Crimesquad’s Chris Simmons asks Is Crime Fiction Being Accepted By The Literati?

If diversity in crime writing was going to be highlighted, then it certainly is at the Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate in July. There have been many arguments about crime fiction and it has for many a year been frowned upon and looked upon as the unwanted child, the poor relation or whatever term you wish to use. Simply put, many years ago people of a literary standing would turn their nose up at crime fiction. I like to think that such people would deride crime fiction and then rush back home, lock the door, pull close the curtains and settle down to read the next chapter from the latest Christie or Sayers! Now that image would make anyone chuckle.

Now it appears that crime fiction has reached its maturity and has in fact ‘grown up’ and become a fully-fledged adult that people like and admire. Crime fiction is no longer the ‘beast in the cellar’, the genre that people never mentioned except in hushed tones. Now everyone wants to celebrate the ugly duckling becoming the beautiful swan!

This July will see many writers who are classed as ‘literary’ join the ranks of crime fiction. Susan Hill who is famous for her ghost story ‘The Woman in Black’ and ‘I’m The King of the Castle’ which is part of the national curriculum. Hill also won the Somerset Maugham Award for this book. More than any living writer, Hill is similar to Daphne Du Maurier who would transcend genres and never felt restricted to stay in any one field of genre.

We also have Kate Atkinson who won the Whitbread Prize for her first novel, ‘Behind the Scenes of the Museum’ (against stiff competition like Salmon Rushdie, no less!). She has now written several books in the Jackson Brodie series, each dealing with a serious crime and is currently being televised on the BBC.

And the ‘madness’ doesn’t stop there! Helen Dunmore, Jeanette Winterson and Julie Myerson who are all classed as ‘literary novelists’ have written… wait for it… gasp… shock… horror!!! Yes, that’s right, horror! Well, maybe not gory horror, but ghost stories come under ‘Horror’ in any section in a bookshop and these stories come under the ‘Hammer’ headline, affiliated and homage to the great Hammer Horror classic films. Indeed, both Dunmore and Winterson have written Y.A. books, too. The poet, Sophie Hannah has recently included ‘The Orphan Choir’, a ghost story under the Hammer heading to add to her psychological crime novels and poetry.

So what are we to make of it all? It appears that snobbery (besides a few of the old guard) has been thrown out of the window with the bath water (hopefully not the baby as well) and writers are now writing what they feel is within them. The boundaries of genre may not exactly be falling down, but they are certainly blurring.

For all the noise about a crime novel not being on the Booker short list in recent years we have seen ‘Child 44’ on the long list and ‘The White Tiger’ by Avarind Adiga which won the Man Booker in 2008, could be the closest we will ever get to a ‘crime’ novel winning this prize. But are we really worried about winning prizes? Isn’t the talk of winning the Man Booker a little previous when the genre, compared to general fiction is only just coming out of its adolescence? For me, I think the best thing is that the snobbery is abating and that writers now feel they can write what they want in whatever genre whether it for young or old, whether it is a tale of emotional breakdown, a crime at its heart or a ghost story to chill us in our beds. And this diversity should be praised as surely it means that we now have more choice from our favourite authors.

Some will say that they won’t like a ghost story written by their favourite author but this is narrow mindedness. Having been a reviewer for over eight years now on Crimesquad.com I would have said the same – but countless times I have been surprised by a novel I forced myself to start only to wind up not being able to put it down, turning the last page as though I had experienced an epiphany. (Maybe that is a little over the top but you know what I mean…). We should always try and venture out of our comfort zone, author and reader alike as it always does us good to try something new and different.

And on that note I will only say that after nearly fifty years of crime novels, 2013 will highlight the first children’s book written by Ruth Rendell called ‘Archie and Archie’. Now, if the great lady of crime can try a different path then I don’t see why we readers can’t do likewise and read something new!

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Check out more from Chris Simmons on the CrimeSquad site, including in depth reviews, Fresh Blood and Classic Crime features and discover some great reads with his round up of the top ten Agatha Christie books.