Charles Cumming – A Foreign Country

Craig Russell – Dead Men and Broken Hearts

Denise Mina – Gods and Beasts

Peter May – The Lewis Man

Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale

Will Jordan – Redemption

 

Judge’s comment: “Pacy, satisfyingly complex and convincing evocation of what happens when crime threatens personal and state security – and really well-written!”

Judge’s comment: “Laugh, weep, gasp with 50s Glasgow gumshoe, laconic Lennox, whose footprints are a cheerful addition to the genre.”

Judge’s comment: “Denise Mina writes as if Gods, Beasts, and People matter. I read this in one kneeling.”

Judge’s comment: “The child’s the father of the man and May proves this in a searing tale of childhood, exile, memory loss and identity.”

Judge’s comment: “More twists than a swastika in this Nazi country house murder madness and Gunther’s sardonic contempt might get him shot before solving a thing! A masterclass in crime writing.”

Judge’s comment: “Will Jordan’s special agents put the Man back into Mantini. This one has left me shaken And stirred.”

The judging panel is chaired by broadcaster and journalist Sheena McDonald. Her fellow judges are Waterstones’ crime fiction expert, Ewan Wilson, and Len Wanner, author of The Crime Interviews 1, 2, and 3.

The winner will be announced at Bloody Scotland on Sunday, the 16th of September 2012, and presented with a trophy as well as a cheque for £3,000.

The award is in association with Waterstones. It seeks to recognise and reward excellence in Scottish crime writing, first published between 1 August 2011 and 31 July 2012. Over 40 books of fiction and non-fiction were submitted by UK publishers. Eligible books were by writers born in Scotland, by writers living in Scotland, or books set in Scotland.

Congratulations to all six on the shortlist!

Seeing as your novels are enjoyed by readers who wouldn’t usually share a taste in literature, can you say what brought you to crime fiction?

Yeah, it’s an interesting one, isn’t it? I never really know how well I sit within the genre. I’m really happy to be put in the genre; I think it’s done me a lot of good. When I started to write my first novel,The Cutting Room, I thought I was writing a Gothic book, and I was very conscious of the Gothic conventions and tropes in it. I didn’t want to write a horror novel, but I did want to draw on that Gothic tradition which has always been allied to crime – the idea of exploring the victim, the way that we portray the victim, but also the urge to have a strong narrative and not to concentrate on these things but somehow have them as part of a strong story, which crime lends itself very much to.

At that point, I was very conscious of the portrayal of women’s bodies, and I think it’s something crime fiction often does quite badly, quite offensively – the use of the naked female form to turn the plot often lacks respect for victims, which is perhaps more to the fore in television adaptations where you see this prone naked female body. I wanted to explore that. Maybe it’s quite naive in some ways, but in that book the use of photographs is an attempt to somehow distance us from the body and to ask the questions: “Is somebody dead? How do we know they’re dead?”

The thing to remember about first novels is that you never know anyone’s going to read them. So you have this huge amount of freedom. You can go for it and should go for it. I wanted this to be published – I actively pursued publication – but I wasn’t ever sure that it would be published. There wasn’t a commercial angle to it. I actually thought it wouldn’t be sellable because of the location, because it’s very firmly set in Glasgow, and you can’t really imagine that other people are that interested in the city you live in. Also the sexuality: Having a strong gay character at the centre, I could imagine gay men reading it, I could imagine some women reading it, but I couldn’t really imagine straight men reading it. So it wouldn’t be commercial for those reasons. I was really pleasantly surprised when it came out. I was astounded, actually.

Ian Rankin said he felt he was writing in a Scottish literary tradition, so he personally moved Knots and Crosses out of a book shop’s crime fiction section. Are similar feelings at the heart of your refusal to write body-in-the-drawing-room crime fiction?

Ha! That’s funny. When I started The Cutting Room, I was reading Elaine Showalter, who has written some really interesting Feminist history, and I was conscious that I did not want to reproduce that kind of sexualised female body in my book. I think this connection between Eros and Thanatos is human nature: the attraction of the woman once she’s quiet – you get it all the time in advertising, these passive women in perfume ads – and what could be more quiet than being dead?

I wanted people to see the body. I wanted them at points to be disgusted or to be worried or scared, but I didn’t want this sexualised form. Although I often write in a male voice, I consider myself a Feminist, and I think the body is often absent from the books. In Tamburlaine Must Die, we do have a death, but really it’s Marlowe’s death we’re waiting for, and we don’t see that death. We know it’s going to happen, but we don’t actually see it. I was very interested in G.W. Pabst’s movie Pandora’s Box, based on Frank Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora. There’s a very beautiful, lively dancer: She makes love to men, she makes love to women, and she seems completely amoral – she lives for fun. She commits a murder by mistake, and in the end she goes to London. It’s very atmospheric, and she’s murdered by Jack the Ripper, because she has to be killed in the end.

For the sake of poetic justice?

Yes, exactly! So in The Bullet Trick I wanted to play with that and have that supposed death, but there isn’t a death. There’s a resurrection, and it’s all part of some illusion. In this book, Naming the Bones, there is a death, but we’re not sure how that came about. There are several deaths, but they’re not conventional murders.

Have you always been intrigued by the unconventional or why do you seem so comfortable in the Scottish literary tradition?

That’s a nice thing to say. I don’t think this is peculiar to Scotland, but I do think we have a tradition of working class intellectualism. You can have a good and inquiring conversation with somebody you met 10 minutes ago in a pub, somebody who wouldn’t necessarily have gone on to further education but will nevertheless be informed through their own reading. When I had a bookshop, we couldn’t keep philosophy books on the shelves, and it wasn’t purely students we were selling them to. We were selling them to guys in overalls, to guys who were going to the pub, looking for something to read. There’s still a respect for learning. That is a strong part of a Scottish tradition I respect, that I’m pleased by.

Alcohol, of course, is a big part of it. I myself am labouring under a slight hangover at the moment. Ha! There’s this idea that we’re often looked down on as a country because of how much we drink, yet I think we should be compared to the Scandinavians, because a lot of that has to do with the weather.

Aren’t they also celebrating a literary renaissance in their crime fiction?

Yeah! I was going to ask you about that, actually.

Is it fair to say that the worse the weather gets, the better writers drink and drinkers write?

Ha! I just wonder – we’re natural allies in that way. The further North you get, you get shared behaviour and a shared sense of humour. I find them a lot of fun anyway.

Have you noticed the mileage they’re getting out of the reverend Robert Louis Stevenson?

Yeah, the thing about the light and the dark, the Jekyll and Hyde – I actually worry a little bit about that. Maybe it exists, but maybe we talk about it too much.

Might the actual commonality be your sideways reflections of extremes?

Might well be, actually. I guess it’s true: We are drawn to extremes. This idea of extremes is a very good one. Obviously, as writers you don’t get much say in how you’re marketed or what goes on your jacket, but I think that’s a very nice plus point of somehow being identified as this genre of extremes. With this new book, Naming the Bones, I kept the tone quiet for quite a long way through. I wanted to experiment with that – a little bit like the actor coming on stage and seeing how long they could hold the silence for. Part of what enables that is the idea that the reader has this foreknowledge that something is going to come. I think we’re on page 300 or somewhere pretty far in before we get a body. That’s fun, and it’s quite delicious to be able to do that.

How important is humour to crime writing?

It’s really necessary, I think.

How important is humour to character development in The Bullet Trick?

Part of what I wanted was for William to go to a place that isn’t actually so different from home. I think we have a lot of shared culture between Germany and Scotland, and yet there are differences, so there’s just that light wrong-footedness you get when you think you’re on solid ground and suddenly realise: “Oh, I just got that wrong. I got that completely wrong.” Maybe humour is a part of that, because it’s also him as an individual. He’s not a confident person, and his lack of confidence makes him a bit unattractive to people at points.

Also, the cabaret scene is genuinely active in Berlin; it’s not frozen-in-aspic. There are actually some quite fun, quite interesting avant-garde things going on there. So that place was where William could operate as a professional. There’s a straightforwardness about things that is very attractive to us, because we don’t have it.

