Friday, September 11, 2009

On "f****ng detective fiction"

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.


John McFetridge said...

I agree with you.

But just for fun, let's say you've cherry-picked pretty much the best and not mentioned the rest.

One of the biggest problems for me with most crime fiction is there isn't any moral ambiguity at all - tere's just bad guys and "flawed" good guys. The ending is telegraphed from the ever beginning - the bad guys will get caught by the good guys - no matter how flawed they are.

Some people describe mystery fiction as "comfort food," they say they like it because justice is served, unlike in real life.

Which is fine, of course, but then let's admit it, it's not literature.

Sure, a lot of crime fiction raises questions but they're usually easy ones - Should we break the rules to stop child abusers?

Really, outside of Elmore Lenard and James Ellroy, how many novels have the kind of complicated moral issues of The Wire? Okay, maybe Richard Price, but do the Pelecanos novels even dig as deep as The Wire?

But, as I said, I agree with you. And I'll add to it. I like crime fiction series because they can get far deeper into characters. I liked watching Rebus fighting his own internal battles, I think he really did want to be a guy who could get along with people but he couldn't make the compromises that required. I'm reading the Brian McGilloway books now and I really hope Devlin can stay married and stay a cop.

But there are contraits to the genre, we might as well admit it.

Jay Stringer said...

Great piece.

The tug of war between genre and literature leaves me cold. It's all just writing. There's good and bad, but worthy and unworthy? That's for people with far more time on their hands than me

I think you've hit on pretty much the same reasons I love good crime, and good social fiction under any label.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

I've stopped paying attention to that kind of noise. So the guy's got a stick up his ass over genre. It's irrelevant. I should care why?

Literary writers win awards. Genre writers get paid. I'm okay with that.

Rob Kitchin said...

Great post. It's made me think a little about why I like crime fiction. I guess it's because much of it, and certainly the best of it, manages to blend a plot (as opposed to a musing on something) with memorable characters, a sense of place, and contextual history, and as you say it raises at some level questions that make the reader reflect on wider social, political and economic issues. Sure some seeks to simply entertain, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I think there are way more writers beyond Leonard and Ellroy who do this. The best of crime writing holds its own against any genre because it entertains, informs, and incites some critical reflection.

Jay Stringer said...

On balance though, the snobbery really applies to all media. Springsteen is undoubtedley a social writer, but is also a genre one and never 'worthy'.

Comic books and films have the same, though I'm failing to think of obvious examples right now.

Dana King said...

"Literary writers win awards. Genre writers get paid. I'm okay with that."

I was once the token genre writer in a writing seminar. When it came time for me to read, the instructor pointed out to the group that I was writing genre fiction (as opposed to their literary efforts), and asked if anyone could name the difference.

"He'll get published," came out first. And I have had more short stories published than the rest of the group combined, though they're all fine writers.

As a great literary writer once said, so it goes.

Russel said...


I am cherrypicking. There is some Godawful shite out there in crime fiction land, but I'm talking about what the genre and should be capable of when it is allowed to do so. I can never deny that there is a also a great deal of tat within the genre. But that is a truism of all forms of fiction, I think.

Jay, Steve

I try not to get involved, but when I see these eejits making inflamamtory and pointless generalisms, sounding like a kid who wants attention and wants it now it really makes me fucking angry.

Good writing. Bad writing. In the end, Jay, you're right, that's all it can come down to. But all the same, I stand by everything I say about what crime fiction can, is and should be capable of.


You're right - there are way more writers who do this. But if I start down that road, I'll probably just have to give in and start writing a thesis on the topic :-)


I think the other thing to remember is that not only do we get paid but, judging on those writers that I know across several genres, we also seem to have a lot more fun...

Jay Stringer said...

Thesis! Thesis! I want the thesis!

Russel said...


Pay my uni fees so I may return as a postgrad and I shall consider it...

Kiwicraig said...

Good response to a pretty ill-thought rant by Kelman. I can understand the frustration he feels - basically that he (and his kind of writing) isn't getting enough attention from the public... but he's firing at the wrong targets, which just makes himself look foolish.

The funny thing about the literary fiction/genre fiction divide - is that so-called literary fiction is just in of itself a type of writing, a "genre" if you will.

A Booker longlisted writer I interviewed earlier this year said it well when he said "literary fiction is just a genre; it's not a superior genre"...

Unfortunately some people in certain circles don't grasp that.

Moreover, if you look to what books are now considered literary classics, most are plot-based fiction that informed readers about the world while entertaining them. Shakespeare is arguably the most studied writer in the English language, and all of his plays were full of plot, murder, lust, and death - yet we find so much to consider, debate and talk about from his writing in terms of things much larger than those plots...

Dumas, Dickens, Austen etc were all writers focused on story, rather than any grand, solely "literary" aspirations. They were popular writers - their stories which have the ability to 'teach people' so much, wouldn't have stood the test of time otherwise.

What many literary fiction afficianados (some writers such as Kelman, and literary awards organisers, judges and academics) fail to realise is that the best way to question, inform, challenge, or do anything else 'grand' when it comes to readers, is to do so in a format which also entertains them and makes them want to turn the page.

And John - you are right, there is plenty of mediocre crime writing, and some awful stuff. But if anything there is just as much if not more mediocre, shoddy or awful literary fiction, which is just glossed over and 'forgiven' because it is 'literary fiction'.

Really the only thing that matters is "was the book good?" - not what part of a booksellers or library shelf it sits on.