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Crime Fiction: A Testimony

May 21, 2012

I recently came across a piece by J. Kingston Pierce for the Kirkus Reviews in which he describes how his interest in crime fiction began in his teenage years and grew to become the focus of his writing career. It’s an excellent piece, here’s the link, and it made me wonder about my own discovery of the genre.

This cover of American Tabloid caught my attention in a Bournemouth bookshop, if it hadn’t my life might have been very different

At school I struggled with maths and sciences. I enjoyed subjects such as history, religious education and sociology, where ideas could be debated and nuance and conflict shown. No subject combined all of the ‘big ideas’ of life more thrillingly than English Literature. But, as in most English literature curriculums, the focus of my high school literature course was almost exclusively on authors in the literary canon. Genre is, or at least was, a dirty word. So I had little concept of modern popular fiction until I started reading my father’s collection which included Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt adventure series and Bernard Cromwell’s Sharpe novels set during the Napoleonic Wars. These novels liberated my sense of reading. For the first time I began to experience the excitement and danger of the narrative as though I were a character in the story. I learned that great stories could be told through action, rather than just thought and dialogue, and  still possess the potential for leaving a profound emotional impact on the reader. But I was soon to read a novel which kickstarted my fascination with the one genre that brought together my favourite character-types of genre fiction: spies, adventurers and detectives.

At some point in my mid-teens I was holidaying with my parents in Bournemouth in South West England. In a bookshop I noticed a book on the shelves and recognised the front cover as being a rather blurred still from the Zapruder film depicting President Kennedy’s assassination. The book was titled American Tabloid and was written by James Ellroy, who I knew very little about. A novel about the Kennedy assassination seemed interesting, so I bought it and started reading straight away. I was immediately hooked. The portrayal of intrigue and corruption in the Kennedy era was riveting. Ellroy told the story from the perspective of protagonists on the very fringes of society: Mob hitmen, rogue intelligence agents, Cuban exiles. The men who, in his fictional version of events, eventually conspire to kill Kennedy. It was from reading this novel that my obsession with and knowledge of crime fiction began to develop. Reading the novel felt like being plunged into a secret world where different rules apply. To understand these rules I needed to go back and read earlier crime novels. After reading all of Ellroy’s novels, short stories and articles, I read Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to trace the development of the hard-boiled private detective, and how these stories were a reaction to the quaint style of the predominantly British Golden Age of Detective Fiction. I came to appreciate how Ed McBain discarded the private eye and developed the police procedural sub-genre with his 87th Precinct series. I was floored by the works of Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins, and how they moved the genre away from mystery plotlines towards dialogue-driven storytelling with an emphasis on humour and sudden, unpredictable outbreaks of violence. I began reading contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction and British espionage thrillers.

That being said, I maintained my interest in canonical literature and studied for an MA in Victorian Literature. However, upon completion of my MA, I returned again to the writer who had first introduced me to the world of crime fiction, James Ellroy. So I’m now in my final year of PhD studying the life and work of James Ellroy. I’ve edited a book about Ellroy, details here, and have edited an anthology about American crime writers released later this year. My obsession with crime fiction has gradually transformed into my profession, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.

If anyone else remembers fondly how they first discovered crime fiction, please share your story in the comment thread.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2012 8:40 pm

    How cool Steve. Ian Fleming was a massive author back in the seventies. Many of his books have not stood the test of time, others such as Goldfinger have. After exhausting the Fleming oeuvre I read a number of authors who influenced him, including Leslie Charteris (the Saint) and Sappers Bulldog Drummond. Then of course there was Holmes. I always loved how retro James Ellroy’s work was—The chaos of the Narrative often reminded me of William Burroughs, who did many wonderful reimaginings on the noir detective idea, which I found very entertaining. Reading Burroughs also inspired me to read Hammett and Chandler. I guess many crime fans do it the other way around. As a fan of Ellroy I know you will have read Don De Lillo’s excellent book Libra. Ellroy often cites this book as the reason why he has never, and will never tackle the Kennedy assassination directly. It is well worth reading. As is the sensational book: Hollywoods Celebrity Gangster The incredible Life and Times of Mickey Cohen; A revelatory book that offers many insights into the era of crime in Los Angeles that Ellroy so successfully gonzoized.

    • May 21, 2012 8:52 pm

      Thanks Tony,

      I agree with you that Fleming was hit and miss. Anthony Burgess was a fan of Fleming and argued that Fleming grew bored of Bond and felt tied down by him. Still, what a legacy! Yes I’ve read Libra and I was bowled over by it. Incredible mixture of fact and fiction.

      Best wishes,

  2. May 22, 2012 9:28 am

    I am so old I can’t remember “discovering” crime fiction – though Raymond Chandler was probably to blame – but I certainly remember having my socks well and truly knocked off by Len Deighton’s “The Ipcress File” in about 1964. That was the book which made me want to be a crime writer (even though I’ve never done spy stories) because the style was cheeky, off-the-wall and totally refreshing and made me realise that the later Bond books had tasted of cardboard in comparison. I was to get a similar feeling when I discovered the writing “voices” of Anthony Price, George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard in the 70s and 80s, but Ipcress File was my road-to-Damascus moment. You young whippersnappers will not believe the fights some of us writers and critics (me, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, the late Philip Oakes, Maxim Jakubowski et al) had with publishers round about 1989-90 lobbying to bring the books of Higgins, Leonard, Charles Willeford, Charles Williams, James Crumley and, yes, James Ellroy, to the UK and being constantly told “Americans don’t sell here”. In 1991, for better or worse, John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell changed all that. The rest, like me, is history.

    • May 22, 2012 10:00 am

      Thanks Mike,

      We owe you a big debt. Hard to believe publishers thought Leonard and Ellroy wouldn’t sell over here. Thankfully, the internet makes it fairly easy to find a book. Although I think Williams isn’t appreciated enough and am I right in thinking Ross Macdonald was never officially published in the UK? Still, at least Higgins became highly respected by a group of Brit critics and fans even when his career was on the decline.


  3. May 22, 2012 10:25 am

    Ross MacDonald (at least the Lew Archer books) were published by Collins Crime Club in the UK – I have a 1961 hardback edition of “The Wycherly Woman” – and they were all well reviewed by the likes of Julian Symons and Nicholas Blake (C. Day Lewis). They were huge sellers as Fontana paperbacks in the early 60s and after a lull, Allison & Busby had a go at reissuing him circa 1990. Oddly enough, that other great Macdonald – John D. – was only published in hardback in the UK. In the US he was always paperback originals and he stayed very loyal to his British publisher (Robert Hale) as he thought hardbacks made him a “proper” writer!

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