Does this deep structure tend to be on your mind when you write or when you edit?

Gosh! It all becomes the same, especially a few years on, because inevitably you’re working on something else. I’m thinking about starting a new novel just now, and I start very much with notebooks – trying not to recognise what a big task it is, not to scare yourself, to take lots of little notes, and to read around things. The Pabst thing in The Bullet Trick was very conscious. I’d wanted to write about that for quite a long time. The Gothic was very conscious in The Cutting Room.

Were you conscious of the cultural context of Tamburlaine Must Die?

That’s probably the most researched book, just necessarily because it was about Marlowe.

Were you conscious of the controversy about Marlowe and his death when you started Tamburlaine Must Die?

No, no, not at all. I didn’t study English literature, and this is going to sound really ridiculous: I wanted to write about Marlowe because I’d shared a flat with somebody who was doing theatre studies, and they’d been very interested in Marlowe. We talked a lot about Marlowe, and then I went to see just about every version of Doctor Faustus I could see in Glasgow. I really, really loved it. That was part of my life, and I’d moved on, and when I came to think about writing about Marlowe, I didn’t realise how interested lots of other people were.

I didn’t know that, for instance, there was a Marlowe society, although I did know there were people who said that Marlowe had written all of Shakespeare’s plays, but I didn’t realise they had the society and were so serious about it. If I had, who knows, it might have put me off – it might not have.

In the end, you showed how crime fiction can defy genre scepticism with cultural consciousness. Were you at all politically motivated?

Aw, that’s a nice thing to say. You know, I was conscious of being political in that book. What is the point in writing something historical if it doesn’t somehow pertain to our times? At that point, I was interested in Dungavel prison, an asylum seekers prison. There were children being locked up and all sorts of awful things going on. That was very much part of my consciousness when I was writing Tamburlaine Must Die, that and the Elizabethan period and its hatred, fear, and distrust of outsiders and immigrants. That was the idea, but it’s very much embedded. It’s not at the forefront of the book, but nevertheless that concern is there.

Perhaps, if I’d realised how brilliant he is, I possibly wouldn’t have written this book in his voice. I think I found out a lot as I was doing it, and I still have a huge affection for Marlowe. I was very worried about writing a false history, because I studied history at university, and I was a really bad student, but I thought: “No, if I add a bibliography it suggests that this is a learned book.” So I said: “I got a lot of information from this book and that book.” I mentioned two or three books that had been good sources for me, but I didn’t put in a bibliography, because I thought it would be showing off. All we have to give interested readers is three books. They’ll find their own bibliography.

CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THIS INTERVIEW.

CLICK HERE FOR THE ONE BOOK EVERYBODY SHOULD READ: The Cutting Room

‘Tartan Noir’ – was that your idea?

Ha! ‘Tartan Noir’ is a term I’m confident I invented, but I gave it to James Ellroy. I met him at a crime fiction convention in Nottingham many years ago and I wanted to get him to sign a book for me. I was explaining to him that I was a crime writer as well and wrote about Edinburgh and the darker side of Scottish life. I said, “You could call it Tartan Noir.” He laughed and signed the book to ‘the King of Tartan Noir’. So then I pretended that he’d invented it. But in fact, I told him and then he wrote it down. Chris Brookmyre nicked it after that and started using it.

Didn’t he call it chromatically impossible?

Yeah! Well, it is. It’s an oxymoron. Tartan can’t just be black otherwise it’s not a tartan. Anyway, I’ve still got my James Ellroy book upstairs so I can prove he wrote that on the book. Or somebody wrote it on the book… I can’t prove it was him.

Can you say what it means to you?

Tartan Noir – there’s no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland, but there is a great tradition of dark, psychological, Gothic horror stories. Specifically in ‘70s Glasgow, there was a move towards a realistic school of writing about working class life, writing about hard men, writing about hard lives, and writing about urban experience. So it was a move away from the ‘kaleyard’, which was this romanticised view of Scotland. I think crime fiction tapped into that very nicely, and because there was no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland it had a completely level playing field. Nobody had to be worried about writing in a certain tradition, and most of us weren’t influenced by the English.

I’d better speak for myself and not for anybody else: I certainly wasn’t influenced by the English crime novel, because I’d never read one. I’d never read any Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, or Dorothy L. Sayers, but I’d read a lot of Muriel Spark, which is very dark, and I’d read William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, some John Buchan, and Alistair MacLean, a Scottish thriller writer, very famous in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But because there was no Agatha Christie figure, you didn’t feel you were looking over your shoulder and had to write a certain kind of book.

So there’s a huge catholicism to Scottish crime fiction. If you look at the stuff Alexander McCall Smith, Kate Atkinson, and Alanna Knight are writing, and if you then look at the really dark stuff people like Stuart MacBride are writing, it seems to me there’s somebody writing in every sub-genre of crime fiction. When Paul Johnston started, he was writing crime novels set in a futuristic Edinburgh, so you have sci-fi crime fiction, historical crime fiction, you have comic crime fiction like Chris Brookmyre’s, psychological crime fiction like Denise Mina’s, cop novels like I’m writing… Other people are writing about private eyes, Allan Guthrie came along and seemed to enjoy writing about criminals rather than cops…

It just seemed there was room for all of that because we weren’t expected to write any particular kind of crime novel. But the balance has swung towards noir, quite dark fiction and I think that comes out of the fact that the current generation of crime writers has grown up with things like Hannibal Lecter, slasher movies, and Hollywood serial killers who are exaggerated in their means and motives. We’ve grown up with American cop shows on the television. We find crime fiction a very good way of writing about urban experience and society, about current affairs and politics, so we’re doing a lot more than just trying to tell a good story that will keep you engaged until the end of a train journey where you’ll go: “Ach, that’s who the killer was.” I think quite a lot of writers in Scotland aren’t that interested in the traditional notion of the English detective story, the structured novel that’s full of red herrings and in which the detective gets all the possible suspects together in the penultimate chapter to explain who did it and who didn’t do it.

There don’t seem to be many novels like that coming out of Scotland. They seem to be quite dark. They seem to be close to the Scandinavian model of crime fiction. When I read Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, however you pronounce their names, writing in Sweden and about Swedish society in the ‘60s, it seems very modern, and it seems to me very much like a lot of the stuff that’s coming out of Scotland at the moment. It’s not a school, because there are other writers who don’t fit that, but they’re still writing crime fiction, whether they like it or not.

Given the similarities between Scandinavian and Scottish crime fiction, is your shared popularity the product of Anglo-Saxon coolness and Northern innocence?

What I find about a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction is that it’s quite politically engaged. Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall were Marxists who were trying to write about what they felt was a decline in standards and civilisation in their country. I think there are several crime writers out there who are trying to do something similar to that, writers who are saying: “Look at the terrible mess we’re in. How the hell did we get here?”

These are also introspective countries where the people are quite inward looking. If you watch Kenneth Branagh doing Wallander on television you get a sense of that. This guy is just angsty. We do like a good angsty detective, and we think of Scandinavia as a place where you can do Angst well. By the same token, I think you can do it very well in Scotland because the Scots have this Jekyll and Hyde thing going on. We can be lovely one minute, but give us some alcohol and suddenly we turn into monsters. We hide our feelings a lot of the time. It’s weird, isn’t it? We’re all supposed to be Celts, but you look at Ireland where everybody’s so chatty and friendly. Glaswegians are, but you go elsewhere in Scotland and everybody’s reserved. They’d rather say nothing than say the wrong thing.

Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses?

It’s hilarious. I used to see it in tutorials all the time. All the students from Scottish working-class comprehensive school backgrounds would sit there and say nothing for the whole course of a tutorial. Then there’d be all these really chatty English folk who were very self-confident and self-aware, and even if they didn’t know the answer they would say something. And then all the wee working class Scots would be writing everything down that they said. It was about two and a half years before I spoke in a tutorial, but once I started you couldn’t shut me up.

Why didn’t it take you as long to find your narrative voice?

