The Crime Writer’s Elephant in the Room

It was during an interesting discussion recently between Ian Rankin and Luca Veste at a Waterstones’ event that Rankin raised what he described as the ‘elephant in the room’ –  crime fiction is seen by some as second-rate to other literary works and therefore is banished to the lower shelves of certain bookshops.

Although we may not want to admit it, there are still some people who look down on the crime novel/thriller. Rankin describes these critics as ‘literary snobs’.

So how are these people judging the value of a work of fiction? Surely not by sales, as crime fiction outsells literary fiction. Enjoyment? The thrill of a good crime novel can’t be denied, indeed, it is the reason it is so popular, addictive, almost.

If philosophers dating back to antiquity are to be believed that the three highest ideals – the goals of all human creativity and endeavour – are truth, goodness and beauty, then I would argue that crime and thriller writing embraces all these attributes and therefore is in no way inferior to any other type of fiction writing.

The trick is to be able to see through the apparent lack of these virtues and find them present, albeit in often an inverse way.

One of the paradoxes of writing fiction is that we use the imagined to examine reality, using stories – untruths – to express truths. The crime novel speaks of the truths of the human condition – the depths of darkness of the human psyche and the extremes of experience – unsettling, but truth, nonetheless.

A crime story hardly constitutes a ‘beautiful’ thing, crime being one of the ugliest of human enterprises. However, the novel in itself, no matter which genre or no genre at all, is aesthetically pleasing, a work of beauty; the structure of the sentence, the balance of its form and pace, each hand-picked word, all adding to its complex beauty.

And goodness? Crime fiction is the chiaroscuro of the ethical – without darkness how could we see the light? As Rankin says crime fiction is a way of dealing with your darkness – getting out your rage. Whilst writing within this genre, we can examine, at arm’s length, the evil that undoubtedly resides within our world, within the human, and only hope that truth, goodness and beauty triumph.