3 February 2012

Crime Fiction that makes you think

I've decided that I like the sort of crime fiction that makes you think. I don't mean just to solve the central puzzle, but also to think about contemporary issues.

Earlier this week fellow blogger Margot Kinberg was talking about how crime fiction has changed, and one point she made struck me in particular.
Margot was talking about "Golden Age" crime fiction in particular:
    There might be more than one murder or crime, but all were related to the central mystery. Christie’s standalones tend to be that way, too (although there are exceptions). We also see that focus on one murder or set of murders in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Those stories too, including the novels, are focused on one case, even when there is more than one murder or crime.
In most of the books I have been reading recently there seems to be a primary investigation which is pursued throughout the story, but in the ones that I've liked best, there are other things to think about too.
For example, from my recent reads...

4.7, BLOOD MOON, Garry Disher

Nearly everyone in Australia is familiar with Schoolies Week and probably has the attitude of "thank goodness it doesn't happen in my town/suburb".
Against the issues of Schoolies Week, we have other issues such as whether people who work together should live together; what causes young people to commit suicide; and control freaks who stalk their spouses.

4.6, THE VAULT, Ruth Rendell

Four bodies are found in a coal cellar and that of course is the primary investigation. But against that thread is the issue of retirement where Reg Wexford is desperately trying to strike a balance and come to terms with the fact that he no longer works. 

5.0, THE BROTHERHOOD, Y.A. Erskine

The primary investigation is into the death of a popular Tasmanian police sergeant in the course of his duties, but a range of side issues come up: an Aboriginal population, the remnants of Australia's original inhabitants, now welfare dependent, and in some cases only too willing to cry victimisation and brutality; an under resourced police force with more than usual difficulties in recruiting and retaining good officers; corruption in all professions, even among those responsible for managing the legal system; and an island state with significant social prejudices.


So maybe the fact that I am now looking for side issues in a murder mystery novel explains why last year I found some of the Vintage crime fiction that I read just a bit flat. I think you can see that when you look at how I rated them.
  1. 4.4, GIDEON'S WEEK, J.J. Marric (aka John Creasey) (1956)
  2. 3.8, BEFORE MIDNIGHT, Rex Stout (1955)
  3. 4.4, GIDEON"S DAY, J.J. Marric (aka John Creasey) (1955)
  4. 4.2, AN ASSISTANT MURDERER, Dashiell Hammett  (1926)
  5. 3.6, X.Y.Z. A Detective Story, Anna Katherine Green (1883)
  6. 4.1, DEATH AT THE PRESIDENT'S LODGING, Michael Innes (1936)
  7. 4.3, DIED IN THE WOOL, Ngaio Marsh ( 1942)
  8. 4.5, DUMB WITNESS, Agatha Christie (1937)
  9. 4.4, MAIGRET & the MAN on the BOULEVARD, Georges Simenon (1953)
  10. 4.4, IN THE TEETH OF THE EVIDENCE, Dorothy L. Sayers (1939)
What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Kerrie - Thank you so much for linking to my post. I understand exactly what you mean about other issues to think about besides the crime at hand. I like that very much, too, so long as the issues don't become too unwieldy or pull in too many different directions. I've read novels where, honestly, I thought the author was trying to tell too many stories. When the author keeps a focus, though, I'm like you; I enjoy "mental food" as much as I do the mystery part of a plot.

Bill Selnes said...

Kerrie: It is a very interesting post. I do not read much vintage crime fiction but am going to consider what you have said when I next read crime fiction from an earlier era. It used to bother me reading about fictional lawyers who only had one case to deal with at a time. That is not the way it is in real life!

Shelleyrae said...

I prefer more than one thing going on at a time as long as it works within the storyline and isn't an unrelated tangent.

Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

neer said...

I don't know. Sometimes the side issues kind of ruin the story. And I am little tired of reading about the personal devils that haunt the investigators.

Wendy Cartmell said...

I understand what Neer says about the personal devils that haunt investigators, it's as though some authors think you need a totally flawed personality to make the character interesting. However, I don't think you can write a crime story without including something of the day to day lives of the people involved and also some sort of social commentary about what's happening at the time. Ian Rankin is particularly good at this. I try and include issues that affect the lives of the people who live in Aldershot, but they must be reflected in the story and above all be relevant.
Wendy Cartmell
Author of the Sgt Major Crane novels.

Bernadette said...

90% of the time I do want there to be more going on that just a straight whodunnit...but as others have said it has to fit within the overall context of the main story - I think that's one of the things I liked so much about THE BROTHERHOOD - it managed to bring up those interesting issues you mention as part of the story and, most importantly, the issues did not overwhelm the story (as can happen when someone has AN AGENDA that takes precedence over remembering that the yarn has to keep the reader engaged to)

I suspect my liking for this kind of crime fiction is the main reason I have reduced the amount of 'cosy' titles I read as they generally do not have much going on other than the puzzle to solve, though some do (e.g. Kerry Greenwood). Though I do like the occasional lighter read and that's where stuff like Elly Griffiths and Sulari Gentill's books come into play for me. Even though they might not be gritty they still explore issues. In Sulari Gentill's most recent book we got a look at the treatment of women in 1930's Australia, impact of war on people who fought and those who didn't, what leads people to extreme right wing thinking...I like considering all of those alongside a few laughs every now and again.

kathy d. said...

I like mysteries with social issues, but they have to be written with care, so it's not like a hammer pounding into one's head. Good writing is still required.

I find a lot of the Nordic writers include issues, even Nesbo in Nemesis, Indridason in most of his books, done quite well, Donna Leon, woven skillfully into her Commissario Brunetti novels and many more.

I like how Sara Paretsky does it, as her issues are always those we have to deal with in the States, and she sheds a little light on the subjects as V.I. Warshawski defies danger and investigates.

Maxine Clarke said...

I read a lot of the older crime fiction in the past but have not done so for many years now, possibly for this reason. One has to be careful, some authors (the not so good ones) think that adding extraneous details about their detectives' lives or additional subplots will make their books stand out, but in fact they do slow things up and are just as "flat" as a straight "murder, 6 suspects, pick one" type of story can do. I like to think of intelligent crime fiction as "a novel with a crime in it" and what most interests me about any kind of fiction is the reactions of people to a perturbation (eg a crime) in their lives.

A lot of authors from mainstream fiction are these days aware of the popularity of crime fiction and are trying to write it into their books, with varying degrees of success. Often, what seems fresh to them and their usual readers is very well known indeed to us crime addicts!

Dorte H said...

I haven´t read The Vault yet, but one thing I admire about Ruth Rendell´s crime fiction is that she very often weaves a crime plot and a social issue together with great success. E.g. Simisola is absolutely unforgettable for me.

NB: a belated Happy Birthday to you! Have been ever so busy teaching a project this week.


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