Category Archives: Daphne du Maurier

These Days the Edges Are Blurred*

Literary as Crime FictionWhen 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.


Filed under Chinua Achebe, Daphne du Maurier, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Kate Grenville, Toni Morrison, William Shakespeare

Follow Me Now to the Vault Down Below*

Today would have been Bram Stoker’s 165th birthday. Interesting enough factoid, but why bring it up on this crime-fictional blog? After all his most famous novel Dracula isn’t, strictly speaking, crime fiction. And no, I’m not going to mention novels with vampires in them. Promise. The fact is, Dracula is a very well-known example of the Gothic tradition in literature, and it’s interesting to see how elements of that tradition have found their way into crime fiction. People disagree about what counts as the Gothic tradition, but a quick look at crime fiction will show I think that it’s a definite presence in the genre.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, is the story of the Baskerville family. Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead one day in the park of the family manor. Family friend Mr. Mortimer believes that Baskerville fell victim to an old family curse: a demon in the shape of a hound. The curse is said to have been brought on the family by an ancestor Sir Hugo Baskerville, who sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he’d become infatuated. Mr. Mortimer is afraid that the curse will claim another victim when Sir Henry Baskerville comes from Canada to claim his title. Mortimer asks Sherlock Holmes to look into the curse and the family history, and he agrees. At Holmes’ request, Dr. Watson travels to Baskerville Hall to do the ‘legwork’ on the case, and later, Holmes himself goes there. In the end, Holmes discovers that Sir Charles’ death had nothing to do with a family curse. In this novel, we have the family history, the dark atmosphere and so on that we see in a lot of Gothic novels. And the family home Baskerville Hall is, in my opinion anyway, a Gothic setting:


‘The avenue opened into a broad expanse of turf and the house lay before us. In the fading light I could see that the centre was a heavy block of building from which a porch projected. The whole front was draped in ivy, with a patch clipped bare and there where a window or a coat-of-arms broke through the dark veil.’


While Conan Doyle’s work isn’t always thought of as Gothic, there are certainly some elements of that tradition in this novel and in some of his other stories too.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook also has elements of the Gothic in it. That’s the story of Tad Rampole, an American who’s just finished his university studies. On the advice of his mentor, he travels to England to meet famous lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell, who welcomes him warmly. When Rampole arrives, Fell tells him the story of the Starberth family. Beginning many years earlier, two generations of Starberth men were governors of Chatterham Prison until it fell into disuse. It’s now a crumbling ruin, and of course the Starberths haven’t worked at the prison for a very long time. But they are still associated with it through a ritual that each Starberth heir goes through on the night of his twenty-fifth birthday. Each heir must spend that night in the Governor’s Room at the old prison, open the safe in that room, and follow the instructions he finds there. A few Starberths have died mysteriously, and there is talk that the family is cursed. Now it’s the turn of Martin Starberth and Rampole takes a special interest in this ritual because he’s fallen in love with Martin’s sister Dorothy. When Martin dies tragically during his night at the old prison, Rampole works with Fell to find out how and why he died. There’s no real curse involved in this novel, but there are elements of the Gothic novel here. There’s the crumbling building, the hint of romance, the family history and the dark atmosphere.

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca isn’t really thought of as crime fiction, but if you think about it, it has so many elements of mystery fiction that I think it ‘counts.’ And it’s definitely got elements of the Gothic novel in it.  Maxim de Winter marries for the second time and brings his new bride to his home at Manderley, where both are hoping to be happy. It’s not long though before the new Mrs. de Winter is made to feel very unwelcome. Housekeeper Mrs. Danvers was fanatically devoted to de Winter’s first wife Rebecca, now deceased, and does everything in her power to undermine the new lady of the house. Even Manderley itself seems haunted by the ghost of Rebecca. De Winter’s second wife, whose name we aren’t told in the novel, begins to wonder if she’s imagining things or if she really is unwelcome in the house. Although she begins to doubt herself and her husband’s love for her, we find that there was more to Rebecca’s life and death than it seems. Manderley has the brooding, dark presence that we see in many Gothic novels. There are also the elements of family history, troubled romance and horror, too.

Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence has several elements of the Gothic novel about it too. In that novel, we meet the Argyle family. Two years before the events in the novel, matriarch Rachel Argyle was murdered. Her adopted son Jacko was arrested for and convicted of the crime and has since died in prison. At first, the family thinks the matter is settled. But then they get a visit from Dr. Arthur Calgary, who’s recently recovered from a bout with amnesia. He alone can prove that Jacko Argyle was innocent, and when he arrives at the family home Sunny Point (an ironic name, really) he plans to do just that. But as it turns out, no-one in the family wants him to re-open the case. Only Rachel Argyle’s son-in-law Philip Durrant seems to have any interest in pursuing the matter, so he and Calgary work together to find out who really killed Rachel Argyle. This novel has the atmosphere and the setting we often associate with Gothic novels. There’s the family history element too, and a touch of the question of one’s own motives and sanity that we sometimes find in Gothic novels. There’s a hint of romance too.

You might not think of ‘hardboiled’ PI novels as having Gothic novel elements, but they can. One example that comes to my mind is Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar. PI Lew Archer is hired by Dr. Sponti, head of the Laguna Perdida boarding school. Sponti is concerned because one of the school’s pupils Tom Hillman has run away. Tom’s parents Ralph and Elaine are wealthy and influential and are going to make Sponti’s life miserable and possibly ruin his school if their son’s not found. Archer is just about to leave to begin his investigation when Ralph Hillman bursts in, claiming that Tom’s been kidnapped and that his abductors have contacted the Hillmans. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with them – or try to – to find out where Tom is and return him safely. The truth isn’t as simple as a kidnapping for money, though. For one thing, the Hillmans are not as co-operative as you’d expect frantic parents to be. For another, hints come up that suggest that Tom may have joined the kidnappers of his own free will. Then one of the people Tom’s with is killed. Then there’s another death. Now Archer is looking into not just the disappearance of a teenager, but two murders. The element of family history figures strongly in this novel. So does the element of brooding and atmosphere that’s been associated with Gothic novels. The Hillman house is not the crumbling castle or mansion of traditional Gothic novels, but it’s no less forbidding for that.

In her own name and under the name of Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell has written a number of novels that have strong Gothic elements. One that stands out (at least to me) is A Dark Adapted Eye, Rendell’s first novel as Barbara Vine. Investigative journalist Daniel Stewart wants to do a story on the long-ago execution of Vera Longley Hilliard for murder. He wants to know about the history of the Longley family and what led to the murder for which Vera Hilliard was hanged. Stewart approaches Faith Longley Severn, Vera’s niece, and asks for her help with the family history. As the two work together, we learn of what the Longley family was like, the secrets hidden beneath the family’s oh-so-respectable exterior, and the story of Vera Longley Hilliard. This Longley family home isn’t a castle but it is full of brooding, of family secrets and of atmosphere. There’s a strong Gothic element here of psychological suspense too.

Not everyone enjoys Gothic novels but there’s no denying the effect of the Gothic tradition on crime fiction, from the days of Edgar Allan Poe to now. What do you think? Where do you see Gothic elements in today’s crime fiction? If you’re a writer do you include those elements in your stories?


See? Told ya. No vampires ;-)




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Alan Parsons Project’s The Cask of Amontillado. Yes, it’s a tribute to Poe’s short story.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, John Dickson Carr, Ross Macdonald, Ruth Rendell

You Opened Up the Door*

A really interesting post by mystery novelist Elizabeth Spann Craig got me to thinking about one of the debates that always seems to be simmering in the reading world: the roles of genre fiction and literary fiction. Elizabeth makes the very well-taken point that for many people, genre fiction can open the door, as you might say, to other kinds of fiction. It’s accessible. I certainly think that’s the case with crime fiction. Many people who don’t think they enjoy literary fiction or even reading in general find themselves drawn to a good crime novel. And that makes sense. Crime fiction tells the whole of the human story, really. It is about us. And in a well-written crime novel, readers identify with the characters, get caught up in the suspense of the mystery, and feel a strong sense of place, too. Little wonder the genre draws readers in.

Besides resonating with readers, crime fiction has lots of different sub-genres and is written in many different styles. So no matter what one’s interests are, there’s bound to be some crime fiction novel or series that appeals. I’ll just give a few examples of what I mean; I’m sure you could think of many more than I could anyway.

