Last fall, I was a juror on a murder trial. The inevitable response from friends and family upon hearing that was, “Must be good research.” It’s a phrase you hear a lot as a crime writer, and it speaks to the inherent paradox of the genre—that if crime and mystery fiction serve as escapism, it’s escapism built on social reality.
No other genre is expected, or even encouraged, to draw upon real-world knowledge of police procedure and criminology, the currents and back channels of the justice system, and the motivations behind criminal behavior—in short, upon real life. It stands to reason, then, that crime fiction is uniquely placed to speak to those realities, to say something about what’s going on in our world.
Representations of violence, of systemic powers and institutions, carry a heavier weight these days. How can anyone write about gleefully corrupt cops in the age of Black Lives Matter? With longstanding issues of sexual harassment and assault finally coming to light, does it trivialize those things to represent them in fiction? And when the country is run by a person whose agenda runs counter to many of our deepest-held beliefs about decency and humanism—and of course I’m talking about my country’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau—well, what’s a crime writer to do?
Sometimes, I think of crime fiction as a continuum, with pure escapism at one end and pure social realism at the other. Think Jack Reacher standing atop one pole and Martin Beck atop the opposite. But this conception does each side a disservice. Crime fiction’s ability to speak to social problems depends on its ability to entertain and draw a readership while doing so. Story takes precedence; if it doesn’t, your well-wrought critique of the prison-industrial complex will languish on the remainder table. In hip-hop terms, there’s no flow without the beat.
I’ve been trying to think my way through this conundrum for a while now. To help me out, I contacted five of the most respected names in the field to get their opinions on the greatest challenge of writing crime fiction in 2018.
“I don’t actually see today’s political and social climate presenting a challenge, at least in a negative way,” says bestselling writer Linwood Barclay, whose latest thriller, Parting Shot, was released in November. “Today’s social and cultural scene presents more opportunities than challenges. There’s so much material out there that can be woven into your crime novel. The book I’m working on now has, as a kind of subplot, what might happen if the tensions between the right and the left spiraled out of control. The novel is still very much a thriller, but I’m hopeful that this element gives it a bit more texture. If there’s any risk at all, it’s that things are moving so quickly now—thinking here of the #metoo movement—that your book can be overtaken by events before it comes out.”
Meg Gardiner is the author of UNSUB and the recently released Into the Black Nowhere. Like Barclay, she’s keenly aware of the speed with which social realities change. “Whatever I write can swiftly be overtaken by events, in surreal ways. I never expected to write a novel about an FBI homicide investigation only to have the administration and its supporters declare the Bureau simultaneously tattered and an omnipotent new Gestapo. It’s off the wall.”
Reed Farrel Coleman
Reed Farrel Coleman—whose acclaimed latest novel, The Hangman’s Sonnet, continues Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series—says, “I never set out to write books with the notion of standing on a soapbox and preaching to my readers. Never! I despise being preached to in the guise of entertainment, and I have too much respect for readers to do it to them. I prefer my readers to get lost in the prose and to forget someone wrote the words they are reading. In fact, I want them to forget they’re reading. I want them to be transported, not change their political affiliation. This is precisely why, although I respect his talent, I dislike Aaron Sorkin’s work. I always feel he’s preaching at me and that he’s winking at the camera and saying, ‘Forget the actors. Here I am!’ I hope my readers know where my characters stand. It’s not important for them to know where I stand.”
John Lescroart concurs. Lescroart, whose recent novels include Fatal (2017) and the upcoming Poison (February 2018), says, “The story must create its own social reality, no matter what. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself working within some didactic, semi-historical non-fictional universe and trying to fit your fictional story into a context that isn’t unique unto itself, which is what a novel has to be if it is to be an original work. Never forget that you are writing fiction, and fiction that is supposed to be entertaining at that.”
“What entertains one reader can offend another,” says Jennifer Hillier, author of the highly anticipated Jar of Hearts (June 2018). “That's my biggest challenge as a writer: How do I tell the story I want, the way I want, without offending people? Because I hate offending people. Hate. But I don't know that there's a way around it, especially in crime fiction. If my villain is a murderer or rapist, how do I convince you to fear him unless I show you what he's done and the impact he's had on the other characters? If my protagonist is a woman of color, how do I show her moving through the world without her facing the kind of challenges that I, as a woman of color, have faced? The subject matter gets uncomfortable for folks. I've had my share of reader emails blasting me for my use of profanity, sex, violence, and politically incorrect labels. It's not fun to read a heartfelt letter from a reader I've upset. I apologize a lot. But then I keep writing.”
My agent, the wonderful Chris Bucci, told me of a conversation he had with a television producer about the state of the TV industry in the Trump years. A show like Breaking Bad, the executive told him, would never get on the air these days. It’s too dark, too negative. Viewers these days want relief from real life and its attendant problems. Lighter fare.
If you’ve been to the cinema recently, you know this thinking holds sway in that domain. We live in the age of sequels, prequels, nostalgia-fueled remakes, and franchise films, most of which tout facile notions about heroism and offer feel-good solutions to outdated problems.
Maybe the same holds true for crime fiction. The mystery genre has always been concerned with justice and resolution, with the restoration of order. In the cozy mystery, that order comes from the detective’s superior intellect, while in hardboiled tales, it’s often the result of a well-placed bullet or roundhouse kick. Maybe the horrendous state of the world will drive readers further along the escapism pole of the continuum, away from talk of social issues. There’s undoubtedly a satisfaction in reading about someone who can glibly smash or kill their way through their problems.
But I think—I hope—that’s not the case. There’s a need for popular art that speaks to the problems of now. Crime fiction is uniquely placed to do this; grief, violence, justice, and transgression are the primary colors of our palette. Whether escapist, realist, or some combination of both, the best crime fiction speaks profoundly about our troubled times.
Sam Wiebe's Cut You Down is available now! To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Sam Wiebe is the author of Invisible Dead, the critically acclaimed first novel in the Wakeland series, as well as the stand-alone debut Last of the Independents. His work has won an Arthur Ellis Award and the Kobo Emerging Writers Prize, been nominated for a Shamus award, and been shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award.