It’s bloody mur­der be­ing an au­thor th­ese days, writes Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

ASADIST who drives strangers to sui­cide; a neigh­bour who rapes and mur­ders a teenager who tells her story from heaven; a se­rial killer who cap­tures, starves, kills and skins women. When it comes to crime fiction the usual sus­pects are stranger than they used to be and there are a lot more of them. Es­pe­cially now the crime genre has gob­bled up the con­ven­tions and con­tent of hor­ror writ­ing.

gen­er­a­tion ago, crime writ­ing was a mi­nor­ity taste. The big nov­els of the 1960s and ’ 70s were block­busters by Irv­ing Stone, Harold Rob­bins, John O’Hara and Jac­que­line Su­sann, who all pre­ferred to deal with re­li­gion, sex and money rather than mur­der.

Robert Crich­ton, Jilly Cooper and James Clavell fol­lowed but there was still no big- time crime. Best­seller lists were var­i­ously the pre­serve of lit­er­ary writ­ers, those global Booker Prize types, and au­thors of what be­came known as ‘‘ shop­ping and f . . king sto­ries’’.

Crime writ­ing was trapped in a genre ghetto, of­ten pub­lished as pa­per­back orig­i­nals, which rarely found a mass au­di­ence and were writ­ten for the en­ter­tain­ment of the reader rather than as so­cial com­men­tary.

The best were about puzzle, rid­dle or place, though the Amer­i­can hard- boiled tra­di­tion per­sisted in the writ­ing of Ross Macdon­ald, Ed McBain and Richard Stark. But few lay down the law on so­cial is­sues or scared read­ers by ad­dress­ing their anx­i­eties.

There was no DNA in crime nov­els back then, no foren­sic science, no se­rial preda­tors. There were few prom­i­nent fe­male writ­ers, Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brand­stet­ter was the only ho­mo­sex­ual sleuth, and the po­lice pro­ce­dural was still in the hands of McBain and Joseph Wam­baugh, with no fe­male cops to be seen.

Most im­por­tant, while Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Say­ers and Ngaio Marsh ( and later P. D. James, Ruth Ren­dell and Minette Wa­ters) had been phe­nom­e­nally suc­cess­ful, writ­ers had not dis­cov­ered the mod­ern mar­ket’s pref­er­ence for fe­male he­roes who sub­vert and chal­lenge male power. But then ev­ery­thing changed, with gen­res split­ting in all di­rec­tions as glob­al­i­sa­tion shrank the world.

Ori­gins and in­flu­ences be­came ever more en­twined and com­plex, es­pe­cially from 1981, when Thomas Har­ris un­leashed his no­to­ri­ous cre­ation Han­ni­bal Lecter, the cul­ti­vated foren­sic psy­chi­a­trist turned psy­chopath, in Red Dragon . Seven years later, Har­ris sub­verted the crime genre with The Si­lence of the Lambs and since then his im­i­ta­tors have traf­ficked in an un­prece­dented orgy of highly lu­cra­tive un­pleas­ant­ness.

As critic Pa­trick An­der­son sug­gests, changes in pub­lish­ing also played a part as takeovers and merg­ers bru­tally trans­formed what was once re­garded as a ‘‘ gen­tle­man’s pro­fes­sion’’, in­ten­si­fy­ing bot­tom- line pres­sures to pro­duce books that sold in huge num­bers. Mar­ket­ing be­came more ag­gres­sive and writ­ers were forced into the spot­light, hawked and com­mod­i­fied as fran­chises. Au­thors’ tours be­came as im­por­tant as the ideas in their books. And the range of what was on of­fer be­came much wider.

Crime fiction now is a com­plex precinct where read­ers face a be­wil­der­ing variety of choices.

In a good book­shop you will find an ex­tra­or­di­nary range of pos­si­bil­i­ties in al­most ev­ery mys­tery and sus­pense cat­e­gory: ro­man­tic, vi­cious, para­noid, an­a­lyt­i­cal, quiet and cosily lit­er­ary, even comic. There are who­dunits, why­dunits and even who’s- gunna- get- its.

Do you like clue puz­zles, fem­i­nist private eyes, les­bian crime and ro­mance, gang­ster chic, in­her­i­tors of the hard- boiled tra­di­tion, his­tor­i­cal mur­ders, crime about cats and dogs, po­lice pro­ce­du­rals or psy­cho­log­i­cal thrillers?

Do you want your favourite de­tec­tive to be a rock mu­si­cian, 1920s flap­per, funeral di­rec­tor, game war­den, ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive, sports agent or a Navaho reser­va­tion cop? If none of th­ese ap­peal, you can find a de­tec­tive who dou­bles as a stand- up co­me­dian, priest, black book­seller, pro­fes­sional hit man, English pro­fes- sor, or a pas­try chef, fash­ion stylist, foot­ball player, herb shop owner, li­brar­ian, chef, bird­watcher, sal­vage boat op­er­a­tor and les­bian foren­sic chemist.

