Three crime writers spill the beans

Deep inside the perfect secondhand bookshop, the sign above an enticing locked door says Mysteries. Above that again are crime novels and a Thompson sub machine gun. You cant beat Westsider Books on Manhattans Upper West Side for atmosphere.

I shouldn’t really be telling you this, because I’m about to flit the country again and I’m unprepared. But SamHenry from On My Watch insisted. So here goes.

The other night I sat down with three award-winning or nominated crime writers who opened up (in a non-machine gun way) about their trade. Among the secrets they laid bare were:

1. What’s the point of crime writing?
2. The difference between crime writing and literary fiction?
3. Crime writing v. noir?
4. Does crime writing change anything?
5. Does it work in colonial or post-colonial societies?
6. Can you have a whodunnit in a developing economy?
7. Should put your friends and neighbours into the story?
8. Is there too much graphic violence against women?
9. Is Nordic Noir for wimps?
10. And – What they think you should read next (apart from themselves)?

The three writers were Dominique Manotti – or in English here – (also a professor of nineteenth century economic history) from France, Nii Ayikwei Parkes (also a poet and publisher) from Ghana and Margie Orford (also a reporter, born London, grew up in Namibia) from South Africa.

Dominique’s books include Rough Trade (which it’s just dawned on me that I have read and enjoyed – featuring gay police inspector Matthew Daquin), Dead Horsemeat and Lorraine Connection. She has long focussed on the struggle for workers’ rights and was energised by the French war against and in Algeria. But when Francois Mitterand became president of France in 1981, she gave up on activism, feeling that the French left had finally swapped struggle for champagne socialism.

Nii’s debut novel is Tail of the Blue Bird, which I have begun though not yet finished.

Margie (third portrait) is currently writing the fourth book in her series featuring investigative journalist turned criminal profiler Clare Hart. She said her books, one of which has been optioned for TV or film, are pitched as “Wallander with weather”. Well, it is sunny South Africa after all. They include Daddy’s Girl, Blood Rose and Like Clockwork.

They were gathered for a discussion called Criminal Justice, part of the Free The Word! festival organised by English PEN – kind of Amnesty International for writers. (I’m a member but this was the first event I’ve ever been able to attend.) It was ably chaired by BBC Radio 4 Crossing Continents presenter Rosie Goldsmith, with translator Ros Schwartz turning Dominique Manotti’s French into English – though there was almost no need, as she’s so clear and forceful regardless of the language.

So – the answers to the questions raised above….

1. What’s the point of crime writing? According to Nii Ayikwei Parkes, it heightens the sense of consequence. All of a sudden outcomes and answers really matter. And as Margie Orford says, it speeds things up. The best way to accelerate a meeting or a conversation? Put a gun on the table.

2. Crime fiction v. literary fiction. What’s the difference? According to Margie Orford it’s actually quite simple. In most crime fiction a moment will come when there is mention of a manila folder. Bingo! That’s how you know. There’s death, bloody murder and crime aplenty in Coetzee and Dostoyevsky. But no manila folders. There you have it. If there’s a manila folde, it’s genre crime fiction. If not, it’s literary.

3. Crime writing v noir. It’s all about resolution. That’s the difference, according to Dominique Manotti. You know it’s noir because order is not restored. There’s no all’s well that ends well. You leave the story confirmed in the belief that the world is tragic.

Margi Orford likes to think of her heroine suturing up the problem in the end and instinctively doing the morally right thing. But in Dominique’s world the reality is criminality not order.

4. Does crime writing change anything? Not a bit of it, says Dominique Manotti. Sure you can expose the seamy underbelly of society. Sure, for her, writing is resistance. Fight – yes. Change – no. It can stimulate people’s thinking, but change only comes as the result of political struggle.

5. Does crime writing work in colonial or post-colonial societies? I wonder about this. Because you could argue that crime novels depend on some perpetrator, often an outsider in some way, transgressing against the social or legal norms. That may be fine in the UK, the USA and much of Europe. The citizenry/population believe in the rule of law, believe in the system, more or less. (Let’s leave Italy out of it for the moment.)

But what if the state monopoly of violence and law has never been accepted? What if the state – the colonial or post-colonial state is the outsider? Then definitions become fuzzy. Your criminal may also be seen as a rebel, a non conformist, a patriot. Even when they’re clearly a menace to their neighbours and roundly despised, that need not necessarily make the law enforcers any more legitimate or loved.

So when the ground underfoot is so uncertain, can crime writers get into their groove?

