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. 


1. Maxine said...

Nice post. There is a bit of discussion about it here: Reading the review in yesterday's Times (Sat) of Douglas Kennedy's latest book reminded me that his first two were very good genre thriller books, but he has now turned into a more "literary" author.

2. Michael Walters said...

That's an interesting debate, and Douglas Kennedy's an interesting example - I can't think of too many writers who've succeeded in moving from genre to mainstream fiction, though I suspect that's partly to do with the difficulty of escaping the pigeon-hole. I also agree that there's an awful lot of 'literary' talent in genre fiction. I was interested to see the comments on science fiction - I was a big SF enthusiast as a teenager and was a big fan of many of the names listed (especially Samuel Delany) but for some reason I've struggled to rekindle the enthusiasm. Thinking about it, I suppose Iain Banks is a very good example of a writer who's successfully straddled genre and maintainstream fiction throughout his career.

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