Crime Fiction—The Perennial Punk Rock of Literature

In the early 1990s, a Scottish publisher put out an anthology that was supposedly the work of the best younger Scottish poets. Scotland at the time was seeing something of a boom in work by younger poets, few of whom were included in the anthology.

There was a launch of the book at a branch of Waterstone’s in Edinburgh. The editor of the anthology began with a declaration that “Poetry is the new rock ‘n’ roll,” a statement that had appeared in the book sections of some newspapers around that time.

I was standing next to my friend Paul Reekie, perhaps the most brilliant Scottish poet of my generation, so of course his work wasn’t dull enough to be included in the anthology. When he heard the editor’s pitch, he laughed and called out, “Shite.”

I’m reminded of this for two reasons. The first is that I’m writing this shortly after the third anniversary of Paul Reekie’s death. The other is that The Guardian recently suggested that “Crime fiction is the new punk.” So, while great writers live and then die, literary media reminds us that idiocy is reborn and reborn.

Surprisingly, the article is by Adrian McKinty, himself a crime novelist of note, which only goes to show that an author will descend to impressive levels of stupidity and ignorance when an out-of-touch mainstream media is ready to pay for it.

McKinty begins well, declaring that, “the British novel has been moribund for decades.” Since 1988, my favorite literary critic has been the Ayatollah Khomeini; when he passed the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, my only objection was that he didn’t toss in Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis while he was at it. No matter what genre, most of the novels being published in the UK in those days were—literally—fantasy novels, because they depicted a world and a lifestyle that did not exist for most people.

In the US, the same was true of the genre called literary fiction—plotless renderings of the thoughts and feelings and relationships of people who apparently never had to worry about rent or utility bills.

But that wasn’t all there was in the US. There was also noir.

That’s now true in the UK, especially in Scotland and Ireland. There’s Tony Black, Ray Banks, Allan Guthrie, Denise Mina, Ken Bruen, Gerard Brennan. In the US, there’s Gary Phillips, Benjamin Whitmer, Larry Fondation, Charlie Stella, Jake Hinkson, Jedidiah Ayres, Vicki Hendricks, Daniel Woodrell,  James Sallis, Megan Abbott. I could name plenty more…

But, judging from McKinty’s article, it seems that the only contemporary noir writer he’s heard of is himself. Of the writers he lists—Ian Rankin, David Peace, Ruth Rendell, PD James and Declan Burke, all are mainstream writers except for Peace, and none come close to writing noir except for Burke. If McKinty is saying that Ruth Rendell (born 1930) and PD James (born 1920) are part of the “new punk” in literature, I assume he thinks The Rolling Stones and The Eagles are the successors to The Clash and The Dead Kennedys.

It’s hard to figure why McKinty thinks that an 83-year-old and a 93-year-old, both bestselling authors, are “new” or “punk,” because—bizarrely—he doesn’t say. It’s not that he presents a flawed argument; he offers no argument at all. But, even if he was aware of the brilliant and subversive crime writers whose relationship with the literary world could be compared to that of the relationship the great punk bands of the 70s had with the world of popular music, his claim would still be absurd, because of something he acknowledges: “Crime fiction, especially noir and hardboiled, is the literature of the proletariat.”

Indeed it is, and it always has been. I said so in the May issue of this magazine. Crime fiction is not the new punk, it’s the perennial punk. The genre has always been subversive. Crime, that is. Noir. Not “mystery fiction,” cozy tales of rich hobbyists cerebrally solving crimes that the proles in uniform couldn’t handle.

Sure, Ian Rankin is a great writer, and his protagonists are city cops, not aristocratic dilettantes. But there is nothing subversive about his novels. Their premise is that the system is good, that it works, and that cops are good and crooks are bad. It is an essentially conservative vision. The personal flaws of his hero, Rebus, are contained and constrained by the establishment he works for.

Tony Black writes about the same city, Edinburgh, but it’s not even on the same planet as Rankin’s. Black writes about the Third World hidden within the First. His heroes are not flawed, because he doesn’t have heroes, only protagonists. His novels are not about the fight against crime, the fight to preserve order, because there is no order. He writes about a struggle for survival, and he delivers the news more vividly and accurately than the news media.

If that seems like exaggeration, consider this: In June, Edinburgh police found human remains on Corstorphine Hill. Black’s novel Gutted, published in 2010, opens with its protagonist, Gus Dury, stumbling wetly into a gutted corpse… on Corstorphine Hill. Black’s work is far, far more extreme than Rankin’s, because it is about the world as it is.

Black, like Woodrell and Phillips and Fondation in the US, is certainly subversive (because he does the most subversive thing possible­—he tells the truth), but what he does is not “the new punk,” because it is not new. He is simply upholding a noble tradition. To see how Americans lived almost a century ago, read James M. Cain, not F. Scott Fitzgerald. For the same historical information a couple decades later, read Jim Thompson or David Goodis. Even in times of censorship, crime fiction has gotten away with depicting real life when “literary” novels that tried to do so were charged with obscenity, because the guardians of public morals didn’t take pulp books seriously enough to read them. In the 1960s, Joan Didion avidly watched grindhouse movies about biker gangs, because she knew they were telling her something about America that she wasn’t going to find in the news media.

As it was then, so is it now. The Guardian, which is by far the best English-language newspaper in the world, considers the mainstream to be radical, because as a newspaper of record its role is to present the facts, not tell the truth. And when the square and the bourgeois, on a slow news day, try to repackage the brutal, compassionate honesty of noir as something new, I hear the ghost of Paul Reekie (who turned me on to the work of Chester Himes), call out: “Shite.”

About the Author

Barry Graham

Barry Graham is a Caledonian gentleman of letters whose previous occupations have included prize-fighting, monastic vocation, the fourth estate, vagabondage and the general avoidance of honest toil. Along the way, he has penned more than a dozen books, including the novels The Book of Man (an American Library Association Best Book of the Year) and When It All Comes Down to Dust (a Mystery People Best Book of the Year). Three of his novels and a collection of his stories have been translated into French.

In 1995, he fled his native land for the U.S.A., and thus far has managed to avoid deportation. He spent 12 years in the cactus jungle of Phoenix, Arizona, five years in the hell realm of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is now a denizen of Portland, Oregon.

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