Judging a genre by its covers
Some snobbery and prejudice against crime fiction still seems to exist, which is often dismissed as lowbrow and popular. I had a university professor who really hated The Silence of the Lambs (both book and film adaptation):
“It’s so violent and gory!” he complained.
“Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus features scenes of dismemberment, mutilation, gang rape, and cannibalism.” I reminded him, and the discussion dragged on until lunch break…
Maybe it’s the cover art that really goes for the jugular: Bullets! Nooses! Blood! Shattered Glass! Exit Wounds! Or when the cover becomes an exercise in atmospherics: Woods, Shallow Graves, Roads, Alleys, and Lakes. As if publishers want to ensure there’s no mistaking The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for The Girl With the Pearl Earring.
Cover art functions to attract the reader to pick up the book. However, the graphic is not really necessary, for the genre’s perennial success shows that crime fiction sells itself.
The ugly side of human nature
A fan of crime fiction may have encountered some of the following reactions (indeed, I have…): “How can you read that?!” or “ Isn’t real news horrid enough?”
A writer of crime fiction receives similar reactions (and again, I have…) : “How can you write this stuff?”, along with questions about said writer’s well-being and mental health: “Do you sit around all day thinking of horrible things to do to your characters?” or “Aren’t you morbid?”
It seems that a writer of crime fiction can never be morbid enough these days. The answer to all those questions is that it’s not the crimes per se which fascinate the reader and the writer — it’s the characters involved in the crimes. The unsavoury, gritty side of human nature that threatens to rear its head and makes people squirm because it asks tough questions about race, gender, corruption, and society.
In 1927, T.S Eliot observed, “The detective story, as created by Poe, is something as specialised and as intellectual as a chess problem…whereas the best English detective fiction has relied less on the beauty of the mathematical problem and much more on the intangible human element.”
Although Eliot displays a natural bias in favour of English detective fiction, he succinctly highlights the “…intangible human element.” that is character. These days readers want more than mere puzzles in their mystery stories, they want defined characters peopling the story, and compelling protagonists.
The next time someone asks you how you can read or write crime fiction, tell them that it is for a genuinely good cause. Readers find comfort and assurance that law and order prevail in stories. In Jorge Luis Borges’ essay ‘The Detective Story’, he reasons that, “I would say in defence of the detective novel that it needs no defence..it is safeguarding order in an era of disorder. That is a feat for which we should be grateful.”
Your turn to embark on a crime (writing) spree
Currently seeking submissions for KL Noir: Blue, the third installment of KL Noir, an anthology of crime stories set in Kuala Lumpur.