The Preposterousness of Crime

Reading & Writing

I haven’t read any Jo Nesbo – it’s certainly not that I don’t want to, I just haven’t had time lately – but I think that on the basis of the film ‘Headhunters’ I’d like him, because ‘Headhunters’ is like a fun version of ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’. I felt Stieg Larsson’s trilogy was massively overrated and eventually made dull by its faux-gravitas and endless length, whereas in Nesbo’s filmed offering I found myself watching an art thief covered in shit and nano-technology driving a getaway tractor with a dead dog pinned on the front.

So I’m a latecomer, but it seems to me what Nesbo has done is recognise the fundamental absurdity of the crime genre and play around with it. Occasionally crime and mystery thrillers make serious points about society, but most are more like the utterly loopy ‘Silence Of The Lambs’, which at the very least gave us some terrific catchphrases. The problems are in-built within the genre; in order for most crime novels to keep up a level of excitement, they must feature fantastical leaps of logic from some of the world’s worst cops.

After all, how often is it that there are four or five murders during the course of an investigation that has already started? Just how many innocents have to die before the alcoholic detective with the murdered wife catches a serial killer? (Answer: All but the last victim). Is it even worth catching them if loads of people have to be killed first? How many other people have to be hurt in the process? ‘Headhunters’ never bothered trying to be believable, but one thing made sense – nobody noticed how many deaths there were because Norway only has a population of thirty two people and four dogs (three after this film).

I like my thrillers flashy and ludicrous and unpretentiously entertaining. If you want to score serious points about the human condition, write something else. It’s the same with Batman films – they’re great fun but don’t tell me they’re important. I’m amazed that readers take Lee Child at face value – Jack Reacher is the most absurd character in crime history, a lantern-jawed plank who will calculate the cubic capacity of a crashing bus without breaking into a laugh. And that’s why the books are so terrifically entertaining.

Sadly, there are a couple of bestselling crime authors who genuinely believe they’re writing something important, and their arrogance annoys me. These are the ones who spend six months living with a crime unit in order to provide accurate background detail for a plot that is both boring and ludicrous.But hey, the internal hierarchy of the police station is correct.

Having said this, there is a place for crime in literary fiction, but it’s this way around rather than the reverse. Sometimes poorly written crime novels are treated with more respect because they have a patina of literary references that supposedly elevate them to ‘quality fiction’.

I just had a review in the Times by Marcel Berlins who said, most perceptively I thought; ‘I do not quite understand how Christopher Fowler gets away with it. His most memorable character, Arthur Bryant, is eccentric beyond the call of fictional duty. Others in the cast, including his sleuthing partner John May, are not far behind. No one has ever spoken the way Bryant does, even in the golden age of the detective story — the model for Fowler’s pastiche-cum-homages. The Peculiar Crimes Unit, for which Bryant and May detect, is a wholly unbelievable body. I could go on with a list of “don’t dos”, which Fowler does. Yet his Bryant and May series — two old-fashioned detectives trying to cope with the modern world — is witty, charming, intelligent, wonderfully atmospheric and enthusiastically plotted.’

Well, I think he’s being a bit over-generous there but the basic idea is that he gets what I’m up to. If you’re working in a genre that requires serial killers to be cryptographic geniuses and not stunted perverts you might as well have fun with it.

The problem is that critics often only rave about books written with an absolutely straight face. You can make readers believe any story if you don’t put laughs in it. But you can also tell a wonderful story well. Crime has never been *important* but in its diversity, originality and invention it has the power to thrill, to amuse, to shock, to entertain, to confound, to dazzle and to give a phenomenal amount of pleasure to readers all over the world.

8 comments on “The Preposterousness of Crime”

  1. Alison says:

    You’ve summed up Jack Reacher perfectly – ludicrous but also ludicrously entertaining.

    As for ‘getting away with it’ with B&M, perhaps it’s the fact that they are two unique characters – anachronisms no matter what age they live in, that makes it work. Maybe we want to believe that there are people like that out there.

