The state of British crime fiction - review by Barry Forshaw

Barry Forshaw

Not Just the Usual Suspects

The state of British crime fiction


For decades – in terms of prizes rather than sales – crime fiction has been a poor relation of literary fiction, studiously snubbed by those who give out awards (except for those specific to the genre, such as the Crime Writers’ Association’s Daggers). But to the delight of some and the consternation of others (who regard crime fiction as a mere divertissement), things are changing. Two years ago, a Scottish crime novel, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The traditional reluctance of the committee to consider genre fiction had been undermined. Needless to say, Burnet’s novel – a notably unorthodox literary experiment, but crime fiction all the same – didn’t win, but there was a corollary benefit for Burnet and his bijou-sized publisher, Saraband: the novel became a massive critical and sales success. His Bloody Project, which centres on a savage triple killing in a cloistered Scottish Highland community, sports a fragmentary structure and a variety of perspectives. For a time, its celebrity amplified those voices arguing that crime fiction can tackle major issues just as well as ‘serious’ fiction. As Burnet proved, the undeniable pleasures of the genre need not mean a sloughing off of literary values.

All popular entertainment fields end up chasing their tails, so why should crime fiction be any different? A book or an author makes a mark with a new idea and publishers scramble over themselves to get their own novelists writing similar books, staying just the right side of plagiarism. There are, however, some talented writers who are so quirkily unorthodox – or just plain bloody-minded – that their books resolutely resist conforming to the latest modishness. Prominent among this admirable company is another contender for the Booker Prize, Belinda Bauer, who, over eight books, has shown herself to be one of the most individual of crime writers. Her first novel, Blacklands, won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger. Her latest, Snap, has elbowed its way onto the Booker longlist with much fanfare. While notionally a genre novel, Snap addresses the theme of a child maintaining the illusion of normal family life to the outside world after the death of a parent. The idea has previously been explored in Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and Julian Gloag’s Our Mother’s House, but Bauer treats the theme in a very particular way: her children are more streetwise and fatalistic than in the earlier books.

An unfair accusation frequently levelled at British crime fiction is that the American and Scandinavian varieties are more often ‘about something’, with provocative issues energising the narrative. But there are UK writers who also make serious points amid the skulduggery, including Eva Dolan. Her novel After You Die tackles the emotive topic of disability-related hate crime. The story is based on a real-life case in which a woman complained to the police about the harassment she and her severely disabled daughter had suffered. Similar (and equally trenchant) is You Don’t Know Me by Imran Mahmood. Legal thrillers may be ten a penny, but nothing quite as radical as this has ever been attempted. Audaciously, the entire book consists of a single speech by a nameless black defendant charged with murder and conducting his own defence.

The current queen of UK crime fiction is the wry and acerbic Val McDermid. Books such as A Darker Domain (2008) are undoubtedly thrillers, but they are also searing stories about society and wasted lives that cram more insight and anger into their pages than many a non-crime novel. McDermid has been writing such things for years, but A Darker Domain is the book in which she (metaphorically) comes out of the closet as the serious novelist she’s always been. Her fellow Scot Ian Rankin, Britain’s bestselling crime writer apart from the veteran Lee Child, has no time for distinctions between popular and literary writing. ‘After all,’ he told me, ‘in an alternative universe, I’m probably pursuing my first career, teaching creative writing at some university or other and being vaguely unhappy. I suppose in some ways I’m an academic manqué, but within the guise of crime writing, I’m able to take the occasional sideways glance at society or politics – never, of course, at the expense of telling the tale.’ Rankin is an unlikely fan of that patrician analyst of upper-crust English mores, Anthony Powell, and has been invited to talk to the Anthony Powell Society.

And then there’s the genre du jour, domestic noir. When the writer Julia Crouch coined the term (which encompasses her own books, such as Her Husband’s Lover), she was identifying what had become a clearly delineated field by the second decade of the 21st century. As Crouch put it, domestic noir ‘concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the female experience, is based around relationships and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants’. Lately, the genre has taken a distinctly predictable turn, with the male sex being invariably the repository of all that is dangerous and duplicitous. But perspicacious crime writers are no fools: they are well aware that their trade is cyclical. Readers will eagerly consume a new variation but will tire of it once it starts to seem overused. And the evidence is that British crime writers are always keen to move on and to innovate, whether they win prizes or not. Definitions can be left to academics who worry whether or not Crime and Punishment is a proto-crime fiction novel.                                   

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