For today’s MB column, I went with my old love, writing about crime fiction. It seems quite appropriate to talk about it again. This is more of a primer since the Read or Die column is geared towards students in the high school and college level. More in-depth discussions will be the raison d’etre of Fanarchist, after all.
The Crime Fiction Case File
One of my New Year’s resolution (aside from “read more books”, the mantra of Read or Die) had been to write more. I was not satisfied with my writing output for 2008, not only in terms of fiction but also non-fiction. Aside from my contributions to the RoD column, I wanted to discuss literary issues more deeply than a one-page column could contain. So one of the first major things I have planned for myself is the creation of a crime fiction blog that will contain my offbeat rants and raves on everything that has to do with crime and mystery.
But why crime fiction? It was only a matter of time I guess, for me to have come up with this venture. For one, I have always been fascinated with crime and mystery TV shows. I was already watching cop shows like NYPD Blue, The Profiler and Law and Order with my mom at ten years old. And though my interest with the genre started with television, it wasn’t too long before I gravitated to crime novels. I have hazy memories of reading Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins in my school library. I went on to read the early John Grisham books and, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.
What interested me with the genre had always been the element of the unknown. From years of being an avid fan, however, I have come to find nuances to the stories that have kept me interested even after the first thrill of the plot twists have subsided. Sympathetic protagonists who always fight for justice in the face of crime and corruption, a grim portrayal of the reality that exists in the (mostly American, but that is changing) streets. Those are the kind of topics I want to write about, a way to articulate my own jumbled thoughts and provide insight to an audience at the same time.
One other great thing about writing about crime fiction is that there’s simply a lot of types out there. Reams of scholarly books have been written about mysteries and they barely even scratch the surface. It is also part of the fun for me, as I can assume the role of the eternal student, learning more about the genre I enjoy. And hopefully I can write a crime story of my own in the future.
As I’ve said, there are many subcategories under the crime fiction umbrella. I’d like to briefly discuss some of these here and include recommendations that I hope would whet the appetite of every other mystery buff out there.
This type of a mystery often occurs in a quaint and quiet town. The miserly owner of a mansion dies–often by poisoning, which is often in his tea. This is the standard picture of most people about the cozy, tales that mostly focus on the inventiveness of the murder plot, as well the intellectual prowess the “the detective” variably employs to unravel the murder mystery. The bulk of Agatha Christie’s qualifies in this category. Her fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple has been elevated to classics figures, ferreting out murderers in the novels, Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder at the Vicarage and Death on the Nile. Other masters of the cozy appeared in what had been dubbed “The Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” My personal favorites have been Dorothy Sayers in Murder Must Advertise and G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories. For an example on television, think of Angela Lansbury’s Murder She Wrote.
Hardboiled fiction came as a reaction the first type of mysteries that existed. While the novels of Christie et al. stimulated readers with their clever puzzles, the plots didn’t feel immediate and “real” enough for some writers who felt that crime in real life was often messy and unsettling. The venerable master of this, at least in my opinion, is and always will be Dashiell Hammett. Fans of old Hollywood movies may have heard one of his books. The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart playing the jaded private investigator Sam Spade in the movie adaptation, created the iconic image of what we know as detective fiction today. My personal favorite of his is The Red Harvest, where Hammett combines sharp prose with cynical humor. Raymond Chandler, the other big name of the genre created Philip Marlowe, and depicted the seductive yet seedy underbelly of post-Depression Los Angeles in novels such as The Big Sleep. Contemporary writer James Ellroy continues the tradition of the hardboiled with his critically acclaimed novels, L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia.
Move over, James Bond. The rise of the Soviet Union after World War II also gave birth to this exciting offshoot of the crime genre. The spy novel taps into the paranoid adventurer in all of us, as they spin conspiracies and political machinations done my intelligence operatives. Power and greed in this global scale can have catastrophic consequences. And although Ian Fleming has become the writer most people think about when discussing espionage fiction but John le Carre (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and Eric Ambler (A Coffin for Dimitrios) and Robert Ludlum (of the Bourne Series fame) are other names to look out for. A more contemporary writer, check Ian Rankin’s Witch Hunt (writing as Jack Harvey) and Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers.
There are countless other subgenres that I haven’t discussed here. Legal thrillers, police procedurals, psychological thrillers—their prevalence in pop culture can be seen in popular TV shows like CSI or Criminal Minds. Suffice to say, I have a lot of material to work with, and I wouldn’t have any trouble in blogging about it. As far as good reading experiences go, nothing tops a spectacular crime novel for me. And for this die-hard (no pun intended) crime fiction fan, murder most foul becomes a mystery most sublime.