I don’t tend to read crime novels, yet I have found myself reading a few in recent months and quite enjoying myself. Patricia Duncker’s The Strange Case Of The Composer And His Judge is not something I would immediately or confidently classify as belonging to the crime genre, but it is about a bunch of people who mysteriously kill themselves, and about the law enforcement officers who try to solve the case. So although it is classified as “literary fiction” – probably because of the author’s previous work – it could just as easily be called crime/mystery. I loved it. I partly loved it for the slightly other-wordly atmosphere Dunker creates with her writing (reminding me of Margaret Atwood or A. S. Byatt) but I also loved it for the unknowing, and the wanting-to-figure-it-out-ness. This latter angle seems to me to be the entire point of crime fiction.
While I was supposed to be reading serious and worthy stuff like that discussed in my previous post, I became distracted by and compelled to finish A Dark Dividing, by Sarah Rayne. At first it felt like an annoying little itch that I had to finish but which kept me from reading other material; I didn’t think it was worth blogging about. … which in itself opens an interesting line of thought: how can I be enjoying something but feel it isn’t worth analysing or discussing?
Having spent 3 years being a cultural studies/popular culture tutor I am more than over the “high versus low art” debate so never fear that I am going to travel that moth-eaten, dog-eared, dull-as-dishwater path here. Whether or not the book is technically brilliant is beside the point. The reason people read crime novels is not to marvel at a beautifully structured phrase, but to get caught up in a salacious story. I suppose I was lucky enough to get both those things simultaneously in the Duncker novel but while that makes it a better book from my perspective, it probably wouldn’t make any difference to a reader who was only interested in the content of the plot.
I have just finished reading Kerry Greenwood’s latest Phryne Fisher novel, Dead Man's Chest, which is due out in October this year. I came across this series of books (about a rich and glamorous private detective in 1920s Melbourne) as a teenager and read as many as I could get my hands on. After a while, I found the formula became too clunky and repetitive and I stopped reading them.
I decided to give this one a go out of respect for my earlier enjoyment. I found the first few pages a bit trite and trying but at some point I looked down and realised I was almost halfway through the book and had barely noticed the time passing. The problem I have with these books is also what makes them work so well; they are pure and utter wish-fulfilment. This can be fabulous if you let it, but boring, annoying and too implausible for words if you find yourself unable to switch you brain to a “fantasy only” setting. The ratio of food scenes to crime scenes in these books is about 10:1. If you feel like being pedantic there is a lot to find fault with. Although Greenwood tackles the element of escapism with the subtlety of a 7ft drag queen gangster wielding a sledgehammer, it is still possible to find an escape in her novels, and I really did enjoy myself while reading this one.