Thursday, March 4, 2010


I’ve mentioned before that one of the major developments in crime fiction in the last decades has been the increasingly wide variety of crime fiction subgenres. Today, no matter what one’s taste, there’s probably a crime fiction author, novel, or series to match. That, of course, can lead to complications, because there are no hard-and-fast definitions for the subgenres. For instance, not long ago, Dorte at DJ’s Krimiblog raised the fascinating question of what counts as noir fiction. The discussion was lively and interesting, and a good reminder that categories can be hard to define. I was also part of an interesting discussion with Mack at Mack Captures Crime about the names we give to different eras of crime fiction. Typically, for instance, Golden Age crime fiction is defined as crime fiction written in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Dame Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie are frequently cited as examples of this subgenre. And yet, all of those authors continued writing (and had some fine, fine novels published) after the end of the 1930’s. There are many other examples, too, of subgenres that aren’t so easily defined. What makes matters even more complicated (or interesting, depending on how you look at it), is the number of books, series and authors that seem to cross genres. Larger genre categories are not any easier to define, really, than the sub-genres within the crime fiction categories.

One example of this is the borderline between mystery novels and historical novels. You might think that it would be easy to distinguish between a historical mystery and a piece of historical fiction that’s not a mystery novel. Sometimes, of course, it is. Most people agree, for instance, that Ellis Peters’ Cadfael series is an example of a historical mystery series. So is Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma series. However, many novels fall into that “gray” area between the two. As an example, Edward Rutherford’s novels (I must admit, I am very eager to read New York) are generally classified as historical novels. They certainly are, too, in the sense that they take place at other times in history, and tell the stories of people who lived during those times. And yet, there are mysteries in those stories. For instance, fairly early in London, a bag of gold coins is stolen. They’re stashed for safekeeping, but then, when the thief goes back for them, they’ve disappeared. For years, the descendents of that family look for the coins, but it’s not until the end of the novel that we find out where they’ve been. London also includes several murders, plots, and other intrigues that we generally associate with crime fiction. There are investigations, arrests, and so on as well. So does this mean that London “counts” as historical crime fiction? What about Rutherford’s other novels, which also feature many aspects of a mystery novel?

Another example of this sort of “genre-bending” is the line between humor and crime fiction. Most people would say that the two are quite distinct. And yet, perhaps they aren’t as easy to separate as you might think. For instance, Dave Barry is perhaps best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist, most recently for the Miami Herald. Many people, therefore, classified his novel Big Trouble as a humor book. It, is, too. There are many comic scenes, parodies, funny lines, and the kind of hyperbole that you’d expect from a highly talented humorist like Barry. And yet, Big Trouble is, arguably, a crime fiction novel. It focuses on Arthur Herk, a vice-president for a very corrupt local corporation, and his family. One night, Matt Arnold, a neighbor, and son of Eliot Arnold, a former newsman who’s running a small ad agency, sneaks into Herk’s home. His goal is to use a squirt gun on Herk’s daughter, Jenny, as part of a game of “killer.” He startles Jenny and her mother, Anna, who try to attack him. When Herk tries to get into the fray, he stumbles and falls, just missing being killed by two hit men who’ve also sneaked onto the Herk property. The police are called, and before long, the stories of the Herks, the Arnolds, the police, and a vagabond who lives in a tree on the Herk property are intertwined with an illegal-arms-trafficking scheme. This novel includes several crimes and investigations. Yet, it’s usually considered a parody and therefore, a humor novel.

There’s also a fine line that divides science fiction and fantasy on the one hand, and crime fiction on the other. For example, Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is usually called science fiction or fantasy (although it’s also labeled as humor – yet another complication). The story centers on an engineer who belongs to a group of people called the Salaxalans. The Salaxalans want to populate Earth, which is as yet uninhabited, but the engineer’s slipshod work causes their spaceship to explode, killing everyone. The engineer who was responsible is forced to remain as a ghost until he can correct his mistake. The novel involves time-travel as the malevolent ghost possesses a man who owns a time machine. It also involves several elements of fantasy. And yet, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is also, arguably, a crime fiction novel. Twice, the ghost’s influence cause murders to take place. Dirk Gently, the sleuth, investigates these deaths when a friend of his, Richard MacDuff, breaks into his girlfriend’s apartment while under the influence of the ghost. There’s suspense, too, because Dirk realizes that the ghost who’s responsible for the murderers has to be stopped, or life on earth will not develop. So he’s operating with a “ticking clock,” a very effective crime-fiction device. In the end, as in many crime fiction novels, the sleuth figures out who the criminal is and what the motive is. At the same time, there are so many elements of science fiction and fantasy in this novel that it probably wouldn’t be accurate to call it simply crime fiction.

