Is crime fiction the new working-class novel?
Perhaps genre books are so popular because they speak to the people who buy them
Dennis Lehane: “The crime novel is where the social novel went. If you want to write about the underbelly of America, if you want to write about the second America that nobody wants to look at, you turn to the crime novel.” Photograph : Matt Kavanagh
In a Guardian essay titled, Make room for working class writers, Kit de Waal quotes the protagonist of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers: “I belong to the common people. From the middle-classes one gets ideas, from the common people – life itself.”
I never thought of myself as a working-class writer. Not that I don’t come from a working-class background – my father worked in a factory; my mother worked in a corner shop. I grew up working-class and I’m still working-class. But the difference is, I don’t write fiction set amongst the working-class in Ireland. I write about small town Americana. I blame this on a youth spent listening to Springsteen songs, watching David Lynch movies and reading Stephen King books. I’m obsessed with small-town goings on. Show me a noir story, movie, or song set in a small town, and I’m in, no questions asked.
And so it is that the four books I’ve written so far are ostensibly set in American small towns. But as I started to think about the books, I began to realise that while they’re not set among the people I know in Ireland, the characters – though they are American – are still people I know. And this is because the majority of the characters in my books are working-class. I suppose the reason for this is that a lot of the time the most interesting stories to tell are the ones that concern people who are struggling to get by. And, occasionally, those people will get on the wrong side of the law in their struggle to survive.
My main character, John Ryan, a private detective, is also working-class. The son of first-generation Irish parents who emigrated from Ireland, his father was a cop, his mother a housewife. John himself left school and home at 16 and spent years drifting around doing odd jobs, before finally becoming a private detective.
When I set out to write my first novel, I knew it was going to be a crime/thriller story. And that puts me squarely in the “genre” territory, one that has gotten quite a bit of stick as of late, what with Colm Tóibín saying “I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose”, and Lucy Ellman dismissing all crime fiction in a single sentence: “The book I think is most overrated: all crime fiction, I don’t care who it’s by.”
But, while I knew my novel was going to be a crime novel, I also wanted it to have its roots in the real world. So with my first book, Broken Falls, I wrote a story that involved clerical abuse and the Magdalene laundries; for the second, The Dead Girls, I based the novel on the horrifying true story of the number of women murdered every year on the highways of America; and in the latest John Ryan book, The Dark, the story is set in a rundown neighbourhood populated by drug addicts and homeless people, where a serial killer preys on the weak and vulnerable during a blackout.
And I’m certainly not alone in this. The hugely popular Scandinavian crime fiction genre has been doing this since the 60s, starting with the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, and on up to the novels of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books are set amongst the working-class African American population of Los Angeles. Scotland also has its share of socially engaged crime fiction, with writers such as Ian Rankin and Denise Mina.
Indeed, it would seem that oftentimes “genre fiction” is where the voices of the working class are to be found. As author Dennis Lehane has commented, “The crime novel is where the social novel went. If you want to write about the underbelly of America, if you want to write about the second America that nobody wants to look at, you turn to the crime novel.”
Lehane’s idea of a “second America” is an interesting one. In The Dark, I refer to the part of town where the story takes place as existing in the hinterland: a part of town where the marginalised and the dispossessed exist, ignored by the rest of society.
And when I say that the voices of the working class can be heard in genre fiction, I’m not just talking about crime or thriller novels. Take, for example, the much-maligned genre of “chick lit”. More often than not, the characters in those novels are working-class women. Perhaps that’s why crime and “chick lit” novels are so popular with readers. Because many of the readers of these books are working-class and see themselves reflected in the characters, perhaps more than they see themselves reflected in what would be regarded as “literary fiction”.
This is, of course, a sweeping generalisation and I don’t for a moment mean to suggest that all genre fiction is working-class and all literary fiction is middle-class. But there is certainly a germ of truth there. Oftentimes, literary fiction is classified as being a niche market because of its “difficulty”. But what if the reason it is a niche market is because it doesn’t speak to the book reading public, the majority of whom are working-class? What if the reason genre books are so popular is – not because they are dumbed down and easy to read – but because they actually speak to the people who are buying them?