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The Nameless Dead
Why is crime writing not considered literature? Declan Burke asks three writers proud to be in the pulp fiction business
IN THE 125th anniversary of Sherlock Holmes’ debut, it would take a brave soul indeed to deny Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth his place in the annals of world literature.
Few literary creations are more easily recognised, fondly remembered or more often quoted.
But therein lies the rub. Is Sherlock Holmes truly a literary creation? Or does the fact that he is famous for investigating murders and bringing criminals to justice mean that his fans are not entitled to consider Conan Doyle’s stories literature?
Next month, at the Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival in Stirling, bestselling crime writers Ian Rankin and Peter James will debate the vexed question of whether a crime novel will ever win the Man Booker Prize.
“It’s become almost a reverse compliment,” says Irish crime author Ken Bruen of the refusal by mainstreamliterary prizes to reward crime and mystery novels. “As in, how much more out of their way can they go to pretend crime fiction doesn’t exist? The Scandinavians quite rightly regard this as high comedy.”
One reason for the popularity of Nordic crime writing is that the form is taken seriously in Scandinavia as an art form exploring the culture from which it springs, in part due to the seismic impact of the assassination of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme in 1986.
In Ireland, the UK and the US, and despite the fact that it is the genre that most frequently engages with social and cultural taboos, the crime novel is regarded less as art and more of an entertainment.
Perhaps this is due to the relative youth of the crime and mystery form. While literary fiction claims a heritage that goes back 400 years to Robinson Crusoe, the dedicated crime story was invented by Edgar Allan Poe as recently as 1841 with The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Today, of course, Poe is rightly regarded as one of America’s literary treasures.
“You could argue that today’s pulp fiction is tomorrow’s literature,” says Kevin Hill, “and while this is not strictly true for all literature it brings up some important aspects: time and opinion.”
Casey Hill is the husband-and-wife writing team of Kevin and Melissa Hill, who have just published their second crime novel, Torn. It features their series heroine, forensic investigator Reilly Steel, who finds herself on the trail of a serial killer who is murdering his victims according to punishments meted out in Dante’s Inferno.
They see no reason why today’s crime stories shouldn’t take their cues from classical literary sources.
“The high art versus low art and literary fiction versus commercial fiction argument has been around for centuries, since reading novels became more than just the preserve of the upper classes,” says Kevin. “Today books are as much about entertainment as education and art. So the question of high art versus pulp fiction is ultimately a question of enlightenment versus entertainment. Perhaps the real trick is to enlighten and entertain at the same time.”
In Ken Bruen’s latest offering, Headstone, his series private eye Jack Taylor is as happy referencing Ernest Hemingway, William Golding, Henry Miller and Omar Khayyam as he is the fictional heroes of crime fiction.
Brian McGilloway’s current novel, The Nameless Dead, finds Inspector Ben Devlin investigating the remains of bodies that have been uncovered on an island that is situated halfway between the Republic and Northern Ireland on the River Foyle.
McGilloway, the Head of English at St Columb’s College in Derry, found himself drawn to Greek mythology for inspiration.
“The Nameless Dead concerns an island in the centre of a river where the unbaptised are buried,” he says, “leaving them in both a geographical and symbolic limbo. The Greek myths are perfect for dealing with death and the boundaries between the living and the dead. The idea of an island to which the dead had to be brought by boat so obviously lent itself to the figure of Charon, the ferryman. And, as Devlin’s odyssey in this story required him to look for guidance from one who had crossed the river, it made sense he would seek direction from some one like the blind prophet Tiresias. I suppose the inspiration comes mostly from the idea of someone who lives among the dead. Tiresias, who is trapped in Hades in the Greek myths, is here resident in an old people’s home.”
Similarly, it was the continuing relevance of Dante’s work that inspired the Hills to reference the Inferno.
“Torn is first and foremost a story about punishment and consequence,” says Kevin Hill, “and we hoped to challenge readers to ask themselves if the punishment truly fits the crime in our society today. The Inferno is also concerned with punishment and the sins or crimes have very definite consequences, so that aspect of the text was really appealing for us.”
Is there a danger that genre writers could be accused of the literary equivalent of social climbing by quoting from classic works of literature?
“I don’t think so,” says McGilloway. “Was Umberto Eco slumming it in referencing Conan Doyle so frequently in The Name of the Rose? Writing is an imaginative act, regardless of the genre you write, and being inspired by your own reading is an essential element of that act.
“I think the distinction isn’t quite as clear cut as it might seem,” he continues. “There have always been books which defied categorisation by straddling both genre and literary fiction, whether literary authors using crime narrative or crime narratives written in a more literary style. The Name of the Rose for example, is a fine crime narrative, but is obviously written in a literary style. Then you have someone like James Lee Burke, who is a crime author and has a beautiful prose style.”
The fact that crime fiction titles have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in recent years suggests that it’s only a matter of time before a crime novel scoops the most prestigious of the UK’s literary gongs. How important a development that will be, however, depends on the value you place on literary prizes.
“We’re not remotely interested in prizes, literary or otherwise, as they are by their very nature exclusive and isolating,” says Kevin Hill. “Most writers take reward from doing a job they love, seeing their books in the shops and in the hands of readers. The greatest prize an author can hope for is a wide and satisfied audience.”
Regardless of whether it considers itself high or low art, the crime novel remains somewhat conflicted about how it is perceived. The most popular of all literary genres, it is nonetheless perversely proud of its status as the rebellious outsider laying siege to the whited sepulchres of literary fiction.
“Pulp fiction is the classic revenge of the guttersnipe,” says Ken Bruen, “and I don’t think crime writers are in any danger of being called anything other than writers manqué. For me it’s very simple. When I get notions of literary affection, I put my head between my knees and know this odious malady will pass.”
* Books To Die For, Edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke will be published later this month.
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