Monday, January 17, 2011

Crime Fiction: The Odd Cousin?

by L.J. Sellers

[Ed. Note: This entry was originally published on the SinC blog on May 17, 2010. During the weekend, the piece was mentioned a few times on the DorothyL listserv -- which made it seem like a good time to publish the blog entry again. ]

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. Her most recently published novels are Passions of the Dead, the latest work featuring Detective Jackson, and The Baby Thief, a standalone thriller. When not plotting murders, L.J. enjoys performing stand-up comedy, cycling, social networking, attending mystery conferences, and editing fiction manuscripts.


Polly said...

Terrific Post, L.J. I'm also tired of the snotty looks from people who turn down their noses at crime fiction as if it didn't measure up. Maybe the word "literature" should be redefined. Good writing and a good story, whether crime fiction, romance, or any of the other "commercial" genres, is literature.

Donnell said...

Oh, what a post! L.J., I've been thinking about this very issue with my first book coming out. Thank you, and thanks Polly for touting this article.

Pat Marinelli said...

Loved this post. It really puts crime fiction in prespective. Great answer! You said what I would have like to say, but you did it better.

Ellis Vidler said...

You are so right, LJ. I can't see what the genre has to do with good writing. I think it's the old thing about everyone wanting someone to look down on. One of my early lit teachers said that if it sells well, it's commercial; if not, it's literary. Not strictly true, but there are bad books and good ones in every area.