By Tania Carver
And so begins one of the busiest weeks of the year. Yes, Harrogate is upon us. And Tania Carver will be there. Or one of us will be – and it’s me. As I’ve said before, Linda doesn’t like getting up on stage and mouthing off, she’s happy to leave that to me. And since I have been the Festival’s Reader in Residence for the last few years it makes sense for me to be the one there.
This year, I’m appearing (as Tania) on a panel on women and violence. It should be fun. And no, before you ask, I won’t be getting dressed up. I’m also doing a couple of events as Martyn too so that balances things out.
But I didn’t want to talk about women and violence. That’s for next weekend. Instead my eye was caught by another panel in the programme, namely ‘A Donkey In The Grand National’. That phrase was used by John Sutherland, who as a former chair of the Man Booker judges was asked what the chances were of a crime novel winning the prize. About the same, he said. Now the whole genre/literary debate has been about played to death. For an excellent piece about it, have a look at what Ray Banks has to say here. (There’s even a comment by me on there). I’m not going to address that directly. What I do want to talk about is something that may seem, at first glance, to be tangential to it but is actually – I think – at the heart of the debate. Class.
Now I know that in the States you have trouble working out the class system we have over here. So let me have a stab at explaining how it works. We have the Royal family, you have the Kennedys. We have the aristocracy, you have the Kardashians. (When I first heard the name I thought they were aliens from Star Trek. Honestly. Having seen them I feel I was absolutely right in that judgement.) We’re supposed to be deferential to our lords and ladies, you’re supposed to take seriously what comes out of Angelina Jolie’s mouth. You see the parallels. You see how both are essentially ludicrous.
I was out with Mark Billingham the other night and we started talking about this. He wondered what the critical response had been to Agatha Christie during the so-called Golden Age of crime fiction. Was she feted as the mistress of the puzzle novel? Sneers at for the same thing? Patronised as a genre writer (before the term had even been fully embraced)? I don’t know. I haven’t been able to find out. But if anyone does, please let me know – seriously, I’d love to know. We do know that her sales were huge, her following enormous with movie adaptations, stage plays (The Mousetrap is still the longest running play in London’s West End) and a level of interest in her personal life that most contemporary authors (JK Rowling excepted) would be hard pushed to match. But how seriously was she taken as a writer? From what I can tell, she was praised for being what she was. A good mechanic, someone who reproduced puzzles in the form of novels. She was no great prose stylist,her characters were stock, her action perfunctory. My theory is she’s remembered because she bridged the gap between childhood and adult reading. Her books, involving murders and puzzles, gave a young reader eager to develop beyond Enid Blyton the veneer of sophistication but they were written in such simplistic a manner as to be linguistically unchallenging. And Christie knew her milieu. The country house, the vicarage. A train travelling in an exotic, far-off country. The characters were all upper middle class (or just upper class), vicars and military officers and Lords and Ladies. Christie knew these people. She was in the same class as them. Interestingly, whenever a member of the lower classes appeared they were always thick coppers that her brilliant detective would show up as idiots or servants. They were also often the murderers and being sent to the gallows at the end of the novel was seen as a just punishment for getting ideas above their station. She was also horribly reactionary. I can’t speak for her contemporaries such as Margery Allingham, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey and the like because I’ve never read them. Nor have I ever been tempted to read them and maybe that’s my loss. I’ve read Christie and she’s not what I look for in a writer. I strongly suspect they wouldn’t be either. However, Christie and her coven cast a long shadow over British crime fiction. And at its heart, I believe, is class.
It goes back even further. It’s the Victorian idea that reading books is somehow improving and difficult. If the reader doesn’t come away from experiencing great literature with their life enriched and challenged then they’ve been reading it wrong. Forget entertainment, that was for the lower classes. Education and enrichment was what it was all about, the two are mutually exclusive and if you wanted entertainment too there was something inherently wrong with your intellect. And that prevailing attitude, I believe, still hangs over the literary world today.