    If Jack Reacher was out there, we’d just point and laugh.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    I have a friend who can’t get enough Jack Reacher.
    He orders each book the minute it appears, reads the books and rereads them, keeps up with Lee Child’s blog, and posts comments and asks questions. In other words a dedicated fan.
    What I don’t get is he doesn’t think there is anything unusual in the ludicrousity of the Jack Reacher character. Let alone the repeative set up of each the novels: Get off the bus, get back on the bus, etc.
    I’ve read two of the books and could hardly finish the second. greatly missed any lightness.
    Sort of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys for adults.

  3. John Howard says:

    Sorry admin, the man Marcel is not being over-generous. All those points he makes are EXACTLY why everybody who writes into this blog tells each other, and you, why they so enjoy the B&M boys. More power to your elbow. But don’t forget, you do all the stuff you write in just the same way.

  4. Gary says:

    One of the reasons that I really enjoy your books (as well as Dickson Carr, Crispin and a number of others) is that you’re more interested in entertaining the reader than in proving what a literary genius you are. At some point the crime genre was invaded by ‘serious’ writers who wanted to transcend the genre. We can only hope that at some point they decide that they’ve transcended it to death and turn to something else (the romantic novel?) and leave crime to those who believe that it should be fun.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I’m not overly fond of people who set crimes in the past so they can indulge attitudes or habits which were tolerated in the past but not now. I’m watching the George Gently films currently airing here and wondering why I enjoy them. I’ve never read any of the many books and England of the 60s is unknown territory to me. In this case the setting is natural to the author but not to many viewers and the writers have had to put in things like Gently’s distaste for people who attack gays or belittle women. Probably not common attitudes among police of that era. Somehow there doesn’t seem to be that kind of problem with MS Christie (because she downplayed “distasteful” themes?) I’m wandering but this whole matter of setting can be very difficult. B&M don’t have that problem because they are of no era at all.

  6. Bob Low says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Admin’s comments here , which expands on some points made in the earlier ‘Beauty From the Bad’ post. There are too many crime writers whose books seem to give off a rather bitter aura of ”I’m so much better than this”, which infects the tone of their work. All told, I’d rather read a well crafted and entertaining crime novel than a duff ‘literary’ novel. Due to the recent death of my mum, I’ve had to finally clear out of the family home a vast number of paperbacks which I amassed in my adolescence and early adulthood, far too many for me to be able to keep now for space reasons, and I’ve been re-reading some of them before the inevitable trip to the charity shop. One of the authors I’ve most enjoyed re-visiting is Ed McBain, who really shaped and defined the police procedural novel with his 87th Precinct books. What strikes me about them is how clever, funny and mature they are. Here was an author confident enough in his own writing not to take himself too seriously-and the books are littered with what some over-educated planks-great word, Admin!-might describe as ‘post-modern authorial interjections’, where McBain will step in to say something like,’I'm not going to describe the next part of the investigation because it involves too much real police work, which is actually quite boring, but the next interesting thing to happen was….’ A telling point here is that Ed McBain also wrote literary novels, under his own name of Evan Hunter, which, other than ”Blackboard Jungle’, seem to be becoming increasingly obscure , while Ed McBain’s sales seem to be still quite healthy. It seems that some authors are more likely to be remembered-and loved- for the entertainment which they provided, than for their more self consciously serious works. Self conscious seriousness is all some modern crime writers are capable of.
    Sorry I’ve gone on a bit.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    Second Bob above. Loved Ed McBain and read him as he came out. He certain did reshape the police procedural and was very unhappy that the hit show Hill Street Blues was “a rip off.” Unfortunately, the few movies of his books were never good and the TV series not much better. His more series novels were less entertaining, indeed.

  8. Bob Hampton says:

    For what it’s worth, I just finished my third Nesbo (in excellent English translations) and find myself just as addicted as I am to Arthur & John, et al. I read the Larsson books and enjoyed them, but – not to demean the departed – he was simply not (yet?) in the same league as a writer as Our Admin and Nesbo.

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