I was writing from a very young age. I was trying to do comics and strip cartoons and song lyrics from before I was a teenager, and then in my mid-teens I was writing song lyrics and poetry, so when I came to Edinburgh University, I was a poet. I’d had one poem published. I’d won second prize in a competition, so I’d been published in a magazine. That was me. I thought: “This is what I’m doing.” But the poems were telling stories. The poems were not emotion recollected in tranquillity. They were narratives. So when a short story competition was announced, I went in for it and won second prize, and then the next year I won a short story competition and thought: “Oh, I can do this!” So I moved away from poetry into short stories, and then that smoothed the way for a transition to the novel.

After a couple of novels, one of which was never published, I came up with Rebus without having really read any crime fiction at all, with the possible exception of William McIlvanney and some film tie-ins, things like Shaft and maybe The French Connection and The Godfather. I’d read those because they were films, but McIlvanney was important because of Laidlaw which came along just as I was getting an inkling of writing a dark, contemporary take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. All the way through Knots And Crosses, you’re supposed to think Rebus, the detective, is potentially the killer – he just doesn’t know it.

Hard to fool people with that these days, when they know there are 17 Rebus novels. He’s probably not the bad guy in the first book, but it was never meant to be a series, and I was reluctant to even see it as crime fiction. At that time, crime fiction was very much the poor relation. You’d go into a book shop and struggle to find a crime section. It was tucked away at the back of the shop somewhere.

Is it true that when you first saw Knots And Crosses in a bookshop, you moved a copy from the crime section to where you thought it should be shelved?

Yeah. I wanted it to be in Scottish literature at the front of the shop beside Spark and Stevenson and McIlvanney. I went back the next day and they’d moved it back to the crime section. This is going back to 1987, so it’s going back quite some time.

After all those years, are you tired of being seen as the guy who writes Rebus?

Well, I’m not the guy who writes Rebus anymore. I wrote the last Rebus novel about three years ago. Of course, every time I do a gig I get asked if I’m going to bring back Rebus: “When are we going to see him again?” I get emails from people saying: “I like your books post-Rebus, but when are we going to get another Rebus book?”

Rebus was, and remains, a useful character. He’s a useful means of looking at society. He’s a useful prism through which you can show all the different aspects of human life, because a detective, unlike almost any other character in fiction, has access to every area, every layer of society. So if you want to write about politicians, big business, backhanders, and corruption, but you also want to write about the dispossessed and disenfranchised folk living on the edge, folk living on housing benefit, and folk with drug problems, you can do all of that with this one character, because he can explore all of that and everybody’s got to open their door to him.

So I do think a detective is a very good tool for opening up the world and exploring it. That’s what I think I try to do in the books. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle of modern Scotland. Whether it’s local politics, national politics, the economy, the country’s history and possible future, racism, or religious bigotry, all these things can very easily be tackled in crime fiction. The slightly frustrating thing is that you can’t show that the world is also a very nice place, because your detective tends not to be dealing with happy shiny people. Your detective is dealing with suspects and grieving relatives, which is frustrating when you live in Edinburgh. I mean, look at how nice it is.

Having written about those happy shiny people in a couple of successful short story collections, would you write more of them if there was a bigger market?

Probably. The short story is a nice form. It’s like a little jewel. You can hold the shape of it in your head – you can’t with a novel – and they’re really good to read. I enjoy reading short stories or listening to them in the car, and I enjoy writing them, but I don’t know whether I could ever get enough ideas to be a fulltime short story writer. You’d want to get a story published every single week. You’d have to have 52 good ideas, whereas writing a novel you only have to have one good idea a year – maybe two: plot and subplot.

Then, at the end of two or three days’ work, you’ve got something you’ve physically made that nobody’s made before. That’s one of the wonderful things about writing. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, there are only so many words in the language, and yet everybody can write a sentence that’s never been written before. Think how incredible that is. You can sit and write a sentence that nobody in the entire history of human existence has written before. That’s the great challenge as well: trying to write something different – do something that’s not been done before.

Doing English at University, you’re told there are seven basic plots, and you go: “Well, I’m fucked then. I can do seven books and that’ll be it.” But then you learn that these seven plots are actually completely malleable and interchangeable. There might only be seven basic plots but the well of stories is inexhaustible. When I was younger, plots were flying at me. I was very receptive to them. I’d walk down the street and I’d get an idea for a story because I would hear or see something. In the end, I tried to switch off because I was getting more ideas than I could possibly use. It’s hard to sort them out and decide which ones to write and which ones not to write.

Early in his career, James Ellroy noticed he could execute anything he could envisage. Can you?

Yes, but he hit a wall. Well, did he hit a wall? He told me once that when he wrote White Jazz, the linguistic experimentation in that book was so extreme, he actually lost readers. People weren’t buying it because it was too hard to read, so he back-pedalled a wee bit after that. The narrative became more fluid and the language became slightly less opaque. But yeah, there’s no doubt that he gets big ideas and is able to execute them. I’ve got storylines upstairs that I’ve not used yet because I can’t think how the hell to do it.

Like what?

Things like, you want to write from an eight-year old boy’s point of view and I’m going: “Well, can I? Would it be realistic? Could I make it realistic? That’s awfully hard, I’ll try something else.”

Does such professionalism come with a risk?

I think you can fall into a trap. If you’ve got a very successful career in one genre with one character, it’s very easy just to keep on writing stories that are slightly different from previous stories but just different enough so they don’t put off your publisher or your reader. I’m sure every crime fan in the world can name writers who probably should have stopped by now or tried something new.

Do you regret making Rebus old when the series was young?

Ha! Limiting the life span of the series… Well, he had to be 40 in the first book, because he had to have had a previous life that he’d managed to block out. Time had to have passed. Young man, training for the SAS, something terrible happens, and he’s able to push it to the back of his mind or stick it into a compartment and not think about it again. So I thought: “How long would have passed? Probably the best part of 15 or 20 years.” I totalled that up and thought: “That makes him about 40.”

When I thought it was only going to be one book, that decision didn’t matter, but then about three or four books into the series, I decided: “He’s actually going to age in real time. He’s not going to be preserved in aspic the way a lot of detectives are in fiction.” That way I could realistically show the changing nature of Edinburgh. Some time has passed from his first adventure set in ’87,  so we get the parliament, we get the G8 coming to town, and you can show the changes that are taking place in Edinburgh and in Scottish society, but then you come up against that eventual problem: “When does he have to retire?”

I thought he’d probably have to retire at 65. It was a cop who told me: “No, it’s 60 for detectives: mandatory retirement.” So I totalled it up and thought: “Hang on, in ’87 he’s 40. That means in 2007 he’s 60. So 2007’s book has to be his retirement book.” It was as straightforward as that. I’d given myself a problem, but the answer to the problem was for him to retire. It doesn’t mean he’d stop being a cop. I know what he’s doing. He’s working in the cold case unit at Fettes Police Head Quarters in a team of four: one serving police officer and three retired detectives who look at old unsolved murders. Perfect for Rebus…

Read the other 10,000 words of this interview in The Crime Interview: Ian Rankin for Mr Rankin’s thoughts on the rewards and regrets of a life in letters. That, and bringing Rebus back in Standing in Another Man’s Grave: A John Rebus Novel

CLICK HERE FOR THE ONE BOOK EVERYBODY SHOULD READ: The Crime Interview: Ian Rankin

You’ve found a voice to express the frustrated aspirations and heroic fantasies of your generation. Was that your reason to start writing?

Insightful question. All authors are products of their times and their environments. I was one of the earliest members of ‘my generation’ to find success in literature; prose fiction. The speed and intensity of history shaped us. The prospect of nuclear Armageddon; the Birth Control Pill; the explosive growth of the middle class following WWII and the Depression; the Red Scare and McCarthyism; TV essentially in a very Marshall McLuhan fashion bringing the world into our homes; JFK – plus RFK and MLK, Malcolm X – being assassinated; Vietnam; and, not to be ignored, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.