For one thing, crime fiction is written at a lot of different reading levels, including those intended for children. Young readers can start trying to figure out mysteries quite early in their school years. For example, Harry Allard and James Marshall’s Miss Nelson is Missing! is written for children between the ages of 5 or 6 and 8 years of age. It tells the story of a kindly teacher who’s treated badly by her students – until the day she mysteriously disappears and is replaced by a much stricter, mean teacher. The students very soon find that they miss their former teacher and want her back, so they ask Detective McSmogg to find out what happened to Miss Nelson. When McSmogg finds out the truth, the children also learn an important lesson.

Crime fiction is so varied that people with just about any interest can find something they like. For instance, some crime fiction (Julie Hyzy’s White House Chef series and Kerry Greenwood’s Corrina Chapman series come to my mind) is food-themed. Kitchen wizards who may not enjoy reading other kinds of books may very well find a series such as Hyzy’s or Greenwood’s that pulls them in. Outdoors enthusiasts and naturalists who might not otherwise think they enjoy reading could easily get drawn in by C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series or Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series. There are even plenty of mystery/crime fiction novels with a fantasy/paranormal twist, such as M.J. Grothoff’s Everwing novels. There are a number of other examples, too, of themed series. Series like that can pull a person into reading in a way that other kinds of novels and series might not be able to do. History, politics, religion, travel, romance, humour – it’s all there in crime fiction and because of that variety, the genre draws in all sorts of readers who might not otherwise think of themselves as readers.

And crime fiction isn’t just accessible in terms of its themes, reading levels and topics. Crime fiction is available in so many different formats that it’s accessible to people no matter what their preferences. There are world-famous mystery plays (Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, anyone?). There are some wonderful crime fiction short stories and short story collections. There’s flash- and micro-fiction, too. There are also mystery games such as the ones written by  mystery author and blogger Elspeth Antonelli, “Mystery Weekends” and other interactive mystery events. There are all sorts of computer games, including some very interactive ones, in which players learn about and solve mysteries. There are also plenty of comics and graphic novels focused on mystery and crime fiction. And I need not mention the myriad crime fiction stories on television and film (but I will anyway). So no matter how one best enjoys fiction, there’s probably something in crime fiction that will appeal.

But what about that connection between genre fiction (in this case, crime fiction) and literary fiction?  Once people find themselves enjoying crime fiction, is it a great “leap” to other kinds of fiction, including literary fiction? The thing is, there doesn’t have to be a great division between the two. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, lots of what people think of as literary fiction is arguably crime fiction. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, in which we learn of the mysterious life and death of Max de Winter’s first wife Rebecca, comes to my mind right away. But it’s far from the only example. Several of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet and Macbeth are only two examples) deal with murder or other crimes. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of a man on trial for a murder he didn’t commit. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart tells about the life of Okonkwo, a leader in his village of Umofia. The story follows Okonkwo and what happens to him and his family as a result of the coming of White people to his part of Africa, and the struggle between the traditional ways of doing things and new ways of doing things. But Things Fall Apart is also the story of the murder of Ikemefuna, a young boy who’s taken prisoner as a settlement between the village of Umofia and another village. Other murders also occur in the story as the people of Umofia come to terms with the new arrivals. All of these novels and plays are considered great literature. They are also all arguably crime fiction.

There’s plenty of crime fiction, too, that has great literary merit. For instance, Peter Temple’s Truth is the story of Victoria Inspector Stephen Villani, whose team investigates several different crimes during a hot and dangerous fire season. A young woman is found dead in a very posh apartment, the bodies of three drug dealers are found in an abandoned warehouse, and no-one seems to want those crimes solved. To add to things, Villani’s personal life is no easy road. He’s been unfaithful to his wife, and hasn’t been an attentive father. He’s also worn out and wounded by life on the police force. This is definitely a crime fiction novel but it is also a fine example of literary fiction; in fact, Truth was the winner of Australia’s 2010 Miles Franklin Award, a literary prize going to the best Australian “’published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases.”

