Saturday, March 21, 2009

Exploring the Hills

There's been a rumbling debate in the crime fiction world about so-called 'literary' novelists trying their hand at crime fiction.  The most obvious example is John Banville's 'Benjamin Black' oeuvre, but other examples include Kate Atkinson and Susan Hill, both of whom have embarked on crime series in recent years.  I suppose the debate rests partly on one's definition of 'crime fiction' - if we simply mean fiction about crime, then it's hardly a new phenomenon.  Macbeth and Hamlet spring to mind, for example. In part, too, it's simply a marketing issue.  A couple of interesting 'mainstream' novels I read last year - Sebastian Faulks's Engleby and Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost - might easily have been marketed as crime fiction. 

But I think it's slightly more than that.  I feel that the best contemporary crime writing starts from a conscious awareness of the conventions of the genre - a set of expectations which the reader brings to the party.  These aren't cast-iron rules, but rather a set of starting assumptions - that the crime will be solved, that mysteries will be explained, that the streets may be mean but the hero(ine) won't be, that the author will, by and large, play fair by the reader, and so on.  These conventions may simply be accepted, or may be challenged or subverted, but part of the reader's enjoyment comes from seeing what the author is doing with an established form.  The effect is not dissimilar to a poet writing a sonnet, say, or ottava rima. By working with, or against, the disciplines of the form, the writer can achieve effects or explore territory which might not otherwise be available.  

Much of this relates to plotting, so it's difficult to offer examples without giving too much away about individual books.  But, to take one broad example, Reginald Hill strikes me as a master at (among other things) finding ingenious ways of using crime-fiction conventions to explore ever more diverse material - from the moving invocations of World War I in The Wood Beyond to the playful reimagining of Jane Austen's Sanditon as a crime novel in The Cure for all Deseases.  Hill's a crime writer to his finger-tips (though clearly also a very literary one), but is also, to my mind, one of the most interesting novelists currently working. 

All this was brought to mind through reading another Hill.  Susan Hill is one of those so-called literary novelists who's made the move into crime-fiction with her Simon Serrailler series.  I'm a great admirer of this Hill also - both for her fine mainstream novels and for her previous forays into genre fiction with the ghost stories, The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror.  I was intrigued to read her crime fiction, although, typically for me, I didn't start at the beginning but jumped in with the second of the series, The Pure in Heart.  This may or may not have been a good place to begin, since the book has proved more controversial that its predecessor (have a look, for example, at the divided opinion in the Amazon reviews).  And I can see why. 

Again, it's difficult to say too much without discussing the plot.  But much of the book's power, for me, came from the disjunction between its apparent form and its content.  The book begins, and for the most part continues, as a relatively conventional, quite cosy police procedural - bringing to mind P D James's Dalgliesh novels or Ruth Rendell's Wexford books.   The characters are mostly solidly, even exaggeratedly, middle class, except for the few who are even more solidly, perhaps even exaggeratedly, working class. It's a world polarised between cathedral greens and sink estates. 

But it's the plotting that surprises.  Without revealing anything of the plot, I'll say only that Hill continually subverts the reader's (or, at least, my) expectations.  Plot lines don't lead where you expect, issues are raised but not always resolved, characters appear but don't play a significant part.  Hill is quite happy to challenge Chekhov - if one of the characters brings in a loaded revolver, don't necessarily expect that it'll be used. 

This can't be accidental, so presumably Hill has consciously written a crime novel that challenges conventions - an unexpectedly radical piece of writing wrapped in a very middle-brow, Middle England form.  And, although I was left with some reservations, I thought it worked.  Hill always writes beautifully, and her characterisation is solid and convincing even when she's (deliberately?) straying close to crime-fiction caricature.  The result felt to me like the kind of book that another of my favourite underrated writers, Stanley Middleton, might have produced if he'd ever tried to write crime fiction.  Middleton's books can appear shapeless because they don't follow the neat narrative arcs we associate with fiction.  I find them gripping for precisely that reason - because they reflect the uncertainties and unpredictabilities of real life.  In The Pure in Heart, Susan Hill seems to have tried something similar in the crime genre.   I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Page 69 Test

I mentioned a short while ago that Marshal Zeringue had invited me to submit The Adversary to the famous 'Page 69 Test'.  Well, he's now posted my response

I found it an intriguing process - and page 69 was, in the event, more revealing than I'd expected...

