The Preposterousness of Crime
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.