They are all out there and their ad­ven­tures are no longer a mi­nor­ity in­ter­est.

In Aus­tralia it’s rare for the BookS­can sales sta­tis­tics not to fea­ture at least five thrillers in the top 10 fiction list. At present it in­cludes books by James Pat­ter­son, Kathy Re­ichs, Ian Rankin, Ruth Ren­dell, Pa­tri­cia Corn­well and Peter Tem­ple.

The pro­tag­o­nists of writ­ers Sue Grafton, Sara Paret­sky and Mar­cia Muller have proved that fe­male private eyes are plau­si­ble and saleable. Leav­ing their guns in their bed­side ta­ble draw­ers, th­ese char­ac­ters sym­pa­thise with the vic­tims of crime and the ter­ri­ble so­cial dis­rup­tion caused by mur­der; changes in genre even­tu­ally ac­com­mo­dated by male writ­ers.

‘‘ It’s a genre that re­quires a fine eye to de­tail and in­sight­ful ob­ser­va­tion of char­ac­ter, a tidy mind that is pre­pared to en­ter the darker as­pects of hu­man na­ture and then re­solve all the mess,’’ Aus­tralian crime nov­el­ist Cathy Cole says. ‘‘ I think women crime writ­ers have al­ways en­joyed that chal­lenge and this is mir­rored in the fe­male reader who reads along with the process.’’

In her study of the in­flu­ence of pol­i­tics and fem­i­nism on the de­vel­op­ment of crime writ­ing, Private Dicks and Feisty Chicks , Cole ar­gues the genre shapes the way we see the world, look­ing at con­tem­po­rary anx­i­eties and mak­ing creative use of our fears, of­fer­ing mil­lions of read­ers new ways to read the news.

And they do it in more so­phis­ti­cated ways. With the ar­rival of the lit­er­ary thriller, au­thors such as Um­berto Eco, Matthew Pearl, Robert Har­ris, Leonardo Padura and Tem­ple are pro­duc­ing longer nov­els with more writerly flour­ishes and man­ner­isms than au­thors did when crime nov­els were sim­ply mys­ter­ies to be solved.

In Melbourne, Text Pub­lish­ing picked the trend and has re­lied on crime since 1994 when it launched Shane Maloney’s Stiff , the first of his bril­liant po­lit­i­cal en­ter­tain­ments in­volv­ing eth­nic feuds, union shenani­gans and sex­ual pol­i­tics in the La­bor Party tribes of work­ing­class Melbourne.

‘‘ We took an un­con­ven­tional approach to pub­lish­ing in­spired by Maloney, who quickly en­tered the com­pany’s DNA,’’ Text’s pub­lisher Michael Hey­ward says. ‘‘ We looked for out­stand­ing nov­els in which crimes took place but our con­cern was the qual­ity and en­gage­ment of the writ­ing.’’

Sev­eral years later Text ac­quired Tem­ple, whose best­selling, award- win­ning The Bro­ken Shore has been pub­lished in 20 coun­tries. ‘‘ Tem­ple taught us com­pre­hen­sively that crime was now a lit­er­ary genre,’’ Hey­ward says.

This year Tem­ple won the Bri­tish Dun­can Lawrie Dag­ger, the world’s big­gest crime writ­ing prize, largely by ig­nor­ing genre. The Bro­ken Shore , al­though partly a po­lice pro­ce­dural, is an un­con­ven­tional novel, as much about fam­ily and place as it is about a crime.

Tem­ple says the novel was not writ­ten in re­sponse to po­lice cor­rup­tion or pe­dophilia, though it deals with both.

‘‘ I wanted to write some­thing big­ger than the or­di­nary crime story, to tell a story about a man who hap­pens to be a po­lice­man, some­one who has seen bad things and who knows the mean­ing of pain,’’ he says. ‘‘ The Bro­ken Shore is about ret­ri­bu­tion, me­mory, pol­i­tics and fam­ily. And it’s about evil.’’

Hey­ward says lo­cal read­ers have demon­strated they want to read nov­els built on char­ac­ter and con­text. ‘‘ We don’t do ‘ job lot’ nov­els,’’ he says.

As a pub­lisher, Hey­ward says he is in­ter­ested only in books that in­volve the con­ven­tions that cel­e­brate the ‘‘ an­cient sat­is­fac­tions of read­ing that go back to Homer’’, with be­gin­nings, mid­dles and ends. ‘‘ The ex­cit­ing thing now is that as a genre the crime book con­tains all the chal­lenges of the novel proper. They are books that deal with ideas that are cen­tral to us and who we are. They carry se­ri­ous moral weight.’’