Marshal's also been good enough to post details of The Adversary on his Campaign for the American Reader site and to link to my recent Q&A with Berkley on his Author Interview site.  Many thanks, Marshal! 

A bit bonkers. That's why she's such an exceptional writer

I've long been a big fan of Margery Allingham, one of the quirkiest and most interesting of the 'Golden Age' crime writers.  I was therefore intrigued to stumble across this fascinating and, for a newspaper article, usually detailed account of her life and works.  Allingham still tends to be underrated, compared with Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers, but I think she was a better writer than either.  I'd include her best work - particularly The Tiger in the Smoke and Hide My Eyes - among my favourite books in any genre. But she was hard to pigeon-hole - the article quotes her biographer, Julia Jones: "Margery might write the same 'book' twice, but never more. So you get huge disparities between one book and the next."  That's very true - some of the books are funny and light-hearted, others are dark and ominous, but they all have a distinctive voice which seems to offer a new perspective on the world.

The articles detail the difficulties and challenges faced by Allingham, who suffered from a series of physical and mental health problems.  Julia Jones concludes: "... Margery, in the nicest sense of the word, was a bit bonkers. That's why she's such an exceptional writer.”  I don't know whether that syllogism is entirely sustainable, but I certainly feel that the remarkable qualities of Allingham's books stem, in part, from her ability to see things just a little differently from the rest of us. 

Friday, March 13, 2009

Farewell to Sleccy

We all know these aren't good times for retailers, whether you're Woolworth or Murder One.  But I was sad to see yet another casualty of changing times, which also closes one more small doorway back into my youth. 

The legendary Nottingham record shop, Selectadisc, is apparently due to close at the end of the month, after more than 40 years.  This article suggests that 'if you're from Nottingham and you really love your music, there's a good chance you've got at least one story about an amazing find or favourite album you picked up at Selectadisc'.  Well, that's true enough.  I went to school in Nottingham and a large proportion of my old vinyl collection was purchased there - everything from Pete Atkin to the Clash. 

I guess, like the demise of Murder One (which, I'm delighted to say, is continuing in its on-line incarnation), this is probably a symptom more of changing times and technologies than of the recession.  And, as this article suggests, the news isn't all bad. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Help for Nergui...?

I've written a lot in the novels about fictional corruption of various kinds in Mongolia.  In reality, the country has been taken some very active steps to combat corruption in recent years, and I was interested to see this piece about international advisers providing support to the authorities within Mongolia.  Come to think of it, Marcelo and Kwok makes a pretty good name for a crime-busting duo...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Villain of the piece

I'm sure some enterprising PhD student has already done it, but it's always seemed to me that the prevailing nationality and characteristics of villains in Hollywood movies would make an interesting socio-political study.  For a while they were predominantly (if ill-definedly) European, which provided solid work for the likes of Alan Rickman and Stephen Berkoff.  More recently, and probably unsurprisingly, they've tended to be more of a Russian or Middle-Eastern persuasion (though still, in many cases, played by the cream of British character actors). 

Now, though, Mongolia-Web claims to have identified a new trend - the Mongolian villain.  Although, as they rightly point out, the chap in the picture looks rather less Mongolian even than Stephen Seagal.

Oh, and I should just mention that if any enterprising Hollywood producer wants to jump on this bandwagon and is looking for books stacked full of Mongolian villains, well, I can think of just the series...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Adversary

I hope you'll forgive me for briefly reminding you that The Adversary is officially released in the US today, published by those excellent people at Berkley Prime Crime.  I'm delighted to say that it's picked up some nice reviews already from the likes of Publishers Weekly, the Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.  Thanks also to the ever-attentive Maxine Clark for drawing my attention to a very positive review in this weekend's Denver Post. 

For those who are interested, Berkley Prime Crime are featuring me in the regular Q&A session on their website.  I've also been asked to submit the book to Marshal Zeringue's intriguing Page 69 Test, so I'll be thinking about that over the next day or two.