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October 27, 2004



Literary crime novels? The Great Gatsby. The Scarlet Letter. Crime and Punishment. The Brothers Karamazov. Just about all of Dickens.

John Rickards

Is it just me, or does that synopsis of 'Exodus' sound disturbingly, well, bad?

I mean, if James Patterson were to write sci-fi, I can see him using that kind of story...

Of course it might turn out to be a more serious version of Ben Elton's 'Stark', which was very cool. But still, I can't help wondering.

And on the lit crime front - which side of the fence does 'American Psycho' fall on? The bookstores here have it in general fiction rather than crime, so if it were usually considered lit-fic, I'd say it was a crossover book for sure.

David Montgomery

Warren Murphy once told me that Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" was the greatest private-eye novel ever written.

Being an anti-literary snob, I've never read it... but Warren always sounds like he knows what he's talking about.


This article inspires that timeless reply, "No shit, Sherlock."

Bryon Quertermous

I just finished watching "The Human Stain" and that could definately be considered a crime novel. American Psycho is usually with the lit fiction with the rest of Ellis's work and I would classify that as a crime novel. Several of Jonathan Letham's books could be considered crime (and sci-fi and romance etc.)novels. Shakespeare dabbled heavily in the crime genre and Hamlet is a Woo Woo Who-dunnit. And Shylock? Greatest crime fiction villain ever.


Thanks for bringing our attention to this article Sarah - I've just fired off my long-winded response :o) Well, it made ME feel better :o) As for great novels that are crime novels, I agree with Steven's list. I'd also add Thackeray's VANITY FAIR(love that scammer Becky Sharp!), Graves' I, CLAUDIUS, Fanny Burney's EVELINA. And what about REBECCA? TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD?

Jim Winter

Gatsby is both THE hardboiled and THE noir novel of the 20th century. What keeps it from being a private eye novel is that Nick is merely Daisy's cousin and Gatsby's neighbor. It's hardboiled because it shows an outsider watching people at their worst, and noir because it has a really bleak ending for several of the characters while two of the central characters are left to their own devices, never really learning from their own mistakes. And Nick's left disillusioned in the end. Not quite the fatal doom of Jim Thompson, but a bleak ending just the same.

So, crime or literary? How about both?

David Montgomery

I think if Hemingway were in business today he would definitely be writing crime fiction.


I don't know about GATSBY being "the" noir or hardboiled novel per se (though an interesting comment and worth considering), but Jim is right to mention it. GATSBY is "the" best American novel yet written (my opinion), though some would argue that HUCKLEBERRY FINN deserves that distinction.


Jenny D

I'm tempted just to say "all of the above" (especially Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky, "The Human Stain"). Most frustrating is when there's a really excellent new literary novel that doesn't reach a big readership but that would have been seized upon by crime fiction readers if only they knew what it really was: Susan Choi's "American Woman" (loosely based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping) is a good example of this.


GATSBY, folks, is awful. Fitzgerald was a hack. Read it again and just bask in the awful giant symbolism.

It's a crime novel all right: It's a CRIME that NOVEL was ever written.

David Montgomery

I liked Gatsy, but I wouldn't put it in the same class as Sun Also Rises or Huck Finn.

Jenny D

I'm with Neil. I hate Gatsby. Hate, hate, hate. That green light is the cheesiest thing I've ever read! Seriously, if you told me I could only have one book to read over and over again and it was either Gatsby or The Da Vinci Code, I would not hesitate for a second choosing the latter.

(My infantile judgment for the day. I am fond though of FSF's short stories--"A Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is worth it for the title alone, or "Bernice Bobs Her Hair".)


Ooh, debate! So it seems that GATSBY is a polarizing novel. It's been a long time since I read it, but that book was one of the few assigned reads in high school that I really enjoyed. Mostly, I think, for the melodrama. I always viewed it as an American re-imagining of Italian opera conventions, Puccini-style (in fact, in my senior English final exam essay, that's exactly what I argued, that GATSBY is essentially TOSCA with, granted, some fairly major changes...)

What about Theodore Dreiser's AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY as a candidate for lit-as-crime fiction?


Gatsby as refashioned opera -- I think that's kinda brilliant.