There’s also P.D. James, whose novels are rightfully considered crime fiction. And yet, Death in Holy Orders was shortlisted for the 2002 WH Smith Literary Award. In that novel, Commander Adam Dalgliesh investigates the death of Ronald Treeves, who was preparing for the ministry at St. Anselm’s, a theological college. According to the coroner’s verdict, Treeves’ death was an accident, but his father Sir Alred Treeves doesn’t think that verdict is correct. So he asks Dalgliesh to investigate. You can argue that novels like James’ are literary works even though they are usually classified as crime fiction.

If you think about it, crime fiction is a really effective and accessible way for people to begin to experience all sorts of other kind of fiction, including what most people call literary fiction. There isn’t always a clear dividing line between genre fiction such as crime fiction on the one hand, and literary fiction on the other. So it makes sense that the one might lead to the other. But what do you think? Has your interest in one led to the other? Do you see a great division between genre and literary fiction?




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s Opened The Door.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Chinua Achebe, Daphne du Maurier, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Elspeth Antonelli, Harper Lee, Harry Allard, James Marshall, Julie Hyzy, Kerry Greenwood, M.J. Grothoff, Nevada Barr, P.D. James, Peter Temple, William Shakespeare

You Don’t Feel You Could Love Me, but I Feel You Could*

People who love to read have dozens of reasons for enjoying getting lost in a book. Sometimes it’s because the plot intrigues them. Sometimes it’s because they enjoy a particular topic like cooking, sports, birds or something else, and want to read about that topic. Or it could be because of that power books can have to teach us, take us on virtual trips all over the world, and introduce us to all sorts of memorable characters. What’s so interesting about crime fiction (after all, this is a blog about crime fiction…) is that it’s woven all through literature. You don’t have to have read a lot of Agatha Christie’s books to have read fiction that has to do with crime. No matter what your taste in books is, you’ll find at least hints of the mystery and suspense (and of course, the criminal activity) that make for quality crime fiction.

For example, one very popular genre of fiction is science fiction. Science fiction lovers may not think they’d like crime fiction, but there are some fine crime fiction novels that are also science fiction stories. For example, Isaac Asimov’s Elijah “Lije” Baley/R. Daneel Olivaw series takes place on a futuristic Earth (mostly in what we know now as New York City). Many of the fascinating questions that science fiction readers like to ponder are addressed in this series (e.g. What will the future be like? What would it be like if positronic robots were integrated into society? What kinds of scientific and technological developments could there be?) And yet, this series is a crime fiction series. It features a human police detective (Baley) and his positronic sleuthing partner (Olivaw) who investigate murders. They follow leads, collect evidence, make sense of clues, and search for motives, just like many other sets of fictional detectives.

People who enjoy reading about sport and athletes might say they don’t enjoy mysteries and crime fiction. But crime fiction is woven into that genre, too. For instance, many of Harlan Coben’s novels feature Myron Bolitar, a former basketball star who’s been sidelined because of an injury. He becomes an agent, and later an investigator. In the earlier Bolitar novels in particular, we see the same themes that make other sports novels appealing to their fans. There are larger topics such as the nature of competition, the roles of men and women in sports, greed, the passion and tenacity that it takes to be great, and more. There’s also interesting information about sport itself. The same is true of Dick Francis’ horse racing-themed novels. And yet, these novels are crime fiction novels. They focus on crimes (mostly murder) and their detection, and feature a lot of the elements in other crime fiction novels.

Many people enjoy reading about history. And there are some highly talented authors of historical fiction. For instance, there’s James Michener, whose historical novels have taken readers from Hawai’i to the Middle East to Poland (and many other places, too). For history buffs, authors such as Michener and Edward Rutherfurd provide delightful journeys into the past. And yet, there are plenty of elements of crime fiction in those novels as well. There are several sections in Michener’s and Rutherfurd’s work (to take just those two examples) in which someone is killed or other crimes are committed. And a good part of what keeps readers turning pages during those sections is finding out whodunit and whydunit.

