Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Should Crime Fiction Be Held To A Higher Standard?

John McFetridge

In the pilot episode of the TV show I worked on, The Bridge, a lawyer says to a cop, “Shouldn’t the police be held to a higher standard?” And he says, “Not when it’s used to screw with them.”

Now, that episode was filmed before the rest of the writing team was hired, but it was something we discussed quite a bit in the writer’s room. The show is about a cop who becomes head of the police union and works to, as the union slogan says, “Protect Those Who Protect Us.”

I kept insisting that the police aren’t held to a higher standard, they’re held to the police standard. The same way doctors are held to their standard and engineers and lawyers and truck drivers are held to their own standards – every profession has a set of standards and all the members are held to it – or should be.

A cop is trained, armed and sent out into the community with the power to detain people, to remove them from their daily lives, bring them to a police station and hold them against their will. No one else can do that. Then the lawyers get involved and sometimes the person is let go and sometimes they’re charged with a crime and held in custody until a trial, or released on bail. Throughout the whole process rules must be followed, there are standards specific to the process – not higher standards than a truck driver has in his/her job, just different standards. They’re different jobs afterall.

Then last week my latest novel received a very negative review in a big US newspaper. Well, that happens, I don’t like it but I understand. In fact, I feel in order for people to like something a lot it has to be specific enough that other people are going to hate it. And this reviewer hated it.

One of the reviewer’s many complaints (I just ignore the stuff about foul language) was, “ On the side of law and order are detectives so beyond hard-boiled that they make a mockery of what they do.”

I’m not really sure what that means, but I think it’s similar to another negative review the book received which said, the cops are “...little more than aw-shucks narrators on the sidelines of a greasy show that's all about the bad guys.”

Okay, I get it, in crime fiction readers want cops to solve the crimes and catch the bad guys.

And then usually they want the cops to shoot the bad guys because we really don’t like all those lawyers getting involved insisting that rules be followed and that standards be upheld. We like lone wolf cops that ignore the rules – and always get the right bad guy anyway.

But I want to write about what I see in my city every day. There are drugs, there is organized crime and there is violence. And, yes, there are cops, but not enough, and with nowhere near the amount of resources they need to do the job properly.

I don’t like the “lone wolf” cop that has to break all the rules to catch the bad guy. I want the good guys to follow the rules and catch the bad guy. And if that means the deck is too stacked in favour of the bad guy and few of them get caught (and how often do we see heads of organized crime syndicates arrested? How often are there drug shortages on our streets?) then I think that’s one thing that crime fiction ought to illustrate. I’d like to see the rules changed so that the good guys don’t need to break them.

Then there’s the issue of women in crime fiction and thrillers.

In an essay called, “Feminist or Misogynist,” on the blog The F Word, Melanie Newman looks into the way male writers “empower” women (and probably a lot of women writers, too):

”So many male visions of female potency resemble cartoons; the kick-boxing girl has become a 21st century literary cliché... These unlikely - and therefore unthreatening - ass-kicking babes may be employed to lend a veneer of legitimacy... Or they may reflect the authors’ belief that if only females would stop acting as ‘victims’ and discover their own capacity for violence, the aggression visited on them by men would disappear... The solution thus lies in women’s hands, relieving men of the responsibility.

So, again, these are lone wolf characters acting outside the law to get things done – and they always get things done.

Now, I know that kind of lone-wolf stuff happens sometimes, I’ve seen Serpico, there are probably even ass-kicking rape-victims who’ve gone after criminals themselves, but it’s become such an entretched standard of crime fiction that it’s starting to feel like a limitation.

And I don’t think literature should have any limits.

I’d like crime fiction to reflect the reality of the world the same way literary fiction does and not be held to a “higher standard” where justice must always be served. Literature – art - isn’t comfort food, it isn’t a security blanket.

Literature – art – has kick-started many a public discussion that has then led to changes, maybe even improvements, in peoples’ lives. Now, I’m not saying all books should do that – or even try to do that.

But if we never try to do that then we’re supporting the status quo. Our books and stories become, “unlikely – and therefore unthreatening.”

Crime fiction can, and should, be many things but it should never be unthreatening. It should challenge and upset and get people arguing.

It shouldn’t be held to a “higher standard.”


Gerald So said...

I agree, John. In fact, I agree with those who say literary fiction is genre fiction: the "literary" genre, with standards of its own.

If literary fiction reflected life so well, there wouldn't be the need for a branch of fiction that reflects the reality of crime. More power to you.

Dana King said...

That the two reviewers cited had such extreme differences in their perception of your cops tends to wash out their criticism, kind of like dropping the highest and lowest scores when judging figure skating. I suspect neither critic was a fan of THE WIRE; I thought your cops were well done.

