It might be surprising that Tingle Alley linked to this before I did, but it's been that kind of morning.
Laura Lippman, in her latest website letter, took a whack at the whole "genre transcending" term and essentially comes to the conclusion that it's not about reinventing the wheel, but about making good use of what the wheel offers. She uses Kate Atkinson's CASE HISTORIES as an excellent example of this latter idea:
Case Histories does everything a crime novel should do. The three unsolved homicides are explicated, at least to the reader. The characters, including Brodie, are affected in surprising and gratifying ways by the secrets and truths they uncover. If the book deviates in any notable way from the mainstream, it's in Atkinson's approach to structure. The narrative has a lovely, peripatetic shape, one in which the reader is brought to the brink of a familiar scene -- the PI interviews an important witness, for example -- only to have Atkinson skip past it, heightening the reader's interest, then return unexpectedly.
Having beat the fandom drum on this book for a while now, I obviously agree with Lippman, but I'll add another point: the book works because it's apparent, at least to me, that Atkinson is thoroughly aware of what makes crime fiction work and what's good about it. She's not trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater by barrelling in, having read little or no previous entries in the genre, and then doing what she wants with it. This is a writer who lists Lee Child and Harlan Coben among her favorites, after all.
But as I said before, the whole "transcending genre" concept is a false one, and I rather think it's masking what's really going on: some people have the talent to explore structural nuances or greater ideas, and others are "limited" to staying within the tight constraints of what's considered to be purely genre work. Whatever the case, the best books--transcendent or not--have at least some rooting in what's already passed before, have a sense of what the so-called rules are before they can be broken.
The book I'm reading now wants to do a lot of this genre-busting business, but I'm not exactly sure it's succeeding on that front. Danny Leigh's THE MONSTERS OF GRAMERCY PARK (Faber, March) follows two decidedly different individuals: the drug lord Wilson Velez, trapped in solitary confinment and slowly going mad, and Lizbeth Greene, a "celebrated crime fiction writer" who bears some resemblance to some of the bigger names (think Cornwell, Patricia.) Her inspiration's running dry and though she doesn't want to admit to writer's block, it's fast approaching. Eventually she gets it into her head that her salvation will be to write about Velez, and she goes to the prison where he's incarcerated to arrange a meeting--hopefully leading to the book.
It's early yet, so I'm reserving judgment, but I have the sneaking suspicion that Leigh's not read a lot of upper-echelon crime fiction lately. If he had, would he have had the prison guard tell Lizbeth something along the order of this speech?
"I have to tell you," he says, "when you first explained your idea to me, I was perplexed. But I think I understand. You know, I was speaking with a friend of mine in law enforcement recently...he told me six in ten homicides currently go unsolved. Six in ten. And of those that are solved, the same number, the same ratio, are carried out by an assailant unknown to the victim. Now, that's no good for you, is it? As a writer? An office worker gets carjacked by a stranger in a ski mask, or that same stranger wanders out from an alleyway deranged on crack cocaine and stabs them to death. Not much in the way of a plot twist there, right? No grand whodunnit. No, I can see why you might want to write something real. A true story. These must be hard times for a person in your industry. The days of the random and the unsolved."
Aside from being skeptical about the numbers thrown out and the fact that this sounds too much like writer-speak, I think Leigh's missing the point. Great crime fiction can be crafted from exactly those parameters, if the focus shifts away from whodunit to more psychological approaches. Since the genre's heading more and more in that direction anyway and less from Agatha Christie country, it's of considerably more interest to readers like myself. And even if there is no tangible "why" I might still want to read about that stranger deranged on crack cocaine or the person who dies so randomly. The order created from chaos may not necessarily be of the traditional variety, but there can still be order of some kind.
In other words, that wheel shouldn't be put out of commission anytime soon. It's got quite a bit of life in it yet.