This “genre-bending” works the other way, too. There are several novels that are called mystery novels or crime fiction novels that we might argue really are also something else. For example, Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series is usually labeled as a mystery series. And in many respects, it is. There are mysteries that occur in the novels, and Isabel Dalhousie, editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics, gets interested in them and, in her own way, investigates them. And yet, the mysteries really are not at the center of the novels. For example, in The Right Attitude to Rain, there is a crime (this time, it’s arson), but it doesn’t occur until quite late in the novel. Isabel doesn’t directly investigate the crime, and we never know for sure who committed it, nor why (although it’s hinted). The novel focuses more on Isabel’s relationships with her family and friends, and the larger, moral questions that are raised by the events in the story.

Many people argue that Lilian Jackson Braun’s most recent novels are also in that “gray area” between crime fiction and something else. For instance, in The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, there is a mysterious death. Libby Simms, office manager for the Ledfield Museum, dies of a fatal reaction to a bee sting. It does turn out to be murder, and, in a sense, we find out who the culprit is. However, that plot isn’t the main focus of the book. Instead, we follow the actions of Jim Qwilleran, Braun’s sleuth. In this novel, he’s writing a one-act absurdist play. He’s also heavily involved in the development of a new Senior Center for the small town of Pickax, where he lives and writes his twice-weekly newspaper column. He also has to make major changes in his life when his chief love interest, Polly Duncan, goes on an extended trip to Paris. This book, and several other more recent installments in the Cat Who... series are arguably more stories of small-town life than crime fiction stories.

There are some good reasons to try to categorize novels. Giving novels a label makes it easier to market them, review them and discuss them. And, for novels that are more or less easily categorized, that’s not a problem. There are some arguments, though, for being less hasty with labels. Some authors and novels don’t fit easily into just one genre. What do you think about “genre-bending” novels? Do you enjoy them? Or do you prefer novels that fit more neatly into a particular category?


  1. I'd say I'm not one that has to have novels in a particular category to enjoy them. I understand there is a need for categories in order to market books, but sometimes that also hurts the sale of books. When a book is placed in a certain category, some people may not ever look at the book because they don't read that certain genre. When if they actually picked the book up, they would love it.

  2. I do not need to have ridgid genre rules with books. I like to read the blurb, and if it fits with my reading mood at the time, I buy it.

  3. Dave Barry is also writing YA...his Peter Pan series. Accomplished guy in several genres!

    I like both traditional genre books and genre-bending books, too.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Mason - You've got a well-taken point. If a book is a mystery/romance, but is marketed as, say, a romance book, people who don't care for romance novels might never pick it up when really, they might like it very much. That can definitely be the "down side" of categories.

    Glynis - I do exactly the same thing. I read the blurb and if I can, I read reviews of the book. That's what I use to decide whether to read a book. Of course, if it's an author I already know and like, that makes it all the easier : ).

    Elizabeth - I didn't know that about Dave Barry - thanks! He really is a very talented, versatile guy. I'm with you, too - I like a variety of books. Some of my favorites are pretty traditionally within the genre and some aren't.

  5. I've been thinking about this recently and it seems to me that most of the books I read can fit into the crime fiction genre of one category or another.

    I've recently read Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair in which a barrister gives a definition of a criminal as "a person who makes the satisfaction of his own immediate personal wants the mainspring of his actions." A criminal has two characteristics, he says "monstrous vanity and colossal selfishness". On this basis many different genres contain the elements of crime fiction.

    I have no problem with either categorising books or with genre-bending books and it's interesting to see the variety of sub-genres.

