Here’s a description of a novel: A man has reached a crossroads in his life. He has a very successful career and is actually quite well-regarded. He married exactly the sort of woman he’d envisioned marrying, he has two healthy children and everything seems to be going right for him. Yet, something is lacking in his life, and he’s not even sure what that is. Then, he chances to meet an old love. This experience forces him to re-examine his life and come to some conclusions about what really matters and what he wants from his life. His wife, meanwhile, has always hero-worshipped her husband. She sacrificed everything for him, and has always been willing to run the household the way he wants. In the course of the novel, she, too reaches an important “watershed.” This novel of family relationships explores the nature of attachment, love, and devotion.
Does that sound like a “literary” novel? It actually refers to Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). There’s a lot more that I could have said about this novel, in which Dr. John Christow (the man I refer to above) is murdered while he and his wife are on a week-end visit to friends in the country. When Hercule Poirot comes upon the murder scene, he thinks at first that it’s been staged, because it looks so artificial. He’s none too happy about it, either. Soon enough, though, he sees that it’s all too real, and it’s not long before he finds that more than one person had a reason to kill John Christow. Is this a crime fiction novel? A literary novel? Both? The line is rather blurred.
Here’s another description: A woman finds the strength to confront her own past and that of several members of her family when she’s asked to re-examine her family history. As she does so, the woman comes to terns with her relationships with her two aunts, re-unites with a nephew and is finally able to see what denial has done to her family through the years.
What do you think? Literary fiction? This one refers to A Dark-Adapted Eye, which was Ruth Rendell’s first novel under the name of Barbara Vine. In this novel, Faith Longley Severn narrates the story of her proud, middle class family, about whom there’s never been any gossip, let alone scandal. The Longley family, though, is hiding some ugly secrets which are brought to light years later when journalist Daniel Stewart decides to write a book about the hanging of Faith’s aunt Vera (Longley) Hillyard, for murder. As Faith tells the family’s story, we gradually learn more and more about the Longley family and what the driving force was behind the murder. Again, is this crime fiction? Is it literary? Is it both?
It works the other way, too. That is, books we often think of as “literary fiction” could also be considered crime fiction. Here’s an example. In Karen Osborn’s The River Road, brothers Michael and David Sanderson and their neighbor, Kay Richards, have grown up together. Now that they’re young adults, Kay and David are having a passionate love affair. One summer night during college, the three young people spend a night of partying together. At the end of the night, they find themselves on a bridge above a local river. Almost before anyone knows it, David Sanderson is standing on the rail of the bridge, saying he’s going to jump off and swim to the other side. He begs Kay to join him, and she does. At the last minute, though, David ends up in the water and Kay doesn’t. When David is found drowned, Kay is suspected of having killed him.
Does this seem like crime fiction to you? I think there’s a good argument for it. And yet, it’s a novel that also explores the young people’s growing up, their relationships with each other, and their families’ relationships. More than that, it explores what happens to the survivors in both families after David’s death. It was certainly marketed as “literary fiction,” and that’s how it’s shelved, etc., too. So is it literary fiction? I would say so, but I would also argue that it’s crime fiction.
One of the most famous examples of what most people call literary fiction, but which is also crime fiction, is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Told from the point of view of Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter’s second wife, it’s the story of her arrival at his home, Manderley, and her discovery of the secrets that lie hidden there. Maxim de Winter is a widower, whose first wife, Rebecca, was reportedly drowned at sea. However, it’s not long before we find out that Rebecca’s memory still has a haunting grip on everyone in the household, especially on Mrs. Danvers, de Winter’s housekeeper. Mrs. Danvers takes every opportunity to make the new Mrs. de Winter feel uncomfortable, uncouth, and unfit. Soon, the new Mrs. de Winter is sure that her husband can’t possibly love her, as he loves his former wife still. But as we find out, there’s more to Rebecca’s death than it seems. As the narrator learns the truth about Manderley and the people who live there, the reader finds out what really happened to Rebecca.
In one sense, Rebecca is most definitely what you’d call “literary fiction.” That’s how it’s marketed and sold and that’s also how it’s often taught. However, it’s also a fascinating crime fiction story, full of old secrets, betrayal, a possible murder, and more.
There are many other novels, too, of course, that straddle that very fine line between “literary fiction” and “crime fiction.” For example, Peter Temple’s Truth has recently won Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin literary prize. I’m not going to go into detail about this, because it’s been beautifully discussed at these blogs:
This award is a better example than I could ever write that shows that sometimes, the line between genre fiction and literary fiction is very blurred indeed.
What do you think? Which novels have you enjoyed (no fair mentioning Truth; I just did ; ) ) that straddle that line?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steve Winwood’s Split Decision.