Thinking of the Irish border… On the Donegal side you have police officers working within a young but stable and accepted state, like Brian McGilloway‘s Garda Inspector Devlin. Step across the border into Northern Ireland and it all becomes more complicated, (see Colin Bateman‘s books).

So the answer is – yes – the complications make it all the more interesting. For instance Margie Orford has found that the war in South Africa has, since the end of apartheid, become sublimated into the family – breaking out as domestic violence and rape.

6. Can you ask “Whodunnit?” in a developing economy? No – according to Nii Ayikwei Parkes. He believes that the crime novel is a product of industrialisation, the pushing together of people who don’t know each other. Without, or before, that people tend to be at least acquainted. So whodunnit doesn’t arise. Everyone knows.

7. Putting people you know in the story. Margie Orford is tormented by people accusing her of painting them in an unflattering light in her books – or even more hurt, not featuring them at all.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes is unabashed. He does it and here’s why. When he worked in an office, he used to recall how clever his workmates had been as school pupils, and how dumb they had become. So he figures that writing them into his novels so they can recognise themselves and how dumb they’ve become, can be a step to helping them change. That’s the theory anyway. Wonder if he’s lost any friends that way? (NB -Turns out I got Nii’s approach a bit wrong. He’s added a comment below making things clearer.)

8. Too much graphic violence against women? It seems to be fashionable these days to feature explicit brutal violence against women in crime novels – women as victims. Margie Orford feels that sexual violence is a key political issue that’s eating away at the fabric of her society, South Africa. She acknowledges that writing about it is difficult, but feels strongly that it should be done. Because of the crime genre, the writer colludes to some extent with the pornography of violence, but she says she tries to find a way of looking at it that is less exploitative.

Also – you get to take fabulous revenge on the perpetrators, and no one minds what kind of gruesome end they come to.

9. Is Nordic Noir for wimps? Kurt Wallander, The Killing, Anne Holt, Karin Fossum, etc, etc – all those Scandinavian crime writers and characters who I enjoy. According to Margie Orford they’re a bunch of wimps. She recalls one fictional Nordic detective bemoaning the state society was in and how, despite having dealt with much violence in career, including nine murders, he was shocked by his current case. Nine murders? Nine! Only! Compare that to the 200 a month sitting in manilla folders on the desk of a real South African police detective these days.

Once were Vikings. Now – what a wuss!

10. What crime novel or whodunnit should you read next?

Margie Orford: She recommends Mukoma wa Ngugi (son of Kenyan activist, writer and playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o). His book Nairobi Heat is good on the difference between American and African investigative techniques – and drinking techniques too.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes: The Name of the Rose (not just a film) by Umberto Eco.

Dominique Manotti: She recommends Don Winslow‘s novels set along the Mexico-United States border amidst drug gangs – explaining the collapse of the Mexican state.

And Romanzo Criminale by Giancarlo de Cataldo – which highlights the profound impact of the mafia on Berlusconi’s Italy.

So there you have. I really should be packing and booking trains. Auf weidersehn.



Filed under art, What I'm Reading

7 responses to “Three crime writers spill the beans

  1. Insightful post. But I don’t think any of the great writers in this genre pay any attention to these. They have an intriguing plot, fascinating characters and keep you turning the pages. They merely tell the story in a thrilling way that unravels in unexpected ways.

  2. In the parlance of novels about wrong doing and murder – is mystery novel synonymous with crime novel? “Mystery” seems to be the term here.

    I just loved this. Now we can all benefit from the conference which I exactly what I wanted from the exercise. I am sorry to miss these things. These kinds of things are disappearing here as bookstores are cutting out extras like discussion groups like these.

    Thank you, Roo. This was wonderful and it took a while to organize and present it as well as you have and I so appreciate that. I’m not so demanding after all. I just believe in intellectual sharing of the wealth of ideas.

  3. Eden George

    Just wanted to say, I enjoyed your post thanks.
    I’ve added a link from me to you.

  4. You put a lot of hard work into this article. Good job. Gives the reader some insight as to how the authors view their work.

    Don’t get …so they can see how dumb they had become. The only purpose that serves is damaged relationships.

    Besides, that’s one person’s point of view.

  5. Nii

    I think this is a great summary, but – of course – summaries always lack context. I actually never put people I know into my books; what I said is that I hoped people would recognise something of themselves in the characters, which might be a trigger to make some people change certain things if they could see how dumb they had become.

  6. Sounds like it was a great event!

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