There are also those who like to read romance novels. For romance fans, there’s nothing like getting caught up in the drama of falling in love, working through misunderstandings, learning to know each other, and the suspense of “will-they-or-won’t-they.” And of course, the attraction at the heart of these novels also draws readers in. Romance lovers may not think of themselves as crime fiction readers, but at times, they are. For instance, Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor and LaVyrle Spencer’s Morning Glory both involve crimes. In the former, Nicholas Stafford has been unjustly convicted of treason and needs the help of Douglass Stafford to clear his name. In the latter, Will Parker, who has a criminal past, falls in love with Eleanor “Ellie” Dinsmore. Their plans are complicated not only by Parker’s criminal reputation, but also by a blackmailer. There are a lot of other examples, too. These are romance novels, so the focus of the stories is the developing relationship between two people. But they also have plenty of crime fiction elements. And I’m sure you could name far more novels than I could in which a developing romance plays a role in a novel that’s mostly about a crime and its investigation.

Many, many readers are drawn to what’s often called “great literature.” They enjoy the work of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, William Faulkner, James Joyce and other writers who are known for their literary greatness. If you ask those readers whether they like crime fiction, you’d probably get plenty who’d tell you, “no.” But the fact is, there’s plenty of murder, mayhem and other crime in literary novels. For instance, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is considered one of the truly excellent examples of English-language literature. Gabriel García Márquez’ Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) is regarded as a fine example of Latin American Spanish-language literature. Both authors use very highly-regarded literary styles (although those styles are quite different), and both are often named among the top writers in their languages. And yet, those novels focus on crime and mystery. Rebecca is, among many other things, the unfolding story of the death of Rebecca de Winter, who died under mysterious circumstances. Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada tells of the murder of Santiago Nasar. There are plenty of other examples, too, from other truly great writers (“The Scottish Play,” anyone?). And of course, there are many crime fiction writers whose work is also highly regarded as literary fiction (Peter Temple, anyone? P.D. James?). It really doesn’t take much looking to see that crime fiction and “great literature” have affected each other.

I could mention lots of other kinds of fiction that integrates crime, mystery and suspense. The fact is that many of the elements that make up a good crime story aren’t that different from the elements that make up any other excellent story. There’s an engaging and absorbing plot, appealing characters (or at least interesting and intriguing ones), solid writing style and a setting and context that adds to the story. Crime fiction, like other fine fiction, is about believable people facing challenges (in crime fiction’s case, crime). Like other fiction, it’s about how those conflicts are resolved. No wonder crime fiction is so appealing, even to those who don’t think they like it.

What about you? Which novels and authors do you recommend when friends and relations tell you they don’t like crime fiction? If you’re a writer, how do you make your work appealing to those who may not have tried crime fiction, or who may think they don’t like it?



On a Related Note….

It’s National Book Week, and today is National Book Lovers Day. What better way to celebrate than to try a new book or author…




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Gumboots.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Dick Francis, Edward Rutherfurd, Gabriel García Márquez, Harlan Coben, Isaac Asimov, James Joyce, James Michener, Jane Austen, Jude Deveraux, LaVyrle Spencer, William Faulkner, William Shakespeare

>It’s a Fine Line*

> What labels do we use when we talk and think about the books we read? Those labels can be useful for publishers, booksellers and others involved in the printing, marketing and selling of books. Those labels can also be helpful for authors, who can use them to figure out the kind of writing they want to do. But labels can also create all kinds of problems because there are so many books that don’t fit neatly into one or another category. For instance, many people make a distinction between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.” There are even separate prizes and awards given out for what’s often called “literature” or “literary fiction” and the different genres. There are also people think that genre fiction can’t “count” as literary fiction, and people who refuse to read what’s called “literary fiction” because they only like one kind of genre fiction. The truth is, though, that the lines among different kinds of writing can often get quite blurred. What do we really mean, anyway, by labels such as, “literary fiction” and “genre fiction?” Since I read quite a lot of crime fiction, and that’s the fiction I write, I’m going to focus here on that genre.

Here’s a description of a novel: A man has reached a crossroads in his life. He has a very successful career and is actually quite well-regarded. He married exactly the sort of woman he’d envisioned marrying, he has two healthy children and everything seems to be going right for him. Yet, something is lacking in his life, and he’s not even sure what that is. Then, he chances to meet an old love. This experience forces him to re-examine his life and come to some conclusions about what really matters and what he wants from his life. His wife, meanwhile, has always hero-worshipped her husband. She sacrificed everything for him, and has always been willing to run the household the way he wants. In the course of the novel, she, too reaches an important “watershed.” This novel of family relationships explores the nature of attachment, love, and devotion.