If I’d have had that talent, I’d have gone that way. Writing with a noir eye lets you see around the edges of the terrors of modern daily life. Writing on the edge – say a crime thriller by Richard Stark, Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard – lets you look back at the rest of life with a perspective that sometimes shows the readers something they never otherwise would have articulated or heard articulated. And writing fiction in that vein requires you to enthral the reader with entertainment – not just dazzle him with complex sentences or observations or pontifications. The best fiction is ‘true’ – and finding truth is at the heart of crime, thriller, suspense, noir, espionage, mystery fiction.

What are your thoughts on genre divisions and literary reviews?

I think ‘fiction criticism’ should stop trying to put its subject into tidy hierarchical ghettos just so they can serve course catalogs at universities and PhD theses. Hamlet and Macbeth were popular entertainments with spies, murders, ghosts. Hammett almost lived long enough to see himself go from ‘hack pulp writer’ to ‘great American author’. Sure, some fiction is written within limits and aimed at a particular type of enjoyment. But too often critical attention is created by academics who come out of navel-gazing education and ‘criticize’ to win approval of their fellow critics.

Do formulas ever help writers and their critics?

I consider ‘formulas’ dangerous to all fiction – for example, the ‘academic novel’ so beloved by… academics, gee, what a surprise – suffers the more formulaic it is. The best three academic novels I’ve read are Lucky Jim, I’ve Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, and The Wonderboys.

To me, the best crime or noir or espionage writers start with the necessary elements to put their work in that definition – Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, John LeCarre, Hammett & Chandler & Cain – then let their story burst beyond that. In Six Days of the Condor, for example, I deliberately chose to go against the James Bond rule of the times and make my hero incapable of doing anything I couldn’t do, actually, making him less competent than I thought I was.

How did you come to that writing philosophy?

The economic crash of industrial America – facilitated by the Reagan Administration, I would argue – triggered Steeltown. One Saturday back when newspapers were thick – early 1980’s – I saw a two sentence story in the back pages of my Washington Post that a citizens’ group president from Youngstown, Ohio, had testified to Congress that with the crash of the steel industry, the only groups with any power left in his once booming hometown were competing groups of organized crime. The convicted and bizarre Congressman Jim Traficant – Ohio, released from prison – is from Youngstown.

It was like a vortex hit me and swept me up, and I saw the novel I wanted to write, one that in part was an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest which had been written about Butte, Montana – Montana being my home state, Butte the tough “city” – we’re talking less than 100,000 when I was growing up – that dominated the state. Hammett wrote about smokestack cities on their way up in America, I wanted to write about them on their way down, and both of us used the same fictional model: crime novel.

I went to Youngstown and hung with the citizens group, labor unions, other citizens for several days. There’d been something like 58 car bombings in one year a year or so before I got there. This was 1988.  They showed me the outside of a casino that did $28 million a year in illegal biz that it took the FBI a couple more years to bust. A great reporting trip.

From the start, I knew the title of the book should be: “Stealtown” A deliberate pun, one like Hammett used in Red Harvest, and one that I thought would make customers pick up the book and wonder.

Then several things happened. My wife got pregnant with our son Nathan and I developed Graves disease – a thyroid condition that’s no big deal if diagnosed and treated, but her pregnancy was troubled, and once I realized that I was ill, shaking, trembling, dropping weight – an lb. every other day – I figured I had cancer and that if I told anyone, that might endanger the unborn baby. Author Kitty Kelley threw us a baby shower and the reaction of all our friends to the sight of me made my wife Bonnie call a doctor, who called me, diagnosed me over the phone, and all was well – or on the slow mend – almost immediately.

But before that, I’d delivered the MS to Bantam publishers. Went up to NYC still “secretly” dying – I know, how stupid and paranoid! – got double teamed by the editor and publisher who thought their “new” idea for a title was “brilliant”. They’d already rejected it specifically once before: “Steeltown.” I sat there, not able to ascertain what the stakes were, worried that if I said no to a stupid title, they’d kill the book or publish it “small.” So to get the book published and the next chunk of the advance for my family, I agreed. I would never buy a book with that title, but I sold one with it out of unfounded paranoia. Dumb.

So the city in my book became named Steeltown. I was going to keep it no named. The book starts: “Once upon a time, Steeltown worked big magic in the great American dream, but on the May morning the man flew into that city, he saw empty smokestacks rising into a clear sky.” Then it’s the private eye playing one faction off against another to gain control of the town novel. I even named chapters like Hammett. The French loved it and got it; mild sales and reviews in the U.S.

What’s the story behind River of Darkness?

River of Darkness is the noir covert history of what we call the Baby Boom generation of Americans from Vietnam to Iran-Contra, told as a cross-country chase. And it’s the closest thing to an autobiography I’ve written. Again, the only weakness is its title, which I foolishly locked onto way early in the book – I even passed by the better title in my consideration, mostly out of arrogance to recognize it when I heard it.

What was it?

Naw, don’t ask, maybe someday I’ll get to re-print it and use it then.

Is all of your writing noir?

River of Darkness is full of “social” fiction/journalism, but disguised, with the characters and plot racing through it. Mad Dogs also races through the post 9/11 American landscape. It took the French giving me an award for me to grasp that I’m a noir author – and that noir is essentially the ‘social novel’, but one in which characters must face the reality that they must choose from imperfect choices, and that though they must rebel to find themselves, they are doomed to life’s absurdities.

What makes a good social novel?

I think good crime novels are good social novels – Huckleberry Finn was about Huck breaking the law to free, thus steal, the slave Jim. I think ‘social novels’ – Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Dickens – have faded because it takes so damn long from the time your manuscript is approved – let alone sold to a publisher – the social conditions you’re writing about have been over-run by new concerns.

Authors who seek to use fiction to scream about some issue usually end up being out-dated by the time their books roll off the presses and often end up looking stupid – circa 1973, I read a book in which Nixon was an all-wise hero. Because the world moves faster and more intensely every day, setting a novel in a contemporary social structure is increasingly difficult.

Novelist, critic, academic John Gardner became famous for the not so original position that all fiction presents a moral vision, so a writer should be careful about what he does. I’ve always had a dual fascination: writing and politics. I worked in the U.S. Senate after I was a 25 year old success with Six Days of the Condor, for example. I think that writers who ignore the moral issues and complexities of their times at best are fantasy creators. What’s ironic about that is how the science fiction authors beyond Huxley and Orwell used ‘fantasy’ to mirror every social issue their neighbors faced.

Also, at least in America, crime writers are the authors most likely to actually go into the streets of neighborhoods and lives they don’t know in search of backgrounds and stories. A good novel of any categorization makes you feel and empathize with the characters, makes you feel not alone. If you’re writing a novel that’s removed from realities of society, well, the empathy becomes shallow.

All that said, when I write about a particular crime, the particulars of that crime are what’s of utmost importance. What you go for is some sort of universality: anybody can be a murder victim.

What do you hope that does for your readers?

Crime novels give us a chance to think about justice and crime in a safe fashion. I think we read crime fiction for an odd reason: we seek to escape reality often by reading fictions that we feel – or believe – somehow reflect a deeper reality than that which we face when we close the book. Which is ‘better’ for your reader to feel when he’s done with your book – “I wish that’s how it was” or “That’s how it is”? I think the answer is how much and how true you make the reader feel.

What’s the appeal of criminal protagonists?

In fiction, the better the villain, the stronger the story. Yeah, we fear – and love – Hannibal Lecter, and I think there is some level of “I wish I could just shoot people who piss me off” in every reader. People are drawn to strength, people who ‘do’ rather than ‘obey,’ and criminals by definition refuse a certain level of obedience to society. Camus’s brilliant understanding of the necessity of rebellion applies here.

But inseparable from this are issues of responsibility, narcissism, sadism, greed, arrogance, insanity. A criminal’s life requires deception, and thus is ultimately inauthentic and limited in its rewards. Today more than ever, we realize how much power we actually lack, so someone who seizes all the power he can regardless of what moral or legal or practical lines he crosses is fascinating.

How often do you think that leads to an examination of core principles of morality?

