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What is Crime Fiction?

Ahead of our Crime Fiction event, Michael Lacey of Illegal Railway guides us through the intricacies and enduring popularity of the genre.

What is crime fiction? Perhaps more so than any other literary genre, crime fiction is defined not by subject matter - there are countless books revolving around the planning and execution or detection of crimes that would not qualify - but can usually be identified by qualities of structure (low page counts, rising action), character (vividly sketched archetypes of hard men and troubled women) and theme (moral turpitude, human corruptibility, ill-fated romance). These similarities, and the lurid reputation of the cheap, serialised 19th Century publications in which the genre originated, have often led to it being seen as a low-quality, populist art form. This argument is easily refuted by the things that crime fiction gets right more than any other form of literature, and the formal experimentation which has proven possible within the aforementioned guidelines.

Personally I favour noir thrillers, those crime-centric novels defined by theorist Lee Horsley as "intrinsically related to [their] cultural and socio-historical surroundings".

P.D. James offered the following formula for a good crime novel - "50 per cent good detection, 25 per cent character and 25 per cent what the author knows best". Perhaps this is why many of the great noir writers of the 20th Century had backgrounds in journalism and/or the armed forces - what they know best is the underworld they have made their subject, or the feeling of putting your life in danger.

This lived experience is felt in the small details that lend the books such a compelling sense of reality, such as the moment the narrator of Elliot Chaze's "Black Wings Has My Angel" uses his bristly short hair as a nail-brush in the shower. It is also felt in the rhythms of the characters' speech - Alec Guinness cited Elmore Leonard as the greatest living writer of dialogue, and upon reading one of his many tightly-paced thrillers it is difficult to disagree. In his best novels Leonard rarely spends long on physical descriptions, but his characters leap vividly from the page due to their speech, believably rich with abandoned clauses and emotional u-turns, flavoured with patois and aphorisms. His influence is felt in the works of many of his contemporaries, such as Charles Willeford and Carl Hiaasen.

While these authors were presenting a modern take on the "hard-boiled" style established in the 1940s by James M Cain and Raymond Chandler, European writers were making similar expansions of the genre. JP Manchette takes the behaviouralist approach of Dashiel Hammett to extremes in "The Prone Gunman", prioritising action over any attempt to elucidate his protagonists inner monologue, a masterful exercise in tension. This elliptical approach is shared by the novels of Pascal Garnier, where the inciting criminal incidents are often buried in the past lives of the provincial characters who populate his dark, quirky novels, which are equal parts Elmore Leonard and Albert Camus.

On Saturday 16th April 2016, the Bluecoat will present a Crime Fiction event with a number of writers discussing their work and perspectives on the genre in relation to three main themes. "The Thrill of Finding Connections" aligns the thrill of connecting clues within the narrative to recognising literary influences and allusions, "Loving The Bad Guy" explores why we are drawn to characters who transgress moral boundaries, and "Shackled by Stereotype?" considers whether the genre offers a safe space for diverse cultural and gender identities. I am extremely excited to present at the event a selection of books from my personal collection which intersect with these themes in various ways, and will illustrate the breadth of styles and perspectives which can be found within crime fiction. Many of these titles will also available to purchase at News From Nowhere, Liverpool's radical community bookshop, established in 1974.

View the event page for Crime Fiction here, or take a look at Michael's website to see more of his work here.

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Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, Bluecoat showcases talent across visual art, music, dance, live art and literature. As the most ...

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