Brian Bethune of Maclean's magazine, Canada's equivalent to Time and Newsweek, happened to be in attendance at Bouchercon and caught the literary vs. crime panel featuring Stephen Booth, Michael Collins, Christopher Rice, Kim Moritsugu and moderated by Margaret Dumas. While I'm glad to have a fuller sense of what went on during this panel (I couldn't go as I had the minor thing of moderating my own at the same time) but there still seems to be this gee-whiz wonder that crime fiction can "measure up" to the literati.
Anyway, some choice commentary
More germane was a point made by Rice. Booth argued anything could be discussed in a crime novel, as long as it was character-driven: "If readers believe in your characters, they'll follow you anywhere." True, echoed Rice, but a sense of place was equally vital. "It's the intersection of place and character that makes critics elevate some mystery writers, and not the rest of us."No kidding.
He spoke as though he were making a technical point, merely remarking on something he'd noticed. But Rice is clearly on to something. The best, most compulsively readable stories and unforgettable characters come from that combination. Sherlock Holmes, so eternally alive that the British post office accepts mail for him, is inconceivable without his accompanying images of gas-lit London or foggy country moors. And Holmes is so set in the collective mind because he both solved problems and did so repeatedly. The crime genre is biased towards series, towards casting a new set of ephemeral variables (the crime) against the same backdrop of character and place, cementing Rice's "intersection" over and over in readers' imaginations.
But instead of asking the same old question, let's turn it around a bit to make it only slightly less tired: what great novels are, at their core, crime novels? Or what contemporary writers essentially write crime fiction but because of adaptations of structure, language and thought, get classified as literary?
Which leads to one more thing about Mr Collins, the literary-turned-crime writer: I'm not sure how long that "transformation" is going to last, considering the subject of his next book. (Although I am highly dubious about the December 23 release date, for some reason.)