Monday, March 11, 2013

A Couple of Cures for the Jaded Crime Consumer

30 years of reading crime fiction has left me somewhat jaded about the possibilities of the genre. I've quoted Sturgeon's Law here before ("90% of everything is crap") and it applies just as equally to crime fiction as it does to Sturgeon's own genre, science fiction. For many years I had to review crime and mystery novels professionally which meant I had to read books I wouldn't otherwise touch with a ten foot pole but which are the ones that dominate the best seller lists: soul-less, charmless, witless productions often aimed at women and usually involving torture, rape or the abduction of children (someone has got to write a PhD thesis explaining why so many lovely women apparently enjoy (?!) reading novels about children being abducted, tortured and murdered). Apart from the occasional sui generis master like James Ellroy the really successful crime novels are written in workmanlike prose with one of the 7 basic plots
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However into this grey universe some light must fall and this week I read 2 crime novels that stirred me from my bitter complacency/self loathing and envy. One was a reread of a book I had only looked at in manuscript and the other was a novel that was self published as an e book on Amazon and has become something of a cult hit. The reread was Absolute Zero Cool by the Edgar Award nominated author Declan Burke. It's a witty, meta, philosophical crime novel in the tradition of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman that asks the question: why we should read (and write) fiction in the first place. This question leads to others and down the rabbit hole we go. Of course AZC doesn't always answer these questions but as the Buddhists say the journey is its own reward. Also of note is the fact that Mr Burke's back catalogue is starting to become available on Amazon (including his first, the excellent, The Big O) in e book form, which is definitely worth investigating, here.
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The second book I read and liked this week was The Hitman's Guide To Housecleaning by the Icelandic novelist Hallgrimur Helgason. Like I say over the last 30 years I've read every conceivable crime fiction plot with every conceivable protagonist so for a crime novel to get my attention these days either the prose needs to be outstanding or it has to be funny. The Hitman's Guide To Housecleaning is funny. Maybe not sidesplittingly funny but funny enough. The story is very straightforward: a Croatian hitman goes on the run to Iceland posing as an American TV preacher and, er, thats about it. But it doesn't need to be any more. The books is a satire on Iceland, crime fiction, the hitman subgenre, American evangelists, Yugoslavs, Scandinavian food and many other things as well. The bit that had me on the floor was the dissection of Icelandic crime fiction where the narrator wonders how crime fiction is even possible in a country that on average has zero murders a year and bicycle theft is one of the more serious offences. In other words how can you be a crime writer in a land without any crime. I've been wondering this myself for years and Helgason's tongue in cheek answer is that Icelandic crime writers must be blessed with the world's greatest imaginations. 
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Anyway 2 authors for you to check out if you're not already on the case: Hallgrimur Helgason and Declan Burke.