Break on Through to the Other Side*

Crossing GenresSome authors focus on crime fiction right from the beginning and stay within that genre. Others though, write in other genres first (or also), and ‘cross over’ into crime fiction. Writing in more than one genre can add to a writer’s style, lending it a sort of distinctiveness. And it’s sometimes nice to remember that the lines between genres are often blurred, and the distinctions made between them are sometimes a little arbitrary. 

For instance, Isaac Asimov was perhaps best known as a writer of science fiction and non-fiction. He also wrote several textbooks on various topics in science. But he also ‘crossed over’ into crime fiction. His Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley series features New York homicide detective Lije Baley, who lives and works in a futuristic megacity, of which New York City is the hub. In The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn, he works with R. Daneel Olivaw, a positronic robot. The two become friends as well as investigation partners. In this series, we see clearly the influence of Asimov’s background as a scientist. We also see of course the elements of crime stories too (i.e. a murder or murders and the investigation).

Elmore Leonard became best-known for his crime novels (e.g. Get Shorty, Cuba Libre and many others). But he actually started by writing Westerns. Fans will know for instance that the 1957 film Hombre is based on his 1951 novel by the same name. Although many of Leonard’s crime novels take place in cities (rather than ‘out West’) one can see the influence of his Western beginnings. There’s the complicated ‘good guy/bad guy’ theme, the ‘showdown’ and other kinds of plot threads that are similar (or perhaps that’s just my interpretation) to what we see in Westerns.

Sophie Hannah has become well-known as an author of crime fiction, starting with 2007’s Little Face. That novel introduces DS Charlie Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse, and the series featuring them continues through the just-released Kind of Cruel. But Hannah wasn’t always a crime writer. She began her writing career as a poet, with 1993’s Early Bird Blues. Hannah’s crime novels focus on crimes and their investigation, but it’s also easy to see the influence of her experience writing poetry. The novels include the kind of imagery that makes the reader think of poetry. Here for instance is a snippet from Little Face:

 

‘I walk across the cobbled yard and down the mud and gravel path, carrying only my handbag. I feel light and strange. The trees look as if they are knitted from bright wools: reds and browns and the occasional green.  The sky is the colour of wet slate. This is not the same ordinary world that I used to walk around in. Everything is more vivid, as if the physical backdrop I once took for granted is clamouring for my attention.’

 

It’s not hard to see the influence of poetry in Hannah’s crime writing.

We also see the voice of the poet in Qiu Xiaolong’s crime novels. Qiu has become well-known as the author of the Detective Chen series (i.e. Death of a Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer), but he is also a poet (e.g. Lines Around China) and translator of poetry (e.g. Evoking Tang). And it’s easy to see the influence of poetry in the Chen series. The novels include quotes from poems, and Chen himself loves poetry. Here’s just a tiny bit from A Loyal Character Dancer:

 

‘He [Chen] took a collection of ci out of his briefcase and opened to a poem by Niu Xiji. The mist disappearing / against the spring mountains, / the stars few, small / in the pale skies, / the sinking moon illuminates her face, / the dawn in her glistening tears / at parting… It was too sentimental for the morning. 

 

Poetry is woven throughout these novels.

Paddy Richardson’s crime novels (Hunting Blind, Traces of Red and Cross Fingers) have gotten her very well-deserved attention. In fact Hunting Blind was a 2011 finalist for New Zealand’s prestigious Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. And speaking personally, I recommend Richardson’s crime novels enthusiastically. But Richardson’s writing career didn’t start with crime writing. Her 2000 novel The Company of A Daughter is a literary/historical novel that follows five generations of women in the same family. She’s also written A Year to Know a Woman as well as two collections of short stories (Choices and If We Were Lebanese). It’s not hard to see that literary influence, if I can put it that way, on Richardson’s crime novels. They are of course stories that feature crimes and their investigations. But they also explore relationships, family histories and personal journeys. For example, in both Traces of Red and Cross Fingers, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne takes an interest in cases of murder and uses her journalistic skills, contacts and experience to find the answers. So they are very much crime novels. At the same time, we see the evolution of Thorne’s view of herself, her relationships with family and friends and her exploration of New Zealand life. So in that sense, the novels have the hallmarks of literary novels as well as crime novels.

