To Make Two Things One, You’ve Got to Mix Them*

genre-mixingAn 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 


Filed under Ben Winters, Charles Stross, Hilary Mantel, Jane Casey, John Hart, Kate Grenville, William Kent Krueger

18 responses to “To Make Two Things One, You’ve Got to Mix Them*

  1. Thank you so much for the generous mention Margot – and I’m impressed at how fast you produced this past following our comments. My recent read In Her Wake is a psychological thriller, but not in the accepted sense of the genre – I particularly loved how there was a very contemporary love story as well as links to legends about mermaids – totally delightful but difficult to categorise into the traditional genre

    • It’s my pleasure to mention your excellent blog, Cleo. Thanks for the inspiration and for mentioning In Her Wake. What an interesting blend of suspense, psychological thriller, and legend! I can see how the result would be an intriguing read. Still, as you say, that also means that it can’t be put into a traditional genre category. Perhaps that makes it all the more interesting.

  2. I do like a skilful blend of genres – I never quite know what to expect! On the other hand, there are times when I crave a good old traditional police procedural or whatever genre/subgenre. Isn’t it nice that we can have both?

    • It is, indeed, Marina Sofia. One of the real beauties of the genre is that there’s so much variety in it. There’s always something different to explore. Or, if one wants a return to a literary old friend, they’re there, too. What’s not to like?

  3. Tim

    Your mention of genre-crossing — especially with Shakespeare — comes as a coincident to my posting/question (see below). The more I think about the issue, the more I wonder about the definition of “crime” both in literature and in life; must an action be a crime (statutory violation), an offense against another person (not a crime according to laws), or a sin (violation of religious codes)? Then I am hard pressed to think of any piece of literature that does involve crime, offense, or sin.

    • You ask an interesting question, Tim. To add to the well-taken point you’ve made, there’s the question of what ‘counts’ as a crime in different cultures. Certain things that wouldn’t be a crime in our culture, would be in others. The reverse is also true. And if we carry the discussion further, we can argue that, as you say, just about all literature involves some sort of crime, violation of an ethical code, etc.. It’s interesting we both discuss a similar topic on the same day.

  4. Isaac Asimov, the godfather of science fiction, wrote about a detective in NYC who had to partner up with a humanoid robot to solve a murder (The caves of steel). It’s a proper hardboiled detective story from the early fifties, sprinkled with some futuristic science fiction.

    And as with most of Asimov’s books (he wrote over 400 throughout his career), it’s a great read.

  5. Hi Margot, I went through a spate of reading Australian literary fiction recently, where every novel seemed to use a crime to propel the plot, while stopping short of actually being a crime novel; all had won or been shortlisted for major literary prizes. Evie Wyld’s, All the Birds, Singing, Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm and A S Patric’s Black Rock, White City are examples. Also, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites fits the historical/crime novel hybrid very well, being shortlisted for both literary and crime writing prizes–and winning readers’ choice awards for both.

    • That’s exactly the sort of novel I was thinking of when I put this post together, Angela. And it’s interesting how books like that can be highly regarded as literature, as well as having elements of the crime novel in them. In my mind, Peter Temple’s Truth is like that, too – a Miles Franklin literary award winner, but also a crime novel. That sort of genre blending can make for a memorable reading experience.

  6. My favorite read this year, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, is called a literary mystery. It’s suspense, mystery, literary, and mainstream….a wonderful combination.

  7. I recently read Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, which combines police procedural with supernatural elements. That’s not usually my kind of thing, but I’m glad I gave it a go.

    • That’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind with this post, Moira – thank you! And I need to try his writing. I don’t generally go for the supernatural either, but sometimes it can work.

  8. tracybham

    Sorry I missed this earlier, Margot. You know how I love cross genre fiction, especially when science fiction or fantasy is mixed with crime fiction. I loved the The Last Policeman trilogy and also like the Rivers of London series that Moira mentioned.

    • No worries, Tracy – the party never ends here. And it can be really effective when different genres blend. I think it takes a very skilled author to do it well, but when it works, it can really be appealing.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s