Crime Fiction: A Testimony
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.
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.