Fifty years, huh? There were the predictable Nancy Drew mysteries at age 10. Then, there was a long pause. The librarians at the Philadelphia Public Library-West Oak Lane branch—where I checked out all my reading material—were not eager to put mysteries in front of me. Instead, I read lots of Steinbeck, Lewis, Wharton, Cather, Golding, Godden, John Marquand (does anyone remember him?), and other popular mid-century writers. I can’t remember a teacher, librarian, or even a friend steering me toward mystery fiction. Mysteries had more status than a comic book, but just barely. Those spinner racks at the drugstore? I didn’t go near them.
But then I was newly married and in Ocean City, NJ, for a vacation. My husband took along course-related books from his graduate program, and I probably packed a novel—Hardy, Fitzgerald, or Austen. But there came a day later in the week when we stumbled sun-burned, sun-blind, and bored onto the boardwalk and came upon tables of coverless mysteries.
Of course, Agatha Christie was familiar, but neither of us had read a book by her. We bought one each and a third, just in case (we were cash-poor students, remember). Minus the covers, we weren’t even sure which books we were reading. We sat on low chairs in the ocean, turned red, then brown, and read and read. By the end of our vacation, we’d read most of the books in those boxes and stacked more to take home.
In those early days, I was a completist and read most of the Golden Age mysteries: Sayers, Tey, Marsh, Blake, Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Stout. You know the progression. For every “literary” novel I read (those librarians did have their influence on me), I allowed myself a mystery. There were many crime writers I was missing because I really didn’t discuss the books I read with anyone. I followed my own path, quickly diving into Millar, Macdonald, Sjowal and Wahloo, Freeling, Patricia Moyes, Simenon, Emma Lathen, Ruth Rendell, and pretty much the usual list. Not so often the truly hardboiled writers, though. Those spinner racks still seemed off-putting.
If I happened to mention a mystery novel at a party, noses turned up. “How do you have time to read that stuff?” And I went along with their assessment, increasing my ratio of mainstream-to-crime to 3:1. In a log I kept one year in the ‘80s, I buried the crime entries on the back pages as if onlookers wouldn’t get that far. Oddly, those are the ones I most remember.
In the 1990s, I was in the UK and came across a new Rendell. It confronted British racism head-on. I couldn’t think of many American novels by white women that did such a thing. Perhaps buried in those mysteries I loved so much were confrontations with societal injustice. I began to look at them and the mainstream fiction more carefully. And I discovered this: most literary novels were about the relationships of rich people or academics, whereas crime fiction writers were more apt to take on the societal issues. (I was unsuccessful later in persuading either of my writing teachers of this.)
Rendell took on racism and involuntary servitude in Simisola, illiteracy in A Judgment in Stone (who could ever forget the first line: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write), pedophilia in Harm Done, the problems of urbanization in Road Rage, and baby-selling in End in Tears. And she managed to tuck in darn good crime plots along the way.
Sara Paretsky dissected the city of Chicago in books such as Hardball. In Bitter Medicine, she takes on the bombing of abortion clinics. And in all of her novels, her character reminds us that women needn’t be meek and silent.
Walter Mosley and Attica Locke are chronicling black life in the U.S. Tana French looks at the housing crisis in Ireland in Broken Harbor. Denise Mina, in Scotland, writes about delinquency. Greg Iles has given us a three-volume history of racism in the South. Don Winslow looks at the movement of drugs in The Cartel. And spousal abuse is the primary theme of the hugely popular Big Little Lies by Moriarty.
Even if I return to my earlier reading material, Sjowal and Wahloo critiqued the changes in Swedish society in the ‘60s and ‘70s and those who were left behind, paving the way for the masterful series by Henning Mankell, which dissects every facet of Sweden today. I could extend this list by pages because so many writers use the format of the crime novel as a handy lens to discuss other issues in their books.
And this is not to say that every novel should incorporate nuclear war, city corruption, or the ravages of the environment as a theme. I love a good locked-room murder as much as the next guy. Police procedurals are my favorites. But I no longer apologize at academic parties for my reading matter. How can I when I write it?
To learn more or order a copy of Patricia Abbott's latest, I Bring Sorrow, visit:
Patricia Abbott is the Edgar and Anthony Award-nominated author of Concrete Angel and Shot in Detroit, both available from Polis Books. She won the Derringer Award for her story My Hero. She lives in Detroit, MI. Follow her at @PattiNaseAbbott.