When you were in school, I’ll bet there were a lot of literary novels and plays you were expected to read. Some of them of course are truly fine fiction and deserve to be read. Others…perhaps not so much. This probably won’t come as a surprise, but I think it’s a very good thing that young people are introduced to all kinds of great literary work. There are a number of good reasons for that; I probably don’t have to outline them for you. A lot of young people groan and grumble about being expected to read certain novels. I know I did – and I still grumble about some of them.
I wonder what it would be like if some of those fine literary works were ‘sold’ as the crime fiction they are. What? Literary work that’s about crime? Of course! Sometimes the distinction between what ‘counts’ as literary fiction and what ‘counts’ as crime fiction is awfully blurred. Let me just offer a few examples and you’ll see what I mean.
Take Shakespeare for instance. I’ll bet we’ve all read The Scottish Play at one point or another. That play is billed, as is much of Shakespeare’s work, as ‘literary.’ But if you think about it, it’s certainly crime fiction. There’s a crime plot, a murder, its aftermath, all sorts of politics and intrigue, and lots more. It’s a veritable crime-fictional feast. I’m no Shakespeare scholar, but I’ve been told by people who know better than I that in his day, Shakespeare actually wrote for ‘the rest of us.’ His plays deal with themes that we can all understand. What’s more, they deal with the very issues (e.g. greed, fear, jealousy, lust, revenge) that are often behind murder, both real and fictional. I think that there’s a solid argument that, although his work is considered literary, Shakespeare’s work is also crime fiction.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is often taught as a literary novel, and it certainly is one. It’s got solid literary themes, some fascinating characters and the sort of writing style that consistently gets it ranked as a great novel. But if you think about it, it’s a crime novel too. What if Rebecca were ‘sold’ as a story in which an old crime (or is it really a crime…) is discovered. What if it were ‘sold’ as a psychological thriller (which it also arguably is)? It’s a lot more than those things of course, which is why it has the reputation it has. But it’s also a crime fiction novel.
What about F. Scott Fizgerald’s The Great Gatsby? Yes of course it’s all about social class differences, life in America just before the Great Depression, and love. It’s about wanting to fit in and about a lot of other things too. But it’s also a crime novel. There’s an accidental killing, a murder, guilt, a coverup and other elements too that we often associate with crime fiction. There are also the underlying themes (greed, jealousy, etc.) that so often motivate crime. It is indeed a literary novel, and there are very good reasons that it’s often taught as an example of the best in American fiction. But it’s also crime fiction if you look at it that way.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is often included in the list of ‘Great Classic Novels,’ and it certainly has wide-reaching themes and an impressive literary style. It’s all about life in a small Southern US town. It’s about coming of age, fitting in (or not) and the parent/child/sibling dynamic. On that score alone many people consider it great. But it’s also a crime novel. It’s about an alleged rape and the trial that follows that accusation. It’s about perjury, ‘vigilante justice’ and other themes too that are often associated with crime fiction. And it’s widely regarded as an exceptional legal novel. In fact, the University of Alabama has instituted the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. John Grisham won the inaugural prize in 2010, and this past year (2013) the winner was Paul Goldstein for Havana Requiem.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a highly-regarded novel about the coming of European colonials to the Nigerian village of Umuofia during the mid-19th Century. It’s about the clash between tradition and new ways, and about what happens when the things we’ve always depended on don’t make sense any more. It’s also about cultural differences and perceptions. And it’s about family ties and traditional ways and a lot more too. But it’s also arguably a crime novel. Two central events in the story are killings. The novel is about those killings, the guilt and attempt at expiation that follows them, and what ‘counts’ as justice.
And then there’s Toni Morrison’s Beloved. You probably know that Morrison is a Nobel Laureate, and you don’t get that award without an impressive body of work. Beloved is arguably one of Morrison’s finest novels. It traces the life of a woman who escapes slavery in Kentucky and flees to Ohio with her children. When she’s found by a posse of slave hunters, real tragedy results – tragedy that would certainly be called a crime. The novel explores antebellum life, the parent/child bond, the effects of slavery, the African-American experience and more. And many people argue that Morrison’s poetic style is extraordinary. But this is also crime fiction. There’s a killing, attempted murder, the guilt that comes from taking a life, and an exploration of the motive.
There’s also more modern work by authors such as Kate Grenville that are highly regarded as literary novels. And they are. But you can also make a very good argument that many of these novels have plenty of elements of the crime novel in them too. I wonder what would happen if they were ‘sold’ that way. It’s one of the reasons for which that line – the line between literary fiction and crime fiction – is so very blurred.
I’m only one person with only one person’s reading history. And there is only so much space in any one blog post. So I’ve only mentioned a very few of the great literary works out there. Which literary novels have you read that really also count as crime fiction in your mind?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Shades of Grey.