But while crime writ­ers are no longer dis­missed as genre hacks, it has been a bloody trans­for­ma­tion. There is may­hem in the main­stream as the cat­e­gories of the mys­tery novel

con­tinue to frag­ment. The change is ap­par­ent in the stom­ach- churn­ing de­scrip­tions of crime in the books of Mo Hay­der, Tess Ger­rit­sen and Karin Slaugh­ter. Slaugh­ter, in par­tic­u­lar, seems ou­traged by vi­o­lence against women and is de­ter­mined to il­lus­trate how vul­ner­a­ble they are.

Then there is true crime, where women are no safer. This is prob­a­bly the most pop­u­lar sub­genre among crime read­ers at the mo­ment as writ­ers adapt the de­vices of fiction to en­hance their real- life nar­ra­tives. ‘‘ But true crime rather alarm­ingly slides into the so- called ‘ mis­ery mem­oir’, with its pruri­ent el­e­ment,’’ Allen & Un­win’s Pa­trick Gal­lagher says. ‘‘ I just don’t want to know some of the peo­ple who buy some true crime books, but they sell like stink.’’

Also as­sist­ing the coro­ner with the grue­some de­tails are the writ­ers of the rel­a­tively new genre Tem­ple calls travel crime and Hey­ward trans­la­tion crime, as more and more nov­els from other cul­tures reach our shops.

Michael Dibdin’s English lan­guage se­ries about Vene­tian de­tec­tive Aure­lio Zen, first launched in 1988 with Ratk­ing , pop­u­larised a new genre, the dis­tinc­tively con­tem­po­rary world- weary Euro­pean pro­ce­dural.

With Rankin’s dis­il­lu­sioned Ed­in­burgh cop John Re­bus, Zen is ar­guably the most in­flu­en­tial crime- fiction char­ac­ter of the past 20 years. His weari­ness, which comes from nav­i­gat­ing the Ital­ian jus­tice sys­tem, de­fines the new Euro­pean crime novel.

Dibdin was fol­lowed by Hen­ning Mankell, with his be­lea­guered, slog­ging de­tec­tive Kurt Wal­lan­der, called the best Swedish ex­port since flat­pack furniture. Mankell’s Face­less Killers ( 1997) an­nounced not only a great tal­ent but also a pris­tine, new Swedish land­scape, the an­tithe­sis of mean, gritty Amer­i­can streets. Six nov­els have fol­lowed, all writ­ten in Mankell’s spare, po­etic prose and all with rain in their souls. This Scan­di­na­vian in­va­sion, as pub­lish­ers called it, was quickly re­in­forced by a wave of out­stand­ing nov­els from Nor­way, Den­mark and Ice­land.

But as re­lax­ing and recre­ational as th­ese post­card nov­els are, crime writ­ing gen­er­ally has be­come a fic­tional de­vice to re­flect what we fear in the world, and in­creas­ingly that is the sense of threat, be it from ter­ror at­tack or vi­o­lent mur­der by strangers.

Se­rial killer sto­ries are huge, with read­ers vi­car­i­ously stalk­ing with the killer and, in em­pathis­ing with the hero, es­cap­ing from them at the same time. ‘‘ The un­der­pin­ning ques­tion is: ‘ Could it be me?’ ’’ Cole says.

She be­lieves that more than any other genre, se­rial killer sto­ries test the reader. They can ask them­selves where they would hide and whether they would learn from the vic­tims’ mis­takes.

Ac­cord­ing to Cole, th­ese nov­els have a modus operandi de­signed to thrill and chill the reader: ‘‘ Vic­tim one sets the nar­ra­tive, we watch the next few vic­tims make mis­takes. The fi­nal stalk is usu­ally the one who re­sists or is res­cued at a very op­por­tune time.’’

Th­ese are cau­tion­ary tales for adults and of­fer the same ed­u­ca­tion as fairy­tales pro­vide chil­dren. They test our abil­ity to pick the good per­son from the bad one, who is not al­ways the hairy, wolflike one.

For Jane Goodall, who won the 2004 Ned Kelly best crime novel award for her de­but thriller The Walker , the se­rial killer is the fig­ure who, more than any other fic­tional pro­to­type, fo­cuses the imag­i­na­tion on the ques­tion of evil.

‘‘ A story that draws us into the sphere of this fig­ure through sus­pense and mys­tery, but also with care­fully crafted logic, is giv­ing us an imag­i­na­tive ex­pe­ri­ence that calls to some fun­da­men­tal cu­rios­ity in us about the lim­its of hu­man na­ture,’’ she says.

But not all writ­ers wanted to im­i­tate Thomas Har­ris. Thrillers such as The Si­lence of the Lambs also en­cour­aged a new wave of po­lite, cosy mys­ter­ies, re­mark­able for their non­threat­en­ing con­tent and non- vi­o­lent char­ac­ters.

Af­ter in­dulging homi­ci­dal ma­ni­acs who tracked blood all over the genre, mys­tery read­ers were ready for more civilised killers with more agree­able man­ners. For sev­eral years, mys­ter­ies with fe­male pro­tag­o­nists were the pub­lish­ing rage, out­pac­ing crime nov­els that fea­tured private eyes and de­tec­tives.

Mys­tery book­shop own­ers shoved their hard­boiled ti­tles aside to make more space for th­ese softer, gen­tler nov­els.

The new sleuths, of­ten named Mag­gie or Kate, cov­ered a lot of lit­er­ary ter­ri­tory and their sto­ries were tar­geted at more deco­rous read­ers than the other sub- gen­res, con­cen­trat­ing on un­der­stand­ing de­viance and the mo­tives be­hind bad deeds. They could be found talk­ing to their cats in pretty moun­tain ham­lets in the rural south of the US, or in sleepy English vil­lages, pon­der­ing a bit of po­etry over a pint of ale in the lo­cal pub.

The fe­male sleuths were smart, feisty and in­de­pen­dent; their male coun­ter­parts were at­trac­tive, sen­si­tive and car­ing. To­gether they sold a lot of books as fe­male read­ers par­tic­i­pated in their mys­ter­ies, test­ing their in­tu­ition and pow­ers of de­duc­tion.

Most ar­gu­ments about why women are at­tracted to write and read crime re­volve around the un­de­ni­able fact they are sim­ply more used to liv­ing with fear than men.

‘‘ Crime fiction cre­ates, then dis­si­pates, stress and anx­i­ety. I still think women are the ma­jor read­ers of crime be­cause it of­fers a safe out­let for mur­der­ous thoughts about work col­leagues or fam­ily,’’ Cole says.

She feels the role work plays is es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing, not just in con­tem­po­rary crime nov­els but in films and television. ‘‘ The role of work in crime nar­ra­tives re­flects how hard we all labour for a liv­ing and how im­por­tant pro­fes­sional skills are to us,’’ she says. ‘‘ We ex­pect our crime char­ac­ters to have pro­fes­sional ex­per­tise in foren­sics, medicine, in the world of clubs and bars, to be savvy and know­ing about the ways of the world.’’

Foren­sics, med­i­cal or le­gal knowl­edge is use­ful, of course, in real life and on the page, ac­cord­ing to Cole. ‘‘ Read­ers love to poke about too,’’ she says. ‘‘ The num­ber of blood spray ex­perts out there, cour­tesy of crime fiction, is phe­nom­e­nal. In­sights into the ways of life and death are a new re­li­gion.’’

Of the newer crop of Aus­tralian writ­ers, Cole loves Goodall’s take on Bri­tain in the ’ 60s and ’ 70s, and her ref­er­ences to cul­ture and mu­sic.

‘‘ They’re chill­ing reads and pow­er­fully evoca­tive,’’ she says. ‘‘ Leigh Red­head is fun and Kather­ine Howell is one to watch.’’

There’s a new pro­fes­sion­al­ism in the char­ac­ters, too, and younger lo­cal writ­ers seem to be draw­ing more ac­tively on their work ex­pe­ri­ences — Howell as a para­medic, Red­head as a for­mer strip­per — and this gives their writ­ing de­tail and cred­i­bil­ity. Kathyrn Fox, a for­mer foren­sic physi­cian, is suc­cess­ful too with her med­i­cal cop se­ries fea­tur­ing Anya Crich­ton and Kate Far­rer, sold in 18 coun­tries.

An­other trend in an over­crowded mar­ket in­volves themes on ter­ror­ism and the threat to civil­i­sa­tion of glob­ally mo­bile crime lords. Gener­i­cally, the es­pi­onage thriller is mak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant come­back with a new gallery of stereo­types: Rus­sians run­ning peo­plesmug­gling, co­caine or pros­ti­tu­tion rack­ets, Ira­ni­ans plan­ning nu­clear car­nage and In­done­sian Mus­lims arm­ing bombs.

‘‘ In Agatha Christie’s time it al­ways seemed to be the vil­lage les­bians, later it was the psy­cho- mon­ster, in­di­vid­u­al­ist and preda­tory,’’ Cole says. ‘‘ Now it’s a kind of col­lec­tive race against race, the free world v the chaotic one. This is why crime fiction is such a great chron­i­cler of the times; it speaks so much of col­lec­tive anx­i­ety.’’

There’s no doubt that thrillers, while re­mind­ing read­ers just how ugly and dan­ger­ous life can be, still of­fer hope in the end, pro­vid­ing at least the il­lu­sion of or­der and ret­ri­bu­tion in a world that some­times seems to have none.

Rid­ing high on a crime wave: From far left, Ruth Ren­dell, Shane Maloney, Kathryn Fox, Peter Tem­ple, Leigh Red­head and Ian Rankin

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