  6. Oh, thank you for linking to my post!

    On the whole I enjoy genre-bending, especially when authors add history or humour to my crime fiction, but I wish they would add less pulp ;D

    NB: what a great idea to collect your interesting posts in a book! (I´d love to suggest a title, but I am far too tired to be crative today - I may be back, though).

  7. Margaret - Thanks so much for sharing that definition! It is really interesting to think of how many activities (given that definition) can be classified as "criminal." That, of course, means that stories about those activities are crime ficion. I'm going to have to process that one a bit... And I agree; the wide variety of sub-genres that are out there now are absolutely fascinating. It makes the larger genre that much more interesting and accessible to more readers.

    Dorte - I'm so glad you like my idea : ). I hope that it works out. If you think of a good title, I look forward to reading it if Angel will let me ; ). And it's my pleasure to link to your fine posts. Everyone should read them, in my opinion...

    It's true that sometimes, authors do add too much pulp to what they call crime fiction, and it detracts - a lot - from the story. It seems to sell a lot of books, though *sigh*...

  8. From a writer's perspective, I think the preoccupation with rigid categories of fiction can be limiting - one can easily become 'typecast' as specialising in one kind of book. Personally, I like to try out different types of writing - but publishers don't necessarily favour this; they tend to want to repeat what they see as a winning formula.

  9. Martin - Oh, how right you are. Publishers really do want to give writers labels, probably for marketingp purposes. When we stray outside the parameters of that label, it can be hard to get our work accepted. But, as you say, that means that writers are somewhat restricted, unless one's fortunate enough to have the kind of "name recognition" that Michael Crichton did. I was always impressed with how well-known he became in more than one genre.

  10. I never gave much thought to a novel's genre until I first came across your blog about a week ago. The day's topic was elderly sleuths and I was going to add Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax with my comment, but then wondered if the character really fit into the discourse. Is she really a "crime sleuth"? I always thought I was author-driven; however, now I realize that all the authors I like are smack-dab in this genre. To further drive home the point, I realized that I loved Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels but don't care too much for her romantic novels. I must also be genre-driven, at least to some degree. Thanks for the insight!

    I also want to express my appreciation for Dave Barry's writing. His article "My First Colonoscopy" is the funniest thing I've ever read!

  11. Bob - Genres are interesting, aren't they? Most of us have have a collection of favorite authors, most of whom fall into what people call one, or a few genres. It's sometimes only later that we step back and realize the pattern in our tastes. That's how I came to realize that I'm a crime fiction fan, anyway.

    I'm glad you mentioned Mrs. Pollifax, by the way. She's a wonderful example of an elderly sleuth, and to get to the point you were making, she's definitely a crime sleuth. She's the protagonist and, although she's not a paid private investigator or a police officer, she's the one who solves the case. To me, that makes her a sleuth.

    Finally, thanks for mentioning that Dave Barry article. It is *hysterically* funny!

  12. I think the "crime fiction" category is such a broad church. When you think about classic authors such as Shakespeare, Dickens, the ancient Greeks - - you realise that really, by "crime fiction" people mean drama, almost classic drama. In other words, some awful event happens and the interest of the novel is in the aftershock. How inventive the author is about that, is I suppose what leads to subgenres ;-) But one day in future I anticipate "crime fiction" dropping the "crime" part as we increasingly get so many books that are called "crime fiction" when what is really meant is "drama".
    I suppose this comment is approaching your post from the other end of the tunnel, Margot! But there are so many novels which one could call "crime" from one perspective, or "literary/genre" from another.

  13. Maxine - I actually like your way of approaching this question. Most people really don't think about the fact that really, crime and drama are often interchangeably used (whether or not they should be being another question altogether), so just about any fiction might be broadened to include it. I don't know if "crime" will be dropped, since so many publishers want to "niche" their books, so as to sell more of them. It really is an interesting question, though.... Hmm....To me, what's fascinating is the language that people use for the genre. Many people, for instance, use crime fiction and mystery novel interchangeably (I do, myself, sometimes), but we could debate whether they are the same thing, too. Perhaps it's all in people's perception...