I think crime fiction by definition requires examination of “core principles of morality” – Les Miserables, for example: theft is wrong, so not stealing but letting your child starve is…? I don’t think we read crime fiction for lessons on how to act, except for a few idiots who ape TV or novel fiction to become criminals. We read to be thrilled, to escape, to be entertained, to be intrigued. I think everyone who read The Godfather at some point wanted to be in the Mafia because it felt so powerful and energetic, even if they would have recoiled in horror at doing what Mafia people do.

Speaking of social stratification and conflicting loyalties to multiple authorities, has dramatising corrupt definitions of justice had a noticeable impact on people’s real-life expectations of ‘justice served’?

Absolutely – and that’s both good and bad. Juries in America are starting to free defendants because they, as consumers of fiction, have been taught to believe that the extensions of Sherlock Holmes and J. Edgar Hoover to TV’s CSI mean that the prosecution should be able to scientifically prove everything not just beyond the shadow of a doubt but as precisely and cleanly as 2 + 2 = 4.

I think good crime fiction can help a reader understand “what might happen” so they can better understand the chaos and fears of their lives. The better the crime novel – on all levels, including action – the better portrait of reality it creates. Thus, the reader can choose to see more than just the fiction when he’s done with it, his eyes and heart and mind can have been opened, if only for an instant. What happens then is so individualized I can’t speculate.

I think a good crime novel can let a reader feel that at least in this book, things make sense. Thus, a logical next step might be: “What kind of sense can I make of my ‘real’ world using the ‘education’ gained through reading this crime novel?”

Can you define your writing philosophy?

I try to write my fiction ‘true.’ I have seen terrible things and met terrible people; I have seen wonderful things and met wonderful people. To deny the terrible cheapens the wonderful and obscures truth.

Can you recommend a fellow writer?

Richard Thompson, the folk-rock poet singer-songwriter. He is an under-appreciated author, writes novels as 3-5 minute songs. And on that note, let me say that the best author who’s my age – born in 1949 – is Bruce Springsteen. As I said in Mad Dogs: “The poets of our generation put down their pens and picked up electric guitars.” Not all poets, of course – there are great ones out there, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, etc. – and not me. But “if I could-a, I would-a.”

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Why do you think your work is both critically and commercially successful?Is the deeper structure something you feel broadens the appeal of your work, or is it what you started writing crime fiction for in the first place?

First, thank you for the kind words about my writing. I’m not sure I’m best qualified to say why people read my work, but I imagine that some read it purely for the entertainment value of the story, while others are interested in engaging with the underlying ideas. Both are legitimate reasons, and I aim to write novels that succeed on both levels.

Are the underlying ideas the reason I write? Hell, yes. As a reader, I’m interested in books that raise questions about what it means to be human, what it means to live in a society and the tension between individual morals and societal mores. And I’m interested in books that do interesting things with language. Those same values are what I strive for when I write. I’d be bored if I didn’t.

What is crime fiction?

Traditionally, most crime fiction was based on the following assumptions: The universe is a fundamentally orderly and just place. A crime occurs, which introduces disorder and tips the metaphysical scales of justice out of balance. The investigator-protagonist fights to restore order and justice to the universe by solving the crime and bringing the criminal to justice, either within the system or at the barrel of a gun. Many crime novels are still based on this premise, and some of them are very good. But crime fiction has evolved and become more sophisticated. Many crime novels today exist in a universe that is not fundamentally ordered or just.

Has the crime novel, then, replaced the social novel?

Yes. In fact, I think the crime novel is the social novel of our time, and I think that the crime novel is well suited to the task.

Do you mind putting into words how you define this ‘task’ and how crime novels fulfil it?

The good ones raise provocative questions about how we live, the compromises we make in life, and how we might otherwise live. They offer different perspectives to consider – or, as my grandmother used to say, ‘good grist for the mill’ – but the reader is the collaborator in the experience of a novel, and needs to be given room to participate. Smart readers are not looking for didactic instructions; they are looking for ideas to engage.

And finding these demands we foray into extreme situations and forms of behaviour?

Definitely, I think that is one of the strong appeals of crime fiction. Crime fiction demands certain things from the author, and guarantees certain things to the reader. By definition, it guarantees that we are dealing with human behaviour that is so universally condemned that it has been outlawed. We are dealing with behaviour that has real societal consequences, beyond the angst of the main character or the hurt feelings of secondary characters. And as a result, it puts those characters through a crucible.

It also demands that something actually happen. It demands a plot. I’ve spoken at universities where ‘plot’ is considered a dirty word. But plot is not a dirty word, unless it is independent of character. Plot is simply ‘character in action’ and crime fiction demands that characters take action. Action doesn’t have to mean car chases and gunfights. It simply means that the characters have to do something. And as a result, crime fiction rarely fails to deliver a story. This doesn’t mean that the crime novel has to unfold as a linear narrative; even an episodic crime novel will have provided a story by the time you turn the final page.

Is crime fiction about remaining true to certain core principles of morality and reassuring us when we may act against them for a greater benefit?

A fascinating question. If we have acted against our core principles – even for a “greater benefit” – then we cannot be said to have remained true to said principles, can we? And this is where crime fiction shines. The straightjacket of moral absolutes vs. the slippery slope of moral relativism. To my mind, the best crime fiction does not falsely reassure us that we are still ‘basically good’ if we betray our core principles, but neither does it shy away from the fact that we cannot always achieve a measure of justice without that betrayal. We can rationalize the hell out of the betrayal – and rationalization may be the most powerful attribute of the human mind – but in the best crime novels, there is always the crisis of praxis; when the rubber meets the road, when our principles hit the pavement.

Does that mean the genre could do with more critical attention?

If, by critical attention, you mean attention from newspaper book critics, then I think crime fiction does quite well, relative to other genres. Of course, all books are faring poorly, since the newspaper industry is in crisis and papers are cutting their books sections, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. But if you mean critical attention from academia, then yes, I think crime fiction is overlooked.

What might be the benefit if this attitude were to change?

To crime fiction authors, aside from a possible ego boost, the benefit might be increased sales to university students now required to read crime fiction. The benefit to academia would be that the study of modern literature would now include some of the most socially relevant and politically charged writing of our time. But part of the problem stems from the artificial barriers erected by genre classification. To Kill A Mockingbird, Light In August, Crime and Punishment, Native Son, The Man with the Golden Arm, The Stranger, Hamlet… the list could go on forever. These are all considered ‘literary fiction’ – and rightly so – but they are also all ‘crime fiction’.

Where do you draw the line?

I understand the value of genre classification for selling books, but for academic study, genre seems a construct that is antithetical to the study of good writing. As Raymond Chandler – at least, I think it was Chandler – said: There are two kinds of writing, good writing and bad writing.

How do you feel about formulaic writing? Is it a liability to the genre’s reputation?

I think the conventions and tropes of crime fiction can be useful – especially to subvert – but they sometimes devolve into formula, which is a recipe for uninteresting writing. And yes, that is probably a liability to the reputation of the genre in academic circles.But I think we have to keep in mind that there are a lot of books published each year, and most of them are not very good. There are formulaic contributions to every genre, including literary fiction, and most of the bad books published each year exhibit formulaic writing.

What do you make of Scottish crime fiction?

I wouldn’t say that I’m well-read in Scottish crime fiction, but I’m very impressed by what I have read. The Jack Laidlaw series by William McIlvanney is absolutely required reading for anyone interested in crime fiction, as are the works of Ian RankinChris Brookmyre, and Val McDermid. Recent additions to the Scottish crime fiction scene that have caught my eye include Allan Guthrie, Denise Mina, and Russel D. McLean. Scotland has made – and continues to make – a significant impact, and you cannot make a thorough study of crime fiction without Scottish crime fiction.

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George Pelecanos has previously worked as a line cook, bartender, dishwasher, and shoe salesman. He has also achieved considerable critical success since the publication of his debut novel in 1992, and especially since his involvement as a writer on HBO’s seminal show The Wire. His books are known for their snappy dialogue and social commentary, which may be why Esquire magazine refers to him as the ‘poet laureate of the D.C. crime world’. On such an esteemed background the launch of a new detective series based in Washington ought to be cause for considerable excitement. Unfortunately, The Cut does not quite make the cut of Pelecanos’s best.

