonists bring us to terms with the duality within ourselves. Humans are all deeply flawed, with the capacity for great goodness as well as for deceit, jealousy, schadenfreude, addiction, selfishness, and often worse. When crime fiction heroes—detectives, FBI agents, and prosecutors—possess such flaws, we not only relate to those characters, we forgive ourselves for the same shortcomings. When a killer calls his mother or pets a stray dog, we hate him a little less and remember to look for good qualities in everyone.

Crime novels explore relationships in a way that few other genres can. What better mechanism to test a bond between husband and wife, parent and child, or lifelong friends than to embroil the relationship in a crime, either as victims, suspects, or perpetrators. Similar to natural disasters, the aftermath of a crime can bring out the best—or worst—in humans.

The genre is rich with possibilities for exploring the complexity of the human condition. Victims become predators; predators become victims. A person is guilty, but not in the way we’ve been led to believe. Most of all, crime fiction is full of surprises, and we readers love the unexpected. When was the last time a reviewer used the word twist when discussing a literary novel?

If the detective writer is the odd cousin at the literary family gathering, then perhaps the family is a bit dysfunctional to begin with.
L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, and the author of the Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series. The first two books, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For, have been highly praised, and the third book, Thrilled to Death, will be released in August. Her next two novels, Passions of the Dead and The Baby Thief, will be published in 2011. When not plotting murders, L.J. enjoys performing standup comedy, cycling, social networking, attending mystery conferences, and editing fiction manuscripts.  Be sure to visit L.J.'s web site.


Sheila Connolly said...

Amen! And it takes a deft hand to weave all those threads together without sounding preachy, and still write a fast-paced and entertaining book.

CPatLarge said...

Oh, I needed this...thank you, thank you, thank you!

Now I can go back to work without constantly feeling the need to justify the worth of my genre (well, at least until the next nay-sayer shows up...).

Larry W. Chavis said...

"From my perspective, crime fiction offers the best reading on nearly every level. The genre confronts the realities of life across various cultures more often and more honestly than mainstream/literary fiction does."

I could not agree more. What branch of literature does more to explore the human condition, at its nastiest and at its most noble? There are, of course, good literary pieces and hack crime novels, but the reverse is also true. How many literary works of art spend three hundred pages gazing into the protagonist's navel?

Give me a good crime novel any day.

Alan Cook said...

Well said. Although I sometimes enjoy reading so-called literary fiction, it often doesn't address real-life problems the way crime fiction does. For example, many of the crime fiction books I've read recently have pointed out the shortcomings of government, a topic that should be addressed more.

Toni LP Kelner said...

Hmmm... Ever seen ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW? If I could sit with Frank-n-Furter in full transvestite regalia at a family reunion, I'd be one happy camper.

carl brookins said...

sit in the same chair? Of course not! The crime writer might sit beside the transvestite, or across the table, but not in someone's lap! It's very difficult to eat a meal that way!

Emily Ashton said...

In the same chair? No, but in the one right next to him/her. Why? Because crime writers LOVE interesting people. We like characters with depth, layers and, best of all, stories to tell.

So,given the choice of sitting next to grandpa describing his epic journey to adulthood, my baby sister prattling on about the latest man in her life or uncle Bill describing the little known history of dairy farming, I choose cousin Jess.

Why? Because he/she has enough nerve to show up at the party with a different style, sit proudly at the same table and expect to be noticed.

Besides, maybe he/she is dressed that way because someone is looking for him/her...Could be the FBI, or the mob, or owner of the car with the body in the trunk...

L.J. Sellers said...

Exactly! Crime writers see someone interesting and create a compelling backstory.

Radine said...

Wonderful response to a silly commentary. Piffle!!! Thanks for going to bat for us.

Anonymous said...

VERY well said, LJ.


Erin Hart said...

Excellent piece, L.J.!! I'm going to refer everyone who asks if I'll ever consider writing another (and by that I presume most people mean a more 'literary') type of novel...

Joyce Yarrow said...

I'm a little late to the party but this is such a great post that I have to comment. I thought Dostoyevsky settled the argument about genre vs. literary fiction a long time ago by writing Crime and Punishment!

I agree with you, LJ., when you say that crime fiction tackles many of the complex issues of our time - admittedly with varying degrees of success but with as good a batting average as literary fiction brings to the game and often a lot less pretention.