Have you ever ‘stretched yourself’ to read something that you don’t usually read? Even something that you thought you might not like? Sometimes ‘stretching’ like that can end up being disappointing if the book you choose to read isn’t well-written. I know that’s happened to me. But it’s surprising how often opening one’s mind a little and trying something new can be a really valuable experience. And one of the things about crime fiction is that it often addresses important issues that need to be addressed. ‘Stretching’ can encourage readers to think about things they hadn’t thought about before, in new ways. And for me anyway, that’s as good a reason as any for taking a chance on a book. Granted, there are some books we choose not to read, and that’s fine too. A reader has the right not to read something. Every once in a while, though, it’s helpful to dip a metaphorical toe in some new water. Let me just give a few examples of what I mean.
Readers who aren’t science fiction fans might be very reluctant to try Isaac Asimav’s Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley novels. After all, they do take place in a futuristic world, they involve positronic robots, and there’s a lot of gadgetry and science discussed in them. And yet, these are very much crime fiction novels. The series (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn) features New York detective Lije Baley, whose police partner is R. Daneel Olivaw, a positronic robot. In The Caves of Steel, they investigate the murder of a famous scientist. It’s actually an interesting ‘impossible-but-not-impossible’ sort of mystery. In The Naked Sun, they investigate the murder of Rikaine Delmarre, who operated the planetary birthing center of Solaria. As much as a discussion of what the future might hold (which it is), this novel is also a whodunit. So is The Robots of Dawn, in which Baley and Olivaw work to find out who destroyed the mind of Jander Panell, one of Olivaw’s colleagues. Rejecting these novels out of hand because they are science fiction might mean readers would miss out on a solid set of crime stories.
Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack is the story of Buenos Aires cop Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. The story takes place in 1979, a very dangerous time to live and work in Argentina. The military junta is in power and determined to stay there, and anyone suspected of not going along enthusiastically is in mortal danger. Against that backdrop, Lescano investigates the murder of Elías Biterman, a successful pawn shop owner. The authorities want very much for this to be put down as an Army hit, in which case no more will be said about it. But Lescano is sure that’s not true, and continues investigating. This novel is written in a very literary style, with innovative use of dialogue, tense and so on. In some places it’s almost poetic. Readers who usually wouldn’t be interested in a novel like that might put this one aside at first. But the story paints a compelling portrait of 1979 Buenos Aires and introduces us to (in my opinion anyway) a likeable protagonist. The novel also raises important and thought-provoking questions about class, government, repression and anti-Semitism among other things.
Sometimes trying something one hasn’t tried before lets one think about things in a new way. For instance, in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is visiting her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse when his partner Nou is murdered. Then Didi himself is killed in what the police call an unfortunate incident of resisting arrest. They claim Didi was guilty of Nou’s murder and got violent when the police came to question him. But Keeney doesn’t believe any of that. Mostly in order to clear her friend’s name, she investigates the murders. She finds a connection between those killings and the Thai human trafficking and sex trades. This novel presents a complex and thought-provoking portrait of that trade, and doesn’t offer any easy answers. And that’s realistic because there aren’t any. It encourages the reader to really think through assumptions about how that trade starts, who keeps it going and what might be needed to stop it.
There’s also Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, in which Tasmania police sergeant John White is stabbed one morning as he and probationer Lucy Howard are investigating a break-in. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in trouble with the law before. As the crime and its aftermath are depicted from different points of view, we get a very complex and provocative picture of life as a cop. How should juveniles be treated? What if they’re repeat offenders? How far should the police go in solving a crime? What about government policies? What if they don’t work, practically speaking? There are a lot of other issues discussed in this novel too.
That’s also the case in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. That’s the story of the murder of thirteen members of the Atwal family in Jullundur, Punjab. The most likely suspect is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, who was there on the night of the murders. She hasn’t said anything about that night since she was arrested, so no-one knows for sure what happened. There’s enough confusion about the evidence that social worker Simran Singh is asked to return from her home in Delhi to Jullundar, where she grew up. It’s hoped that if she gets Durga to talk about that night, the police will get the answers they need. This novel isn’t a comfortable, easy read. It discusses issues such as class, sex roles, and corruption among other things. In fact, it may make readers uncomfortable. But those issues are important, and the novel addresses them clearly while still placing the main emphasis on what happened in the Atwal family.
It’s helpful for readers and (I think anyway) helpful for society when we try different kinds of books and topics. When we ‘stretch,’ we think about things in a new way, we grow, and sometimes, important things get discussed and addressed.
The only way we can continue to do this is to keep having access to a lot of books. Even books we don’t like. Even books we would never read. When certain books are impossible to get, that weakens all of us. During this Banned Books Week, let me invite you to try a book you might not otherwise try. Let me also invite you to support access to books you never intend to read. Let’s keep the diversity in reading alive and support everyone’s right to read (or not read) any book.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Divine Comedy’s Love What You Do.