Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The appeal of crime fiction?

I read two posts yesterday that made an argument as to why crime fiction appeals to so many readers as a genre. Over on Petrona the case was made that crime is social criticism par excellence, examining the full diversity of social relations and their dysfunctions (through character/action driven plots). Over on International Crime Authors Reality Check, Matt Beynon Rees makes a similar case that crime fiction provides an entertaining and informative dose of social realism, but extends the argument to suggest that in doing so it makes unpalatable places knowable and bearable by revealing their social complexities, histories and politics, and placing an order and rationality on them.

I agree with both analyses, but I also want to suggest that crime fiction also provides a mirror for readers to reflect on, think through and make sense of their own lives, rather than simply coming to understand the Other (other people, other situations, other places). In particular it opens up vistas in which to critically reflect on the diverse, complex and contingent workings of power and its resistance, and our own experiences of them. In crime novels, a consistent feature is that the various manifestations of power (inducement, manipulation, coercion, seduction, exploitation, domination, intimidation, violence) and resistance (non-consent, non-cooperation, negotiation, disobedience, protest) are examined in a plethora of contexts.

Now, if I was Margot over at Confessions of a Mystery Writer I would now launch into a series of well honed essays on each of these forms of power and resistance and provide loads of examples from the crime fiction canon. But alas, this is as far as my insights go for today, other than to say that Hans Fallada’s brilliant novel, Alone in Berlin, explores all of them (and my review provides some engagement with the contingent and relational mobilisation and effects of power in Nazi Germany).

In short, my two cents worth is that crime fiction appeals because it whilst it does provide social criticism and open up the world of the Other, it also allows us to critically reflect about ourselves and our place in the world, especially in relation to how power is mobilised and expressed.


Anonymous said...

Rob - First, thanks for the kind mention of my blog. I truly appreciate it. Any insights I have, I learn from folks like yourself. You make an excellent argument, actually, that crime fiction is really a way for us to look at ourselves. When readers read a crime fiction novel, they think about what they might do in a similar situation, or they think through their own, relevant experiences. That's part of what what draws fans to the genre, no doubt about it.

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

You've touched upon an interesting topic, Rob, and you've made so many valid points.
I'm a fan of Margot's, and I'm in awe of her knowledge on the subject of crime fiction and all of the references she makes ~ it's amazing.

Rob Kitchin said...

Thanks. Yeah, Margot's knowledge is encyclopaedic. I'll stick to making observations with minimal empirical evidence!

Minnie said...
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kathy d. said...

I can say I agree with everyone, although I find mystery fiction which deals with social issues, to be more interesting to me, although a good story is a good story, no matter what.

The thing about this genre is that it is so incredibly varied and diverse. One can read, "The Man from Beijing," by Henning Mankell, and ponder China, then turn around and read a good police procedural, then read a witty mystery, then read social commentary about France, in mystery format, or ponder philosophical questions.

So, in essence, everything about it is true, all observations.