Wendy James is an accomplished crime novelist; her Out of the Silence won Australia’s 2006 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel. And The Mistake is also (in my opinion) a well-written novel that features a crime (or is it?). In both novels we see the elements of talented crime writing. But at the same time, James is a skilled literary novelist. The Steele Diaries isn’t really a crime novel. Instead, it focuses on families, the choices people make, and what happens when those choices are very different to what others expect. It’s easy to see the influence of that literary background on James’ crime novels too. The Mistake, for instance, is as much about family dynamics and the implosion of a family as it is about a crime. It’s about enduring relationships and those that don’t endure, and why that happens. It’s also about class distinctions.

And that’s the thing about authors who work in other genres but who also write crime novels. Their special experience in other genres adds to their crime novels and makes them distinctive. As ever, there’s only so much room in one post for mentioning examples of this kind of ‘crossover’ writing. Your turn.

 

ps  Thanks to Moira at Clothes in Books for the inspiration for this post!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ Break on Through (to the Other Side).

24 Comments

Filed under Elmore Leonard, Isaac Asimov, Paddy Richardson, Qiu Xiaolong, Sophie Hannah, Wendy James

24 responses to “Break on Through to the Other Side*

  1. As you say, Margot, there are plenty of examples of mystery authors with distinguished careers in other forms of literature – beginning, to be sure, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But my favorite in this regard would be Nicholas Blake, whose first-rate mysteries during the Golden Age and after it, were secondary to the work he published under his real name – Cecil Day-Lewis, who became the Poet Laureate of the U. K. in 1968. He was also the father of Academy award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, by the way.

    • Les – I was really hoping you would mention Day-Lewis. As you say, a talented mystery writer but also an extraordinary poet. And in my opinion his work has the ‘flow’ and rhythm you’d expect from a poet. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  2. Nice topic Margot, I’m always fascinated by the fact that quite a number of crime fiction writers had also wrote children’s literature. Few names come to my mind right now but I’m sure you know a number of authors.

    • José Ignacio – Thanks for the kind words. I hadn’t thought about children or YA books in particular when I was writing this post, but you’re absolutely right that there are plenty of ‘crossover’ authors from that genre. I’m thinking of Mark Haddon for instance, as well as Shamini Flint. There’s also….oh, well, but she’s been making a lot news lately without any help from me… ;-)

  3. Great post Margot. Commercially it does seem very difficult for authors popular in one genre to move into another – I remember many critics seemed very resistant when Doris Lessing and PD James moved into science fiction and yet they retained the distinctive signature of the authors. Certainly Ray Bradbury’s late trilogy of mysteries could have been written by no one else!

    • Sergio – Thanks – glad you enjoyed the post. And you make a well-taken point about the decision to move from one genre to another, or to ‘add’ a genre to what one does. If one’s got the ‘clout’ of P.D. James or Ray Bradbury, I suspect it’s a bit easier to do that, as one already has a proven record, so to speak. But it is risky no matter who’s doing the writing. I give authors credit who can stretch themselves that way.

  4. Edmund Crispin had another career as a composer and musician as well as writing his classic detective stories. Sadly I think both careers faded in his later years – he was very much a promising young man who didn’t live up to his youthful promise. But the detective stories will live forever I think as examples of a certain kind of Golden Age, humorous, slightly dotty creations. I’m shocked to realize I have never featured any of his on my blog – must put that right soon!

    • Moira – Oh, yes, please do feature one of Crispin’s novels on your blog! I’d love to read your perspective. And you’re right about his career in music. Interesting combination with mystery writing I think. Who’d guess it – mystery and music… You’ve a well-taken point about the kind of GA novel he wrote, too. So reflective of that type of story.

  5. What an interesting group of authors you have highlighted. Asimov is the only one I have read (both mystery and sci fi) but all the others are ones I want to try some day.

    My contribution is Peter Dickinson, one of my favorite mystery authors. He has written both mysteries (for adults) and fantasy books for children and young adults. He started writing in both genres at about the same time.

    • Tracy – Thanks – I hope you do get to try some of these authors. And I must try Dickinson. You’re not the first to mention his work to me, and I give credit to anyone who writes books that get young people to read.

  6. Margot: In Canada I think of Margaret Atwood who has written in almost genre there is in the realm of writing. I regret to say I have not read her books.

    Staying in Canada Scott Young wrote a variety of books. Most of his books were non-fiction. Many involved sports. I did not realize until I read Murder in a Cold Climate last year that he had written a pair of mysteries.

    In Ireland Rob Kitchin is well known professionally for his academic books. In the world of crime fiction he is also accomplished. I have read and enjoyed The Rule Book and Stiffed.

