‘All crime writers are asking is for a little respect’

Murder One curator Bert Wright on crime writing’s triumph over literary begrudgery

Some years ago, a friend of mine secured a writer-in-residence gig which entailed living in the Borders cottage of the great Scottish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. As a major fan, I blagged an invitation and was soon en route to Biggar to see how the great man lived; frugally and simply was the answer but much more fascinating to me were the contents of his bookshelves.

MacDiarmid was a high modernist to his core – a confrère of Pound, Eliot and Joyce – but what I saw that day surprised me, for his shelves were crammed with sun-bleached, green-spined Penguin editions of the murder mysteries of Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Patricia Highsmith.

In the context of the recent genre wars, MacDiarmid’s superficially surprising library demonstrates a critical point often overlooked, which is to say, that great writers like to play both sides of the literary street. Lucy Ellman, ta 2019 Booker shortlistee, is entitled to her incendiary opinion that all crime fiction is “over-rated” but MacDiarmid, for all his high-falutin’ literary airs and graces, loved a good yarn and devoured thrillers for fun. Nor was he alone among the high-table literati. John Updike recalled his teenage self “lying on a red caneback sofa in Pennsylvania reading one mystery novel after another”, Nobel laureate William Faulkner rhapsodised about Raymond Chandler and so has John Banville. Auden admired Agatha Christie and Martin Amis has often been pegged as a crime writer manqué.

If such literary eminences can find value in crime fiction, what is the problem with the Ellman faction of naysayers? Earlier this year, a prominent festival director berated the Edinburgh Book Festival for “pandering to popular tastes when it should be trying to elevate them”. Edinburgh’s “pandering” amounted to nothing more sinister than including popular crime writers on its programme. Rumours that Lee Child was to be elected to the 2020 Booker Prize judging panel caused frantic pearl-clutching across the English-speaking world. More recently, a reviewer praised a crime novel for “transcending the genre”, a comment which so enraged Liz Nugent that she was moved to enquire what it was about crime fiction that required “transcending” and so it goes, ad infinitum. All crime writers are asking is for a little respect but too often it is not forthcoming.

Perhaps the reason crime fiction has to endure this constant sniping is because of its staggering commercial success; sales statistics show that the genre currently out-performs literary fiction by some distance. Crime writers feel wounded when crime novels barely rate a mention in those awful click-baity 100 Best Novels compilations but when it comes to nailing derrieres to favourite reading chairs, crime writing is way out front and the sales figures prove it.

Why should this be so? Is it because crime writing has become more socially engaged, reflecting and dissecting society and its problems, as some have argued? Or, is it more to do with the timeless human longing for resolution, justice and order? Or, has the opposition become enfeebled, with literary fiction retreating into the cul-de-sac of outdated modernist obscurantism? Whatever the truth of the matter, crime fiction is on an irresistible roll and no amount of splenetic wind-baggery can make the slightest dent in crime fiction’s hard-earned self-esteem.

You see it in the confidence and collegiality of crime writers who share a writerly esprit de corps that issues in a balanced generosity in the tone of reviewing, in encouragement for new writers, in the robust, broad-ranging debate of festival panels. Which is not to imply that a sense of smug self-satisfaction reigns; there is, for instance, a healthy introspection about key issues such as the prevalence of violence against women within the genre. How could it be otherwise, some say, while others, like the organisers of the controversial breakaway Staunch Prize, claim to “offer an alternative narrative to stories based around violence to women”.

You also see it in the burgeoning of the festival circuit. Time was when literary festivals considered it infra dig to have crime writers on their star-studded programmes but the response of the crime writing sector was simple and effective – if they won’t have us, we’ll start our own. 2004 saw the inauguration of the Theakston Old Peculier Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, now Europe’s most popular and successful crime festival. Bristol’s Crimefest soon followed in 2008 and Scotland got its own crime festival, Bloody Scotland, in 2012. This year, Capital Crime burst on to the scene in London, “offering an unprecedented level of access to some of the world’s best crime and thriller creatives”. Given the resources of sponsors, Amazon, and the location in the cradle of UK publishing, this one has the potential to become the daddy of them all.

But here in Ireland, north and south, we’ve not been sitting on our hands either. 2017 saw the first Noireland Crime festival staged in Belfast and a year later Murder One followed suit in Dublin which is entirely appropriate considering how hot Emerald Noir has become in recent years. Although they might not relish the description, southern writers such as John Connolly, Tana French, Liz Nugent and Jane Casey, alongside northern counterparts, Adrian McKinty, Steve Cavanagh, Stuart Neville and Claire Allan, now rank among “the world’s best thriller creatives”.

Festivals take time to grow and mature but in the nascent Noireland and Murder One festivals, Ireland is well-placed to channel the spirit of the established UK festivals and to make a distinctive mark of its own in the great cities of Belfast and Dublin. Noireland enjoyed a highly successful second outing in March and Murder One's second festival takes place over the weekend of November 1st-3rd in Dublin's Smock Alley. Featuring Irish writers such as Liz Nugent, Jane Casey, John Banville, Steve Cavanagh and Catherine Kirwan, the programme also includes international stars like Martina Cole, Lucy Foley and Stuart Turton and interesting events on Agatha Christie, the Ripper murders and criminal pathology with leading UK pathologist, Dr Richard Shepherd. Booking at murderone.ie

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