Spero Lucas is an Iraq war veteran who has carved out a living as an investigator for a defence lawyer. He’s 29, athletic, and, like so many of the author’s characters, has a penchant for soul music, which allows his author to smoothly segue into the story’s soundtrack, a chorus in counterpoint to his Greek descent and family relationships. When an incarcerated crime boss hires him to investigate a case of theft, Spero is soon embroiled in a world of guns, violence, and drugs. His interactions with two young drug dealers point to the futility of the war on drugs, an idea that Pelecanos has expounded at length throughout his career.

There is much to be admired in The Cut. Sections of the dialogue show Pelecanos at his best. Spero’s elder brother Leo, is a teacher and their conversations are familiar to anyone who has ever quarrelled with a sibling: “‘He’s already grown Ma,’ said Spero, passing the orzo to Leo. ‘He’s not gonna get taller if he eats more, he’s just gonna get fat’ … ‘That’s all muscle back there,’ said Leo. ‘That’s why I can’t wear those skinny Levis like you do. I got a man’s build.’” Such moments of domesticity are a trusted staple of Pelecanos’s character development, and once again they provide welcome relief from the genre’s tired and wired stereotypes in their cycles of gratuitous violence. When he even offers up a few choice reading references, Pelecanos is in his element, never more so than when Spero’s brother gets to read Elmore Leonard as a homework assignment.

In short, The Cut has much to celebrate, but several factors cloud if not collapse the central story arc. For instance, sections of the book read like an advertisement for Apple’s Iphone, and since Spero is so conspicuous in his overuse of the phone, the Hollywood product placement eventually eclipses his surveillance work. What is worse, while the novel’s main villain is suitably despicable, we never get the sense that he or his nefarious underlings might pose a viable threat to the war veteran. This comes as the actual surprise, since most of Pelecanos’s previous novels threatened their far from invincible protagonists with a violent dénouement. The absence of such ambiguity finally leads to another absence – that of his trademark tense atmosphere. Here’s hoping that the sequel drops the dross and picks up the pace.

What brought you to crime fiction and what are your thoughts on the distinction between commercial and literary fiction?

I am, at heart, a story guy and a structure slut. I studied Shakespeare, particularly the tragedies, because they are terrific thrillers. Macbeth: great mob tale. Hamlet: ghost story. Othello: pre-noir. Etc. Stateside, I love Faulkner – the corncob rape scene in Sanctuary? Need we say more about lurid classifications? I collect his paperbacks from the 50s for their great pulp covers. I enjoy terrific stories where I can find them, and one can find them in all sections of a bookstore. There’s a lot of poorly written stuff as well, both ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’, the only distinction seeming to be that commercial crap actually makes the authors money. If you write in clichés, get published, and DON’T make money, well that’s an even sadder state of affairs.

I also like to point out that ‘commercial’ writing extends across the board; Updike did okay for himself. Dickens never had trouble paying the rent – and his literary reputation has survived relatively well. When Gertrude Stein came to California, she only wanted to meet Dashiell Hammett – okay, and Chaplin too, but that dilutes the anecdote.

I think crime fiction has replaced the social novel. I’d press someone to find a better practitioner of the craft than, say, Poe or Chandler or Lethem or Lehane – or to find someone who better reveals to us a city or a family or a moral conundrum. But I find it’s no use getting defensive. One can’t really win arguing that he or she should be taken more seriously. Better to write as goddamned well as one can manage, and let people sort it out a couple hundred years hence.

I should clarify: I think your and others’ efforts to draw more attention to our kind of writing is noble and an important contribution to discourse regarding matters literary; what’s the good of books if we can’t argue about them? I was remarking that authors commenting on their own work is generally less helpful. No one’s ever won an argument claiming that they should be taken seriously, or that they should be accorded more respect. When it comes to genre and respect, I like to rip off Oscar Wilde: “Books are well-written or badly written. That is all.”

Are well-written crime novels about epic perseverance in a world where there is no healing, only constant movement towards it?

That’s certainly one good take on it. I think that there are a lot of angles on crime fiction – some reads like blue-collar tragedy, some like suburban morality tales, some like social novels. They’re all over the map, which is one thing I love about it.

Does the crime writer sit at the table of literature like a transvestite cousin at a family gathering, where he is silently pardoned while his fabulous hat is studiously ignored?

Wow. I wish we had that chair at our family reunion. To be honest, I don’t give this issue much thought anymore. People forget – Camus was inspired to write The Stranger after reading James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Dickens was paid by the word. I don’t really care what others term appropriate or worthwhile – just what I feel in my gut when I’m writing and when I’m reading. Let it all be judged a hundred years after we’re dead.

What are you interested in as a writer?

How to deal with the unknown and unpredictable… A lot of my academic work was centered on Jung, and that’s because I believe that certain narratives are selected as useful to the human race – same as opposable thumbs.

What kind of criminals are you interested in?

What interest me are the ‘one small decision at a time’ criminals that I discuss in We Know.

If crime novels are the current affairs of art, do you see yourself as a tour guide to modern culture?

Though I do incorporate aspects of modern culture in the books to make them ring true, I think that my main job is to tell a story with real characters. I’m more interested in plot, structure, and character than pop culture. But I am a pop culture junkie, so it tends to work its way in where appropriate.

Why do you write?

I think I write to figure that out for myself. Often, it’s not until I’m done with a novel that I look back at it and know what it was about for me, what drove me to write it. If I know in advance why I’m writing something, I doubt it would work out. It’s sort of like deciding the morality of what you’re writing ahead of time – that’s not writing; it’s propaganda.

Are you saying you’re concerned with structural violence?

Yes, I suppose so – not that that’s a primary motivation. But one of the great things about crime fiction is that you can punish people and social structures that make you angry. So The Program, about mind control cults, was my reaction to looking into them, and growing angrier, and angrier, and angrier…

Is it fair to say that reading and writing crime fiction is about more than entertainment to you?

Yes – absolutely. Narrative is the backbone to our culture, and to our own process of psychological development. If you removed everything I’d ever learned from stories, I’d be one useless human indeed.

What kind of relationship do you have with your protagonists?

Intimate. I live with them for years before I write them. When I’m finally ready to start, I spend more time with them than I do with my family.

If you had to start all over tomorrow, would you?

Without question and with the same enthusiasm.

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For whom do you write?

Hmmm. I guess every effective writer has an audience in mind, and in that sense, I write for people who read crime fiction and have certain expectations about what they’re likely to experience when they read a mystery. I am one of those readers. But my favorite writers manage to satisfy in terms of presenting a compelling story with characters I care about and give me something to think about and aesthetic pleasure, but don’t do so in a way so familiar it’s formulaic. So I don’t write for readers in the sense that I’m trying to deliver a product that meets certain specifications. I’m trying to write the kind of story I enjoy reading. Whether people actually read it or not is less important to me than writing something worth reading. Of course, I have a day job.

Where do you stand on the genre debate?

A few years ago we had a visiting speaker on campus, Mark Edmundson who teaches English Literature at the University of Virginia and wrote a book called Why Read? which argues that reading good books is a means of self-understanding and betterment – sort of an Oprah’s Book Club message except that he thinks the choice of what books you read for betterment should be made by experts like him rather than by television celebrities. I had breakfast with him, and we had a fairly raucous argument about the value of crime fiction; he asked whether I would teach a course on it. I said, maybe, if I had the chance. And he was disgusted: why waste students’ time with the second rate when they could be reading Shakespeare? What, plays about rape, murder, dismemberment, and feeding one’s ex her murdered children in a pie? Proper literature like The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus? Long story short, I now teach a course on international crime fiction. So there, Mark Edmundson.