I’ve mentioned this before but make no apologies for bringing it up again. I hope I never have to see another article by some broadsheet’s literary editor about how he’s been reading (fill in the name of the latest Scandanavian crime import in translation) and is loving it. It has everything you would want from a novel, the literary editor drivels on – beautiful prose, compelling characters, structure, poetry, strong narrative and above all a sense of social engagement with the contemporary world in which its set. They then always conclude with a variation on the same whinge: Why oh why can’t the crime writers in this country do the same?
And my answer to that is very simple. We do. Or at least a lot of us do, or at least strive to do just that. Because crime fiction – contemporary crime fiction, being written now – is doing just that. That’s what it is. I can come up with numerous examples and I’m sure you can too. In fact I just did but took them all out because this piece would have doubled in length.
I’d always been a fan of crime fiction. I came to it through comics and pulp – as a kid I would devour anything by the holy trinity: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. I’ve still got those comics on my shelf. I’m proud of that. I still read them. I think Kirby’s work for DC in the early Seventies is some of the greatest art of the Twentieth Century and I don’t care who disagrees with that opinion. I love it so much I could write a PhD on it. From comics I went on to pulp fiction. I was a bookish, geekish kid who spent summer holidays sitting reading Doc Savage, the Shadow and my favourite, the Spider. From there I graduated to crime fiction. I read Farewell My Lovely at a very impressionable age and that was it. It was like someone had just flung open the doors and windows. Here was a book that didn’t apologise for anything. It was unashamedly a crime novel yet it was unashamedly literature – both at the same time. How did he do that?
And in the late Eighties/early Nineties I discovered a bunch of writers who would become my literary godfathers and mothers. James Ellroy. James Lee Burke. James Crumley. And the ones who weren’t called James: Andrew Vachss. Sara Paretsky. Walter Mosley. There were, but again we’d be here all night if I listed them. They wrote with a sense of engagement with the world around them that was completely absent in British crime fiction at the time. They were like the literary equivalent of CNN: reportage as literature. Their work was both comment on and product of the societies that shaped and formed them as writers and people. I loved what they were doing. I wanted to take that ethos and make it work in Britain. I did, but I wasn’t alone. A lot of other writers had the same idea at the same time. We all, whether consciously or unconsciously, rejected Christie’s rigid, reactionary, class-based structure and created crime fiction about the country we lived in. You want to now what Britain was like in the Nineties? Read John Harvey’s Resnick series. You want an insight into contemporary British gender politics? Read Val McDermid. And on and on.
So yes. The broadsheet literary editors bemoaning the lack of British crime writing as literature just haven’t been reading it. Britain has crime writers the equal to any in the world. But – and this, I believe, is one of the big things – we’re not in translation. We write in English and therefore there’s no cache when it comes to discussing us at dinner parties. And because most literary editors are of the same class Christie was from, they still think that’s what crime fiction is in this country. We’re not seen as difficult or improving or challenging. In their eyes, we’re providers of entertainment for the lower orders.
Now in an abstract sense, as any serious reader will tell you, the argument is spurious. There are only good books and bad ones. That’s all that counts. Great ones that could be considered genre, awful ones that are seen as literary. And vice versa. And a discerning reader knows that. But for me, personally, I don’t care. I don’t think their argument applies to me. Because I’m the guy that thinks Jack Kirby is as big a genius as Jackson Pollack. I’m proud to write crime fiction. It’s a genre I love and if I want to make any penetrating insights into the human condition I can do so in a crime novel. Just as long as I remember to put a plot in it because someone has paid money to be entertained.
Here’s a last example of what I mean. I’ve just finished reading a biography of Frankie Howerd. He was a British comedian who died in 1992. He had huge mainstream success and was best remembered for his stand up, sit coms and catch phrases. He was, in short, a light entertainment mainstay. End of the pier, music hall, vaudeville stuff. Entertainment for the lower orders. Yet he had also performed Shakespeare, appeared in opera, won acclaim as a satirist (he followed Lenny Bruce as resident comedian at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club in the Sixties), revived Roman comedies and had one critic calling him ‘the most Brechtian actor in Britain’. Not bad for a working class bloke from Eltham, London. Yeah, he had all those penetrating insights about the human condition but he made them while he was making his audience laugh. While he was entertaining them. He was the best at what he did and he did it so well it became something more than that.
That’s what the best crime writers – or best writers in any genre – always do.
And they’re a class act because of it.