Read this exclusive guest post from Katherine Bolger Hyde, author of Arsenic with Austen, about the importance of reading the classics, and then, make sure you're signed in and comment for a chance to win a copy of the 1st book in the new Crime with the Classics series!
Nowadays, it’s generally assumed that crime fiction lies on one side of the Great Literary Divide and literary fiction lies on the other. Occasionally, a book manages to cross over, but this is always regarded as something of an anomaly. Writers and critics on each side of the divide tend to hold those on the other side in some degree of contempt.
But, it wasn’t always so. Some of the first writers to attempt what we today would call a detective story were among the greatest writers of their time—Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, William Wilkie Collins. The terms “crime fiction” and “literary fiction” did not exist back then; novels were novels, and readers were left to their own judgment to discern what had lasting value and what did not. Detective stories written by great writers had as much value as anything else they wrote. Detective stories written by hacks—and I assure you there were some; I’ve read them—perished as ignominiously as they deserved.
In the crime writers of the early twentieth century, we often see an active consciousness of the literary heritage on which their work was based. Dorothy L. Sayers is a prime example of this. Her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, and his eventual wife, mystery writer Harriet Vane, are extremely well read and pepper even their most intimate conversations with literary references that would stump almost anyone who lacks an Oxford education. And, of course, the debt to classic literature goes deeper than that, informing characters and motivations as well. Among contemporary writers, this consciousness of literary heritage has certainly not vanished, but it has become more difficult to find.
When I chose to base a contemporary traditional mystery series on connections to the classics, I wasn’t thinking primarily of the classics of crime. My first thought was of the kind of writers whose works made it into high school English curricula when I was young—writers like Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, George Eliot. Writers whose work is becoming increasingly undervalued in this age of distraction, when few people have the attention span necessary to read, with pleasure, long passages of backstory or description. Today’s thoughtful readers still value the great stories and characters created by these authors, but most prefer to partake of them through the more accessible medium of film.
In creating Crime with the Classics, I wanted to nudge readers back toward the original written word, to show them how the characters and themes treated, so often at great length, by classic authors are still highly relevant today. Look at the common emotions and motivations employed in contemporary crime fiction: thwarted love, sex, envy, greed, ambition, vanity, pride, hatred, mental imbalance, and even simple selfishness carried to extremes.
And, look at the works of the authors I mentioned above. Most of these writers rarely focus on murder. And yet, we see the same emotions and motivations come into play. You won’t see sex crimes or serial killers in Victorian novels, because such subjects were taboo. But, in Jane Austen, you see villains motivated by ambition, greed, and vanity. In the Brontës, we find jealousy and obsessive love. Dickens creates villains who, though usually stopping short of murder, destroy people’s lives with their twisted minds focused on greed and love of power. Dostoevsky presents us with all the convoluted self-justifications of minds contorted by passion and pride. Eliot, in Daniel Deronda, paints a terrifying picture of a man bent on breaking his wife’s independent spirit, merely to prove that he can.
In the classic writers, all these darker elements of human nature are portrayed with a depth and detail less often found in contemporary fiction of any stripe. And, the more uplifting human qualities, such as love, courage, and self-sacrifice, are treated with equal insight. For the student of human nature, which I believe many crime fiction readers are, the effort of reading the classics will be well repaid.
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Katherine Bolger Hyde has lived her life surrounded by books, from teaching herself to read at age four to majoring in Russian literature to making her career as an editor. She lives in California with her husband. Arsenic with Austen is her first novel.