Does that sound like a “literary” novel? It actually refers to Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). There’s a lot more that I could have said about this novel, in which Dr. John Christow (the man I refer to above) is murdered while he and his wife are on a week-end visit to friends in the country. When Hercule Poirot comes upon the murder scene, he thinks at first that it’s been staged, because it looks so artificial. He’s none too happy about it, either. Soon enough, though, he sees that it’s all too real, and it’s not long before he finds that more than one person had a reason to kill John Christow. Is this a crime fiction novel? A literary novel? Both? The line is rather blurred.

Here’s another description: A woman finds the strength to confront her own past and that of several members of her family when she’s asked to re-examine her family history. As she does so, the woman comes to terns with her relationships with her two aunts, re-unites with a nephew and is finally able to see what denial has done to her family through the years.

What do you think? Literary fiction? This one refers to A Dark-Adapted Eye, which was Ruth Rendell’s first novel under the name of Barbara Vine. In this novel, Faith Longley Severn narrates the story of her proud, middle class family, about whom there’s never been any gossip, let alone scandal. The Longley family, though, is hiding some ugly secrets which are brought to light years later when journalist Daniel Stewart decides to write a book about the hanging of Faith’s aunt Vera (Longley) Hillyard, for murder. As Faith tells the family’s story, we gradually learn more and more about the Longley family and what the driving force was behind the murder. Again, is this crime fiction? Is it literary? Is it both?

It works the other way, too. That is, books we often think of as “literary fiction” could also be considered crime fiction. Here’s an example. In Karen Osborn’s The River Road, brothers Michael and David Sanderson and their neighbor, Kay Richards, have grown up together. Now that they’re young adults, Kay and David are having a passionate love affair. One summer night during college, the three young people spend a night of partying together. At the end of the night, they find themselves on a bridge above a local river. Almost before anyone knows it, David Sanderson is standing on the rail of the bridge, saying he’s going to jump off and swim to the other side. He begs Kay to join him, and she does. At the last minute, though, David ends up in the water and Kay doesn’t. When David is found drowned, Kay is suspected of having killed him.

Does this seem like crime fiction to you? I think there’s a good argument for it. And yet, it’s a novel that also explores the young people’s growing up, their relationships with each other, and their families’ relationships. More than that, it explores what happens to the survivors in both families after David’s death. It was certainly marketed as “literary fiction,” and that’s how it’s shelved, etc., too. So is it literary fiction? I would say so, but I would also argue that it’s crime fiction.

One of the most famous examples of what most people call literary fiction, but which is also crime fiction, is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Told from the point of view of Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter’s second wife, it’s the story of her arrival at his home, Manderley, and her discovery of the secrets that lie hidden there. Maxim de Winter is a widower, whose first wife, Rebecca, was reportedly drowned at sea. However, it’s not long before we find out that Rebecca’s memory still has a haunting grip on everyone in the household, especially on Mrs. Danvers, de Winter’s housekeeper. Mrs. Danvers takes every opportunity to make the new Mrs. de Winter feel uncomfortable, uncouth, and unfit. Soon, the new Mrs. de Winter is sure that her husband can’t possibly love her, as he loves his former wife still. But as we find out, there’s more to Rebecca’s death than it seems. As the narrator learns the truth about Manderley and the people who live there, the reader finds out what really happened to Rebecca.

In one sense, Rebecca is most definitely what you’d call “literary fiction.” That’s how it’s marketed and sold and that’s also how it’s often taught. However, it’s also a fascinating crime fiction story, full of old secrets, betrayal, a possible murder, and more.

There are many other novels, too, of course, that straddle that very fine line between “literary fiction” and “crime fiction.” For example, Peter Temple’s Truth has recently won Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin literary prize. I’m not going to go into detail about this, because it’s been beautifully discussed at these blogs:


Crime Watch

Mysteries in Paradise

Detectives Beyond Borders

The Game’s Afoot

This award is a better example than I could ever write that shows that sometimes, the line between genre fiction and literary fiction is very blurred indeed.

What do you think? Which novels have you enjoyed (no fair mentioning Truth; I just did ; ) ) that straddle that line?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steve Winwood’s Split Decision.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Daphne du Maurier, Karen Osborn, Peter Temple, Ruth Rendell