An interesting comment exchange with Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about books that cross genre lines. Cleo suggested that there may be more of those sorts of books and series than there were, and that’s certainly a good possibility.
Of course, there’s an argument that there’s always been literature in several genres that could ‘count’ as crime fiction. Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, contain many of the elements of a crime story. There’s murder, greed, theft, betrayal, and a lot more. The same goes for lots of other classic reading, too.
But Cleo’s right that there are plenty of examples of contemporary novels and series that cross genre lines. For instance, Jane Casey is perhaps best known for her Maeve Kerrigan crime series. But she is also the author of a YA series featuring Jess Tennant. The series begins with How to Fall, in which Jess and her mother move from London to her mother’s home town of Port Sentinel after a difficult divorce from Jess’ father. On the one hand, this is a YA series, and it’s marketed towards that audience. On the other hand, it’s also a crime series. In How to Fall, Jess uncovers the truth about her cousin’s death a year earlier. At the time, it was put down to suicide, but Jess soon learns that there’s another explanation. There are plenty of other YA series, too, that are also crime fiction. I know that you could name more than I could.
Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman is the first in a trilogy that follows police officer Hank Palace. In the story, he investigates a murder that looks like a suicide (but isn’t). So, in that sense, it’s very much a crime novel. There’s a murder, there’s an investigation, and so on. But as fans of these books know, this is also considered science fiction. The context for the novel is that an asteroid will strike the earth in the next few months. As scientists study the event to try to determine its severity, the world’s social and economic structures start to fall apart. This plays a role, too, in the plot. For that reason, plenty of people consider this dystopia fiction. It’s an interesting blend of the traditions of different genres.
So is Charles Stross’ Rule 34. On one level, it’s a crime novel. Edinburgh DI Liz Kavanaugh and her team investigate when the body of ex-convict and Internet spammer Michael Blair is discovered. Eventually, this murder is linked to other murders of Internet spammers in different locations in the world. But this is also a speculative/science fiction novel. It takes place in the relatively near future, but in a sort of alternate future, where there’s some technologies that we don’t currently have. There are other differences, too, between Kavanaugh’s world and the one we know. And the solution to the mystery is more characteristic of a speculative novel than it is of a traditional detective novel. Does that make it less of a crime novel? Speaking strictly for me, I don’t think so. It’s more of a blend of those genres.
There are also plenty of historical novels that cross the line between history and crime fiction. For instance, Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of the Thornhill family, who move from London to Sydney in the early 1800s, after William Thornhill is sentenced to transportation. The novel follows the Thornhills as they arrive in the new land, find ways to make a living, and get accustomed to the many differences between London and New South Wales. In that sense, it’s very much historical fiction. So are The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill, the other novels in Grenville’s trilogy about life in colonial Australia. But these novels also have elements of crime fiction in them. There are violent deaths, dark secrets from the past, and intrigue, among other things. The same sort of thing might be said for Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and the forthcoming The Mirror and the Light. They are historical novels, but they also arguably cross genre lines, so that they can also be considered crime fiction.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a long tradition of literary work that also has elements of crime fiction. There’s plenty of contemporary literary fiction like that, too. For instance, John Hart’s The Last Child concerns the disappearance of Alyssa Merrimon, who was twelve years old when she went missing. No trace of her was ever found, and it’s devastated the family. Detective Clyde Hunt was assigned to the case, and is haunted by the fact that he hasn’t been able to get the answers that the Merrimon family needs in order to move on. Alyssa’s twin, Johnny, hasn’t given up on finding out the truth. And he’s got a map and a plan. As you can see, the novel has the elements of crime fiction. But it’s also a literary novel. There’s deep character exploration, a focus on the relationships involved, and a strong sense of the small-town North Caroline setting. Certainly, many people consider this a literary novel as well as a crime novel. The same might be said for books such as William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. That’s literary coming-of-age novel that also has a crime story woven through it.
It’s not easy to blend genres. The author has to manipulate the traditions of more than one genre, as well as keep the focus on the plot and characters. It can be tricky to do that and create a cohesive story. But genre-blended stories can also be innovative, and can enhance more than one genre. Which have you enjoyed?
Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration! Now, folks, treat yourselves to a visit to Cleo’s excellent blog. You’ll find fine reviews and interesting crime-fictional discussion there.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cornelius Grant and Smokey Robinson’s You’ve Got to Earn It.