Sorry, I warned you – I do go on and on! But I really should answer your question. I think part of the reason there’s a division between literary and popular fiction is that literary writers, who are often trained in MFA programs and who go on to teach in MFA programs to make ends meet, feel a bit annoyed that their hard-wrought prose doesn’t have much success in the marketplace, so they blame readers and the book industry for being too lowbrow. Quite a few readers who love crime fiction tend to return the favor, characterizing literary fiction as snobbish, boring, and full of self-absorbed characters who don’t do anything interesting, which isn’t entirely fair either. There’s good and bad in both camps. As for why thrillers – well, Patrick Anderson gives a pretty good explanation of why they are popular in The Triumph of the Thriller, though it’s mostly a run-through of his favorite (and most despised) authors in the genre. I tried to give my own answer (of a sort) in this article that appeared in Clues a while back:

http://homepages.gac.edu/~fister/copycatcrimes.html

Certainly in my own fiction I tend to write about things that are bugging me because it’s how I figure them out. My reading choices tend the same way, toward fiction that is socially aware and that will teach me something about the issues it engages – both in terms of information but also in terms of empathy and identification with human experience. I’m particularly fond of Scandinavian crime fiction because it treads a nice balance between the social panorama and individual character development.

Some would argue that the status of legitimacy that ‘literary fiction’ enjoys is owed to the fig leaf that a serious purpose provides. Since crime fiction is about the imminence of violent disorder, and it is hard to find a more contemporary topic, does the genre not have at least the same claim to recognition?

I do feel crime fiction (when done well, as it very often is) provides what literature always has for its readers: a reflection on our times, an exploration of human experience, an opportunity to think about ethical dilemmas through the lens of a story, and aesthetic pleasure. The fact that it is often derivative and formulaic doesn’t alter the fact that there are talented writers in the genre who write terrific fiction by any standard. I recently finished Lush Life by Richard Price that I could use as exhibit A: it’s simply a wonderful novel. There’s a lot of fiction that falls into the “literary” category that is also formulaic and derivative; that doesn’t mean it’s all rubbish. Yet many readers are uninterested in self-described literary fiction because they believe it’s more focused on stylistics than story and on exploring minutiae of personal experience through carefully-wrought descriptions of small events rather than in taking on larger social issues through dramatic story-telling.

Second, even when crime fiction isn’t particularly good in a literary sense, I think it still tells us something valuable about who we are and what we make of the world we’re in. What does it say about us that so many of our popular stories are about serial killers who stalk women, do nasty things to them, and create a public spectacle to celebrate their deviance – particularly when so many of the protagonists are themselves women and the largest audience for these stories is women? I don’t know, but I suspect it means something. To understand that, it would be interesting to explore the reading experience itself, as Janet Radway did in the 1980s for women reading romances. She went into the project thinking women were being schooled in patriarchal social relationships, which is what scholars surmised by looking at the texts, but found that compulsive readers of romance were totally hip to the absurdity of the “happily ever after” stories, but were actually sounding out their own lived experience through the contrast between idealized patriarchy and how things actually work. (Of course, Edmundson thought Radway was rubbish, that asking readers about their experiences was pointless, because what do they know? They’re not experts.)

At its best, the genre tackles social issues in a way that helps us approach important issues such as the roots of violence, the effects of crime on victims, and how social institutions function in matters of justice – or how they fail. I think crime fiction is actually uniquely suited for exploring these issues because it plays on our anxieties, which play a large role on how social issues are formed collectively.

What do you consider to be the main appeal of crime fiction?

It engages us with questions of right and wrong in a variety of arenas – relationships, social issues, environmental issues, whatever – in the compelling form of a story. It lets us get close to things that give us anxiety and get a better handle on them, but without any risk of getting hurt.

Does it offer an education?

There’s some interesting psychological research that supports the claim that fiction has a role to play in how people make meaning. For example: Victor Nell has studied the trance-like state that reading induces and found that neural processing demands are higher when reading a book than when experiencing other media. It’s not escape from thinking, it’s escape into thinking that happens to effectively block out other distractions.

Richard Gerrig studied the psychology of reading and one of his experiments tested whether people could separate the “facts” related in fiction from those relayed in non-fiction. Basically, they couldn’t; what we read in fiction enters our knowledge base, particularly when we’re reading about a topic we know little about. That to me means writers of fiction should be concerned about how accurate they are simply because we don’t mentally shelve fiction separately from non-fiction.

And a gang of psychologists write an interesting blog “on fiction” – http://www.onfiction.ca/ – also has some of their research studies posted there.

The Telegraph also recently reported on a study from Manchester and the LSE on how fiction can “explain the world’s problems” better than reports – *http://tinyurl.com/58l5df.* And a library and information science professor at the University of Western Ontario, Catherine Sheldrick Ross, has studied what readers get out of what they read for pleasure and found that readers learn a lot from books that they read for pleasure – some of it self-knowledge, some of it knowledge about the world.

What are your topical concerns?

As a reader I gravitate toward crime fiction that focuses on the choices individuals make in a world where there are a lot of ethical choices facing us. In In the Wind I was thinking about police culture in Chicago and how difficult it would be for a cop with integrity to respond to the kind of brutality that is fairly bog-standard in the CPD. It’s making a choice to not close ranks that sets up the main character’s situation. I was also intrigued by the striking similarities between government surveillance during the Vietnam War era and what was emerging in the post 9/11 environment. The constitutional issues were making my blood boil, so writing about it creatively was a therapeutic outlet.

Through the Cracks involves race and criminal justice as well as violence against women, and the debates about immigration here and the barely-concealed racism behind the rhetoric was definitely feeding my urge to write about it.

I think crime fiction provides a fertile ground for dramatizing and particularizing the ethical choices we make as a society and by making those choices the basis of a story they become more complex, more real, more compelling than when they are abstract policies or political positions. And the interesting thing is that by using people who enforce laws as the protagonists, we can see what happens when that enforcement is complicated by human nature and by the tendency for power to corrupt.

Ian Rankin’s Rebus is a wonderful fulcrum for that tension between individual morality and institutional failure. The ending of Exit Music, where we see how emotionally connected he is to Big Ger Cafferty demonstrates this nicely as the lines between crime and law enforcement have blurred.

Are you concerned with the social structures that facilitate crime?

Yes, totally. The way we deal with drugs and guns in our country, for example, coupled with the lack of opportunity for entire communities of young men ensures that there will be a certain amount of violent crime in those areas. Crime fiction often starts with the moment of violence and works backward. Uncovering the build-up to the outburst is what drives the story. Then again, some crime is nearly random. In Richard Price’s Lush Life, a kid who is holding a gun during a robbery fires it unintentionally when the victim responds in an unexpected way. But why was that kid involved in a hold-up in the first place? Why was a gun involved? Why did they pick on those people to mug? It turns out to be a very involving story though the crime itself is not complex or well-planned. Those character-driven stories interest me far more than ones that depend on elaborate plotting because they seem much more interested in the ethical issues, less in using deviance as a convenient way to set up an exciting situation.

Does such crime fiction instruct readers on how to deal with crime and the criminal in a culture that is searching for an ethical centre?

It does, and sometimes it does so in a valuable way; sometimes not so valuable. I get annoyed with the standard profiler-pursues-deviant-but-clever-serial-killer storyline because it bears so little resemblance to reality and the ethical center it presents is, to me, false. It sets up a Manichean struggle between pure evil and absolute good (represented usually by a federal agent who has to probe the elaborate deviance of the serial killer in a way that will give the reader the most thrills, which often have a misogynistic female-in-jeopardy element). It’s a mythology that is comforting, but it doesn’t tell us anything about good and evil other than that we’re excited by deviance but want to have it put back in its box after it’s done its work. For example, I think depicting torture as a legitimate and even noble pursuit in the television series 24 makes the audience complicit in a policy that is ethically wrong. It’s comforting because it excuses violence as a heroic necessity and it reinforces government power rather than asking us to question it. (It’s also entirely unrealistic about how that power actually operates.) On the opposite side would be The Wire, which doesn’t make easy excuses for the people in power and complicates our understanding of crime and ethics – and is much more realistic in depicting social institutions at work.

Do you see crime fiction as a guide to modern life? Can its protagonist be a role model for the compromises we make every day as a way to survive the modern world?