    I will further mention yourself as a “crossover” writer. Even a quick look online shows you as the author or co-author of academic works as well as mystery fiction. You will have to say whether writing academic books makes your crime novels “distinctive”!

    • Bill – I’m glad you mentioned Margaret Atwood; she’s definitely done both literary fiction and crime fiction and it’s interesting to see how her writing reflects that. And thanks for mentioning Scott Young, too. I think it’s especially interesting when an author with a certain kind of expertise like Young’s also writes in fiction.

      And yes(!), Rob Kitchin writes some very good books about human geography and economics and has made a very successful ‘crossover’ to crime fiction. And what I admire about Kitchin is that he writes more than one kind of crime fiction. Not an easy thing to do.

      As to me, well I think writing in academia has definitely influenced my fiction writing. Academics are taught write in a certain way, which doesn’t usually involve a lot of detail. So I’ve had to teach myself to add more to my fiction writing…

  7. A lovely topic and I so admire people who can switch from one sort of book to another effortlessly. Stewart O’Nan is my favorite example.

  8. kathy d.

    At this moment, I have nothing to contribute (it’s been a long day), but I can say that both women from Oz are excellent writers. Paddy Richardson writes an unputdownable thriller, but with character development and family dynamics. Once a reader gets into this book, nothing else will get done until it’s finished.
    And Wendy James really gets into family dynamics, yes, and what the media and rumors can do to an individual. Also, the title mentioned here is quite appropriate, and everything unravels like peeling an onion. Another riveting read.

    • Kathy – I agree that both Paddy Richardson and Wendy James have a great deal of talent. You’re right that Richardson’s stories have a way of drawing the reader in and not letting go. And yet, they do as you say include strong character development and setting/context. And Jamess’ novels are multi-layered, so that as the story moves on, layer after layer is peeled away. It’s a very effective strategy and she does it very well.

  9. Hi Margot – another great post on a most fascinating topic, especially how poetry creeps into the novels of Sophie Hannah and Qiu Xiaolong. I think of the times where writers want to break out of the genre mold and do something different. An example is Robert Parker’s Love and Glory, a romance of a sort, in any case a very un-Spenser novel. Despite the goodly number of four and five star reviews on Amazon, it just didn’t work for me.
    Then there’s the case of E. Howard Hunt, who crossed over from espionage fiction to mysteries and back again, and also crossed into other areas as well!

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. On the one hand, I really respect authors who want to ‘stretch’ themselves by trying a new genre. It takes talent to do that well. On the other hand, I think it hard to get right. Authors develop a way of writing and thinking that works for ‘their’ genres, and sometimes it’s hard to adapt for another. At the same time, readers have expectations for authors. When their work changes, readers can find it hard to adapt. Your example of the Parker novel is a good example of how that all can end up in a book that just doesn’t work as well.

  10. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Alistair MacLean dabbled in westerns, crime fiction, and thrillers with equal ease. ERB, of course, added sf and fantasy to his impressive body of work. I think John le Carré’s early novels dealt with crimes like murder before he moved on to spy/espionage and international conspiracies.

    • Prashant – Right you are about Burroughs; thank you for reminding me of that. I’m less familiar with MacLean’s work, so I’m glad you’ve filled in that gap too. And it’s interesting isn’t it how le Carré has moved among murder mysteries, thrillers and spy novels isn’t it? He has a sense too for the subtle differences among those genres.

  11. English author Kate Atkinson successfully crosses back and forth between non-genre and crime fiction. Her early novels, such as the award-winning Behind the Scenes at the Museum are excellent, as is her Jackson Brodie series, which starts with Case Histories. Her most recent novel, Life After Life sees her writing non-genre fiction again. A very talented writer.

    • Angela – Now that’s a very well-taken point. Atkinson is extremely talented at going back and forth between what most people think of as literary and what most people call crime fiction. And she does great character development too.

  12. Interesting post. When I ran a second hand book stall in Greece, I used to see a lot of Asimov’s books but I never felt tempted to read them (sci fi isn’t really my genre). I hadn’t realised he had written crime fiction. Are they any good?

    • Sarah – I didn’t know you’d run a second hand book stall! I’ll bet that was fun. For what it’s worth, I’m not a sci-fi person myself. but I did enjoy the Lije Baley novels. In my opinion Asimov plotted them well, and the characters are strong enough that they don’t get ‘lost’ in the context.

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