Dave White

Gatsby is my favorite book of all time. Maybe it has to do what was going on in my life each time I read it, but it is. And definitely has crime overtones. I always viewed it as a PI story, and it obviously inspired MacDonald.

My other favorite novel THE SUN ALSO RISES, I fell, also has crime elements. The whole idea of the Hemingway hero vs. the code hero is something that's been picked up by Parker, by Leonard, and so on. The characters in that novel reverberate the hard boiled attitude.

Jim Winter

Michael Collins hit on a good point. The problem with reading literary fiction (and presumably writing it) is that the characters' crises occur between their ears.

I agree, and it's massively difficult to make that interesting. Which is why lit fic's sludge (and there's plenty of it, just like any other type of writing) is stereotyped as 40 year old college professors angsting over whether to have an affair with a 20-year-old student.

That's not to say it can't be done. We all know better. PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT is largely poor, sexually-frustrated Alex whining to his therapist for 275 pages. Now, many of us could probably write our own tomes of teen, adult, and middle aged angst, but frankly, I don't really want to read about any of your masturbatory misadventures anymore than you'd want to read mine.

*Ahem* If I had any...

Umm... Where was I?

Oh, yes. Crime may be genre, but it's the most liberating genre in what it gives you. Put characters into blender, add intriguing setting (or an interesting take on a dull one), toss in a catastrophic crisis, hit frappe. Besides, what can be more fun than sending your characters to hell just because your sadistic side wants to watch them roast?

Jenny D

Crime fiction is a great thing. And you know, if the only job of literary fiction is to set up excellent narrative voices and plot patterns that "genre" writers can opt into, that's cool! Wouldn't anybody sensible rather read a Ross Macdonald novel than a Hemingway one? (OK, I'm showing my bias here.)


Put me on the 'not liking Gatsby' pile too. I have a hard time with the whole definition of literary fiction thing. Too often, the 'literary' tag means something which is unreadable, pretentious and just plain dull. And that's very unfair to it, but, it's what first springs to mind. If someone tells me something is literary fiction my first instinct is to shy away, making the sign of the cross and hunting for garlic.

What does it actually mean anyway?

Is it something that doesn't fit in any other genre? Maybe that means it hasn't got a plot, or nobody has stayed awake long enough to read the whole thing.

Is it to do with being more about internal emotions than external action - in other words a book full of angst and still no bloody plot? I still have nightmares about being made to read Alain Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie in French class at school. In the book nothing happened except every 8 pages or so a caterpillar crawled up a wall. By the fifth appearance of the caterpillar I wanted to bash its little head in with the most convenient Nancy Drew book in my collection.

Is it that it's 'not mainstream'? There seems to be some view that if a book is popular then it's not good. The critics seem to sneer at popular books. Who says that to be popular is not to be good? And to be good is
to be unpopular?

Is it about the words and language used? Is that what makes something literary? Well, I love the way my favourite authors use words, but they don't need to be seven syllables long for me to enjoy them. I like to be able to read at least one page of a book without resorting to a dictionary.

Too often literary fiction seems less about the story or the characters and more about navel gazing. If I want to gaze at anyone's navel I have one of my own. I don't need to spend £10 on a book just to be bored by
someone else's navel.

There's lots of 'literary fiction' I read and enjoy - I'll read anything at all, it's the label that puts me off. I prefer it if a book is described as 'a classic'. I don't have the same Pavlovian reaction to that, and I'll run to buy it, rather than run away from it kicking and screaming. Or just 'Here, this is a good book', rather than 'Here, this is literary fiction'. I don't know - that just somehow feels snooty and implies that everything else I read is an unworthy pile of crap.



I'm in the pro-Gatsby camp myself, but then as you can probably tell from LITTLE GIRL LOST, I spent a good portion of my youth gazing longingly at flickering green lights at the end of docks.

Other literary novels that are really crime novels? One of the best has to the THE ASSISTANT by Bernard Malamud, which focuses on the causes and aftermath of a robbery. Or how about Nabokov's insanely brilliant PALE FIRE? Or LES MISERABLES? Stretching a point, there's A PASSAGE TO INDIA. Or if you want something more recent, there's Paul Auster's THE MUSIC OF CHANCE.


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