That’s an interesting thought. I suspect we see crime fiction dramatizing questions we face, but making them far more interesting than they are in our day-to-day life. Most of us don’t have jobs that matter the way we imagine a detective’s job does. Of course, in reality there’s a fair amount of boring stuff in a detective’s job, too, and plenty of frustration with delays, paperwork, dead ends, and the knowledge that making an arrest won’t stop people from hurting each other. But in fiction it’s a great frame for questions of good and evil and the choices we make.

Can crime fiction investigate moral principles and identify where they need revision?

I’ve heard a lot of readers say that they value the way crime fiction arrives at some sense of order out of chaos, that they respond to the triumph of justice, even if the characters and the choices they make are complex and more gray than black and white. I think readers want to understand questions of justice through the stories of characters enacting choices – because the empathy we develop enriches our understanding of ethical choices and perhaps helps us rehearse our own responses if we are faced with choices of our own. I think at its best it also helps us understand people with whom we may have little contact – people of races and classes other than our own or from other cultures. I felt very much better informed about Palestine after reading Matt Beynon Ress’s The Collaborator of Bethlehem, not because I learned any facts, but because of the way he depicted day-to-day life and customs and the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in an occupied zone with fanatics playing on people’s emotions.

How would you define the relationship between our current culture of fear and crime fiction’s current popularity?

I wrote an article about that – concluding “It gives our deepest fears narrative form—but doesn’t necessarily provide simple solutions that resolve our anxiety. Jenkins has pointed out, “[f]or all the science and quantification used to substantiate a new problem, its true momentum will be located in its appeal to deep-rooted anxieties that respond poorly to rational inquiry, still less rebuttal” (Using Murder 229). He suggests that the formation of social problems can be understood through its treatment in popular culture, where our fears are given dramatic form. Since crime fiction deliberately draws us into an exploration of that which frightens us and frames our inchoate anxieties in textual coherence, it may indeed be just the place to conduct such an examination.”

http://homepages.gac.edu/~fister/copycatcrimes.html

Does voyeurism, that Victorian ‘virtue’, persist in the genre’s theory that every private life tells a story of secret shame and trauma?

Huh, I never considered that. I think the form that voyeurism takes in popular fiction is an interest in “entering the mind of a monster/serial killer” (though why, I’ve never been sure) – and that particular monster is largely an invention, or at least is a fascination with a kind of evil that is quite rare. In these stories the monsters only appear normal on the outside, but are secretly some other form of life, alternate life forms sneaking into our midst. It’s a way of being titillated by the idea of evil while being able to feel absolved of any connection with it. The writers who tackle the complexity of real lives – where good and evil are more complex – are voyeurs of society like Dickens when he wrote about poverty.

How would you describe your long-term relationship with your characters?

I don’t quite know how to answer that. I got burned on my first published mystery/thriller, On Edge, in that the contract was for three books and I thought I would be able to do things with a character I liked and whose story was just starting. The editor left, the publisher canned the series idea though I had two more manuscripts drafted, and my character had to take early retirement. Now I’m a little less emotionally invested – which may be maturity, or may just be that I’m gun shy. As a reader, though, I am not as interested in the development of series characters and their lives as I am in each individual story, so perhaps that shapes my attitude, too.

If you had to start all over tomorrow, what would be your last thought before going to bed?

Probably the same as always – I’d better put the book I’m reading aside before I fall asleep and it hits me on the nose.

CLICK HERE FOR THE ONE BOOK EVERYBODY SHOULD READ: On Edge

How would you describe yourself in a sentence?

A good guy.

How would your best friend describe you in a sentence?

A funny guy.

If God exists, what will be your first words at the pearly gates?

You’ve got some serious issues, dude.

Crime fiction is at its best when…

It is honest and unflinching.

The worst literary vice is…

Too much reliance on metaphors and flowery language.

Why do you keep reading a book?

To find out what happens next and to be entertained.

Which of your books would you suggest to a first time Starr reader?

Panic Attack

Why?

Think it’s the best example of what I do.

What do you like about your writing?

That I can entertain myself.

What don’t you like about it yet?

Nothing really. I think I can always push myself in new directions, but if I didn’t think what I was doing was awesome I wouldn’t do it.

What’s your favourite word?

The name of someone who is very special to me.

Which single word would you remove from the parlance of our time?

None. I love language–the good and the bad. I don’t think any language should be censored. If there are words that offend people I think they should be used even more frequently.

Which single profession would you remove from the business world?

Paid baby killers. Are there paid baby killers?

Which single person would you remove from the planet?

One of college English teachers….I’m kiddng….Well, okay, maybe I’m not.

Which fictional character would you most like to meet in real life?

Patrick Bateman.

What’s the best one-liner you’ve ever read or written?

Love anything from Henie Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield.

An American, an Englishman, and a Scotsman walk into a bar…

and drink some beer?

Your five favourite party guests are…

Haven’t had party guests lately. My NYC apartment is too small.

Which book by another author do you wish you had written?

I never think that way. I have a lot of favorite books, but writing is personal, and I don’t wish I’d written any of the books I admire.

Sum up your latest book in no more than 20 words, including its title:

The Craving, the sequel to my fantasy thriller The Pack, coming this spring from Penguin.

What scene or theme did it start with?

A suspense sequence involving a major character from The Pack.

What happened next?

Can’t give that away. But let’s just say no one is safe in this novel.

What was the greatest challenge in writing it?

Well, it’s a sequel, so the challenge was making it suspenseful for readers of The Pack, but making it mysterious for readers who pick up The Craving without reading the first book first. It’s better if you read The Pack first, but you don’t have to.

What was the greatest moment in writing it?

Getting the perfect first sentence.

What are the greatest problems in writing today?

All the uncertainty with e-books.

What are the greatest opportunities in writing today?

E-books, authors getting more in control of their destinies.

What’s the most amusing situation you’ve found yourself in because of your writing?

Oh definitely a recent event with Ken Bruen, Camilla Lackberg, and Simon Beckett in a small town in Germany where we wound up as participants in a three-ring circus!

What do you wish you’d known when you started writing?

That I would still be doing this 15 years later. It would have taken some of the early pressure off.

CLICK HERE FOR THE ONE BOOK EVERYBODY SHOULD READ: Cold Caller

Marcia Clarke’s first foray into fiction has all the ingredients of a big success: as the lead prosecutor in the OJ Simpson murder case, Clarke has first-hand experience of the inner workings of LA law enforcement and the grimy and sordid crime scene that goes with it.

The book begins promisingly (if a little predictably): Rachael Knight, a workaholic DA, addicted to truth, justice and (possibly) booze finds herself immersed in a trial involving her equally committed, handsome young colleague, Jake, who is found dead in a seedy hotel room with a teenage boy in what appears to be a sex-related murder-suicide. Banking on gut feeling, Knight and her sassy, sexy cop friend Bailey Keller break all the rules in the book and ignore protocol to embark on disentangling this mystery and clearing Jake’s name. In the mean time, the two must solve a rape case left over from Jake’s case load.

So far, so fascinating. But what proceeds is a confused and unsatisfying narrative that fails to deliver on the promises it makes at the beginning. The narrative is heaving with frequent and unnecessarily detailed descriptions of meals and wardrobe selection and of nuggets of Knight’s petty and often boring thoughts. And Graden? The sex interest that promises to offer so much at the start? After a few uneventful dates, Clarke completely drops the subject until a brief reference at the very end of the book.

The novel predominantly focuses on the rape case which, although it ends up being tied up with Jake’s murder, means that for chapters on end the reader gets nothing to build their suspense or intrigue relating to the case that they had initially invested in. There are just too many factors of the narrative that do not add up, that fizzle-out and die or that are left dangling like damp squibs to give the reader the juicy (if basic) satisfaction they are after in an LA crime fiction novel such as this.

That being the case, there is reason to believe that if the calorie counting Knight and Co return in a sequel they may count on Clark’s ambition to fatten up the story. If she follows the trend in Guilt by Association and puts more meat on the bones of her courtroom dramas, she might soon entice more fans of early John Grisham into her dog eat dog world.

© 2012 The Crime of it All Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha