Crossing the divide

Harriet Tyce considers the long and complicated relationship between crime and literary fiction.


The divide between crime and ‘literary’ fiction goes way back. Dorothy B. Hughes wrote In a Lonely Place in 1947, and it’s a masterpiece, in my view.  The first example of narration from the point of view of a serial killer, written at least five years before Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, it would not surprise me at all to discover that Patricia Highsmith borrowed much inspiration from the anti-hero, Dix Steele, in her creation of Tom Ripley.

Steele is a veteran of the Second World War, a former pilot who can only seek to recapture the thrills of life in combat by carrying out rapes and murders of solitary women he stalks on the streets of Los Angeles. Dix Steele circles around the scenes of crime, anxious to avoid detection yet unable to resist the compulsion to draw attention to the murders and dwell obsessively on their details.

‘I have a personal interest in the case’, he declares at one point.  ‘You see, I’m writing a detective novel.’  His friend, investigating officer Brub Nicolai, responds:

“‘So that’s what you’re writing.  Who you stealing from, Chandler or Hammett or Gardner?”

‘Little of each,’ Dix agreed.  ‘With a touch of Carr and Queen.’

‘It should be a best-seller if you combine all those,’ Sylvia said.  She sat opposite Brub.

‘Can’t miss,’ Dix admitted.  ‘But for God’s sake don’t tell Uncle Fergus what I’m doing.  He thinks I’m writing literature.’”

I won’t spoil the ending but suffice to say that Steele never completes, let alone publishes, his detective novel, so at least Uncle Fergus never has to deal with that disappointment (though one hopes he would be more disappointed to discover his nephew’s psychopathic tendencies).

Uncle Fergus is portrayed throughout the novel as a regressive, hidebound conservative, whose view that crime fiction cannot equal literature is entirely of a part with the rest of his character.  Besides which, these words were written well over fifty years ago.  It might be expected that the barrier between literary writing and the crime genre should have fallen by now, considering that crime fiction has been championed by authors such as T.S.Eliot and George Orwell.  One of the most prestigious award for fiction, the Man Booker Prize, was given to a crime novel in 2015, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.

However, the distinction is still upheld, however artificially, by those who would seek to elevate literary fiction to a peak loftier than that occupied by crime, most recently in William O’Rourke’s comments in March 2017 that the author Michael Collins “has too much talent to succeed as a crime writer.  He doesn’t have the fatal lack of talent required.”  Many authors were swift to condemn these views, and the Irish Times published their responses the following week.   Meg Gardiner’s comments stood out to me. Talent, she said, is “not what matters most. What counts is study. And practice. And the hard work that’s needed to develop skills. It’s doggedness, and the courage to open yourself up to new possibilities and divergent ways of thinking-because that unlocks the gates of creativity.”

Until very recently, the writing of crime of fiction was a subject that could be studied only as part of general prose fiction creative writing courses.  Inevitably, an aspect of snobbery could creep in amongst the participants of the course, that old distinction between those writing ‘proper’ literature, short stories in experimental forms, and those interested more in writing a thriller, say, or a spy novel, or domestic noir.  But it’s all started to change. I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the first students at UEA, on the Creative Writing ­– Crime Fiction MA, which started in 2015.

It’s a truly immersive course.  The critical component has a reading list of some of the finest crime novels that have been written, and allows for extensive research into the literary theory behind these works.  The theoretical component allows for experimentation with method and form, and both together create the perfect springboard for the central, creative component of the MA, which is to complete a crime novel within the two years of the course.

And if this weren’t enough, we also have the benefit of masterclasses given by visiting leading authors, not to mention the opportunity to attend Noirwich.  In the last two years I have been taught by Lee Child, Melanie McGrath, Mark Billingham and Denise Mina.  Julia Crouch will be teaching at the next residential.  Ian Rankin was the UNESCO visiting professor and I had the great privilege of attending six seminars held by him last year.

I wanted to write a dissertation on feminist detective fiction over twenty years ago when doing an English degree at Oxford University – while I’m no trailblazer, the infrastructure wasn’t there at the time to support that subject.  And perhaps there were a few too many Uncle Ferguses around.  Now, however, there are wide tranches of critical studies available, and the tutors on the MA (Henry Sutton, Laura Joyce and Tom Benn) are experts in the field. I’ve enjoyed the course and revisiting critical theory so much that I’m going to start a critical/creative PhD this autumn, analysing the novels of Gillian Flynn.  My twenty-one-year-old self would be very happy.

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