Friday, September 28, 2012

Crime Fiction?

I often wonder how many great novels readers in the crime genre miss because they're tagged as literary or romance.  What got me thinking about this is a book I just finished called "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen.

Yes, it's considered both literary and romance, but at the center of the story is a murder.  And not just one murder, by the end of the book four of the main characters are dead with a trail of innocent bodies piling up along the way.  The characters in this book are straight out of a thirties era pulp novel.  We have a circus owner who will do anything to have the top rated circus including using a paranoid schizophrenic to do his dirty work.  The rest of the cast includes a young femme fatale who's married to that paranoid, a hero who has lost his parents, his home, and his future because of a car accident, a circus full of thugs and whores, plus a menagerie full of animals.  If it weren't for the feel good ending, this novel would be straight up noir.

With all these ingredients why didn't the crime community embrace this novel?  Was it the fact that the novel was billed as a romance?  Did the fact that a ninety-three year old man was the narrator turn them off?  What was it about this book that it didn't hit the crime fiction radar?  And are there other books out there that are fairly straight up crime but still don't get noticed by mystery readers?  


Brian Lindenmuth said...

I think that it wasn't picked up by the crime community because some stories contain the elements of a genre without fully inhabiting the genre as it is popularly expressed.

I always liked the way the way George Pelecanos put it in his introduction to Don Carpenter's Hard Rain Falling "It is not, as it has been often described, a crime novel, though it does concern itself peripherally with criminals and their milieu."

I also think that these "milieu" novels can be some our best.

Here's another way to look at a story containing the elements of a genre without being the genre. A few months ago we watched a movie that had:

-A man whose father beat him, burned him and scarred him for life
-Drug addicts
-An obsessed reporter
-A character who tries to make serious changes in his world and pays for it with his life
-A kids getting shanked by another kid in school

You might be inclined to think this was a crime movie or a neo-noir.

But what if I told you the movie was...

...Pay it Forward. Which definitely is not a crime movie.

Michael Moorcock (the legendary fantasy writer) has said some variation of the following a few times over the years: If you want to write fantasy stop reading it. I think he's correct in the sense that different generes and different writers all bring different styles and skill sets to the table. You'll be doing yourself (and your work if your a writer) a disservice.

Did the fact that a ninety-three year old man was the narrator turn them off?

There was a great crime novel from a couple of years ago called The Art of Redemption by Bob Truluck that features a 90 something narrator that is worth checking out.

So there's my two recommendations: Hard Rain Falling and The Art of Redemption.

sandra seamans said...

Do you suppose it could also have to do with the author, Brian? I read Megan Abbott's "The End of Everything" and it was just barely within the genre, yet it was called a crime novel. Since her first novels were tagged crime does that make the crime readers feel that whatever she writes falls in the genre?

Thomas Pluck said...

It's all about branding and marketing. I understand some of it. There are a lot of books out there. But readers have no trouble finding books.
I bought Water for Elephants but haven't read it yet.
Great advice for Moorcock. If you use shorthand that only lifelong genre fans can understand- and you can do this unknowingly quite easily- you will only reach that audience. If you want to reach wider, you'll have to find a happy medium.

sandra seamans said...

I think you'll enjoy the book, Thomas. I carried it from room to room with me. I hated to put it down for anything.

And yes, the branding and marketing comes into play with every book. Publishers are going to put a tag on it that will sell the most books for them.

I agree that the Moorcock advice is good, and so different from the usual advice that you have to read in the genre you're writing so you know what came before.

Di Eats the Elephant said...

Glad to hear you like the book; I haven't been able to get quite to the point of buying it yet, mostly because the second book did not seem to hold up to the promise of the first, and I'd tried one of Oprah's book club books and the one author did the same thing. Mostly I've been looking for authors rather than one-off books because it saves time when I'm shopping or running into the library. And I appreciated the discussion here (and agree that it's often marketing when it could be another area, but see many I would put in mystery (suspense/thriller, for instance) that are on the library's general fiction shelf. Seems it needs another shelf, but that would be too hard to manage.

sandra seamans said...

I hadn't read Gruen before, Di, so I came to the book with no expectations. Glad I did. It's the best book I've read in ages.

I do most of my book shopping at the book sales our local Historical Society has during the summer. I never know what I'm going to find and am usually quite surprised. When I shop at Wal-Mart, where I have to pay full price, I stick with authors I know.