I wonder how those same two critics come down on "realism" in crime fiction. The fact is, bad guys don't get caught. Even worse, bad guys the police know are guilty go free because the standards of evidence haven't been met. (I'm not complaining about the standards of evidence, just on how frustrating it must be for a cop to KNOW this is the guy who did it, can prove it to a reasonable person, but not in a court of law.)

I like books where the legal closure is limited; I also like books where the bad guy gets his in the end. What matters is how the rest of the book deals with the standards established by the writer throughout.

Steve Weddle said...

OK. Bucketloads of crap all over the place.

FIRST -- You called the WASHINGTON TIMES a "big US newspaper."

SECOND -- So I can't have a kickboxing woman in my novel? Can she punch someone? So the woman as victim is bad and the strong woman is bad, too? Can't I have any women in my books? Can I put women in my books if they are zombies?

THIRD -- You're right about this 'lone wolf' crap. Many readers -- and, let's face it, reviewers -- want the same crap over and over. Heck, I understand that. My lovely bride -- greatest gal ever -- swapped my peanut butter granola bar for a pecan granola bar one day. She thought I wanted a change of pace. Not in my 10 a.m. snack, I don't. I want what's comfortable. I want what I'm used to. I know what the peanut butter granola bar tastes like. I look forward to it. And people want the same book. That's why there's such a huge market for THE JANE AUSTEN MYSTERIES or some such, in which Lizzie Bennett and Mr Fitzwilliam Firth go about with their cat, Mr Collins, solving crimes. People love the familiar. They are comforted by a world they know, a world they think they understand. "Honey, explain this cap and trade thing to me? Are we for it?" "Um, I don't know. I'm too busy being comforted by something I understand."

For the love of all that is holy, John, don't write books people haven't already read 10 times. Geez. What kind of a frickin idiot are you?

John McFetridge said...

You're right, Steve, pecans at 10:00 am is just wrong.

And, of course, Dana, "realism" is a tough call.

My wife always cites MiamiVice as the point at which cop shows stopped arresting bad guys and started blowing them up at the end, instead.

But then Law and Order seemed to change things again and it was very exciting to see the complications continue after the arrest. Sometimes there'd be a good look at why deals were made.

And then there's The Wire. Season Two is my favourite; 13 episodes, 12 murdered women and no arrest, no comfort of justice being served.

Okay, maybe that says something bout me...

Bryon Quertermous said...

I think what you're calling for IS a higher standard for crime fiction. In the past, all that was asked of crime fiction was a good puzzle. Then people just wanted a good character. But now in addition to being entertaining and loaded with high quality engaging characters crime fiction should be doing more. It should be snapping people out of their comfort zones and exposing the bullshit reality that we all live in. That's why it's nice there's so much variety in the field. Some days I want the comfort of JANE AUSTEN CAT ZOMBIES and some days I want my suburban boredom shattered by the hard realities of the streets. Give it all to me.

Dana King said...

I once coined a term I called "Miami Vice Syndrome." This occurs when the showrunner realizes he still has twelve minutes of story left, and only five minutes of air time. The result: Sonny shoots all the bad guys.

Season 2 of THE WIRE was my favorite, too. It was about a situation similar to what I grew up around (for me the dying industry was steel), and there was no real closure. As I mentioned before, they knew what happened, but they were never going to be able to prove it in court. So the audience gets enough closure to know what happened, but no "justice."

Which gets me to thinking about what else I like about crime fiction: justice is a nebulous concept.

Scott D. Parker said...

There's a lot to digest here.

ONE - taking a cue from Bryon, there is a difference between crime fiction and mystery fiction. MF is the puzzle stories, the same stories over and over again. Sure, good characters can emerge but make sure they're not too scathed for the next novel. CF, OTOH, is often social fiction. "The Wire" is a good example. This is the way life is, says "The Wire," and this is how folks deal with it. It ain't always pretty. MF is, to me, the comfort food of the genre. CF, often, isn't. Like Bryon, depending on the day, I'll read one or the other. I've realized, however, that, while I enjoy reading CF, I'm not sure I can write it.

TWO - "I don’t like the “lone wolf” cop that has to break all the rules to catch the bad guy. I want the good guys to follow the rules and catch the bad guy." I like this, too. I know the lone wolf is a strong American archtype but it can be overused.

Mike Dennis said...

Great post, John. Another way of putting it might be that there are literally NO RULES, including the rule that women must be portrayed in a way in which the feminists approve.

John McFetridge said...

I like it, Mike, that's going to be my only rule: no rules.