By Russel D McLean
I wasn’t going to comment on the Kelman fiasco. But I guess some of this has been building in me for quite a while. And, yes, its an opinion piece, not an essay, written from the heart about a genre that I truly love as a reader, never mind as a writer. And yes, it does focus on one particular phrase during what sounds like a long rant, but its a phrase that's sheer dismissive tone really hacked me off.
So let’s not directly address Kelman’s dismissal of “f****ng” detective fiction off the bat and instead ask, what is it about crime fiction that I love?
Some days it seems a tough call. I am pretty notorious for my antipathy towards serial killer novels, and a police procedural has to be something pretty special for me to give a damn. And foresnsics novels… I dunno, I’m not about the science so much. And I’m really not about solving a mystery or seeing justice restored. I admit fully that some of crime fiction can be predictable, mundane and conservative. But that is true of any writing. Any genre.
What I love in crime novels at their finest, are the moral and ethical choices that play out on the pages and in the narrative. Not just the predictable ones that create a straight dividing line between the good and the bad, but the ones that struggle to figure out what the right move is, the best way to react to a heightened situation, just what the hell is morality anyway? And who decides?
You see, at their heart, I think all crime novels are social novels. This is why I love writers like George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard – all of these guys deal with people on the street level who are divided not along lines of absolute moral certainty but along degrees of choice and attitude and background.
James Kelman’s recent cack-handed blast at genre fiction targeted not just kids fiction about upper middle class boy wizards but also “f****ng detective fiction” as most of the papers put it. Dismissing both genres as somehow light and frothy and “unworthy” of the grand traditions of Scottish literature. To be fair, of course, he also blasts Robert Burns, but since I’ve never really been a fan of Burns, I’m concerning myself with his dismissal of crime fiction in particular.
Sounds to me like he doesn’t get the crime genre at least. Doesn’t realise that at its best it is more powerful than any so-called “literary” fiction. You know, the navel-gazing shite that never moves, never goes anywhere, never really fucking says anything.
Crime fiction – whether with detectives or criminals or just people caught in a bad, bad situation – can tell us more about the world in which it was written than any other genre. Look at The Wire – a novel for television* – that rails against injustice, bureaucracy gone mad and dares to ask whether we can really provide a solution to the hells that we have created, often through our own good intentions. Or the works of James Ellroy that treat noir as both history and politics, providing a social history of the US through the eyes of the underclass and the worst kind of men.
So what do I love about crime fiction?
I love the questions that it raises. I love the fact that it makes us think about our reactions to events, about the way other people might react. I love that it can make us see the world in a whole new light, expose us to injustice and worlds we might have known to exist but could never quite understand. I love the fact that, as Wittgentstein said, “If philosophy has anything to do with wisdom there’s certainly not a grain of that in Mind**, and quite often a grain in the detective stories.” And speaking as an ex-philosophy student, I will tell you that there is often more ethical and social consideration in a good crime novel than in near enough any detached and analytical philosophical essay.
Yes, Mr Kelman – and I have no choice now but to address you directly – sometimes crime fiction can be nothing more than mere entertainment. And why not? Vecause we all need some of that from time to time. But clearly you’re skimming over the genre – dismissing it entirely out of hand based on some half-baked impressions from half-remembered pulps you never understood – if you believe that is all there is to it. And by the by, the writer that many papers assumed to be your particular “f****ng detective” target – for any faults he may have – has very often gone out of his way to try and reflect something of modern Scotland in his writing, attemping to add a political dimension that the “f****ng” detective story is often uniquely placed to explore.
In short, why do I love crime fiction?
Not just because it’s exciting, engaging and lends itself well to twisting plot and inciting incident, but because it can do all that and still ask questions, directly or indirectly affecting the reader and making them think. Because it can be radical. It can be surprising. It can be downright terrifying and unnerving. It can be almost anything, and it can be written with a power and ferocity to take your breath away at it’s absolute finest.
That’s why I love crime fiction. And if a crime fic novel - especially a Scots crime fic novel - does win the nobel prize, then I'll tell you it won't just be because its been written withing a populist genre. There'll be a far deeper reason than that.