Stop the presses: Crime stories are no longer just whodunits, or crime novels that transcend transcending the genre
“I think at first my books were whodunits, but as I got more confident about the form and about what the crime novel could do, I thought, ‘Well there’s nothing it can’t do.’ If you want to talk about politics, if you want to talk about society, if you want to talk about good and evil, if you want to talk about big moral issues, big moral questions: here’s the perfect form for doing that.”That's an unexceptionable thought, but why, fifty-two years after Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Roseanna first appeared, after decades and decades and decades of Dominique Manotti and Jean-Claude Izzo and Andrea Camilleri and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Didier Daeninckx and Carlo Lucarelli and Adrian McKinty and Jean-Patrick Manchette and Leonardo Sciascia and Ross Thomas and Garbhan Downey and Stuart Neville and John McFetridge and Gary Phillips and Alan Glynn, do the article's author, Daneet Steffens, and publication, Lit Hub, think crime novels' ability to do more than tell a whodunit story is so newsworthy as to be the story's main subject and the subject of its headline? And that's not even to mention, say, Georges Simenon, who probed human psychology and the margins of society long before Daneet Stevens discovered that crime stories can be more than whodunits.
This is no knock on Rankin, who singles out some of the authors on my list as noteworthy practitioners of the crime story. The problem is that Steffens and Lit Hub are either ignorant of crime novels' evolution over the past fifty or or so years, or, worse, assume that their readers are so ignorant. At least Lit Hub did not tell us that Rankin's work transcends its genre.
Much more interesting are those crime novelists whose books work as character studies and dissections of society and all those things that intellectually respectable crime novels are supposed to do these days and at the same time are so confident of their writerly chops that their books work as locked-roomed mysteries or whodunits or some other traditional form at the same time. You might say that they transcend transcending the genre. Adrian McKinty does this in In the Morning I'll Be Gone and Gun Street Girl, part of his Sean Duffy novels.
Or take the traditional English mystery, a genre so out my wheelhouse that I was surprised when I discovered that Martin Edwards, that award-winning practitioner of and expert on traditional mysteries, dealt with certain social problems much more subtly than, say, Stieg Larsson.
"I've just opened Martin Edwards' Waterloo Sunset," I wrote a few years ago, "and I've noticed reflections on urban growth and boosterism, not to mention a character who just might be disturbingly demented. I hadn't expected this from an author who has proclaimed his allegiance to traditional mysteries. Heck, the man even named his novel for a song by the Kinks.What are your favorite crime novels that are thoroughly contemporary in subject and tone yet brave enough to explore traditional crime fiction forms at the same time?
© Peter Rozovsky 2017