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 Rankin, Chris 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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