MURDER, THEY WROTE –– THREE NOVELISTS WRITING ABOUT MURDER
When Graeme Macrea Burnet was interviewed on radio news, he was asked how he felt about being shortlisted for the 2016 Man-Booker with his crime novel.
“It’s not a crime novel,” he replied. “It’s a literary novel about crime.”
I have to confess, as a crime novelist, that did put my back up, a little bit. I don’t believe it’s for writers to announce they’ve created a literary novel…that’s for posterity to decide. In my view, ‘literature’ is something that lasts and grows as it ages…books like Homer’s Odyssey, Orwell's Animal Farm or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bibles which I blogged about here. But it got me thinking. His Bloody Project (Contraband 2015) cannot yet, in my view, be literature. So is it crime fiction?
The great P D James said that a good crime novel should also be a good novel. All human life is found in the killing of one human by another. So writing about murder surely is always crime fiction! I’m going to look at three recent books that I loved reading to find out if that’s true.
Belinda Bauer doesn’t seem to have any qualms about calling herself a writer of crime fiction. I’ve previously reviewed her work on my blog, and here she is again, with her 6th novel, The Beautiful Dead (Bantam Press 2016). I loved her first book, Badlands, but I did feel the end was a bit weak, a bit unbelievable. This time, no worries about that! I loved the way Bauer took a ‘smoking gun’ in the form of a pair of handcuffs, which the main protagonist, TV crime reporter Eve Singer, has become obsessed with as she’s tracked and taunted by a serial killer she’s featuring on her news items. I expected them to be used in some way to secure her life when it was eventually under intense threat, as I knew it would be! But when those handcuffs were put to use on pg 319 of the book, I stood from my seat and crowed in joy. What a twist! What a perfect ploy! A great, twisting surprise is essential in a crime novel. But Bauer also delivers elegant description, strong metaphor and deep investigation of the human condition. She examines what being a killer is – how close each of use could get to murder. A crime novel? Decidedly, but great, contemporary fiction, too.
Helen Dunmore is known for her lyrical poetry and her award-winning fiction, including the best-selling The Siege, which is set during the Nazis' 1941 winter siege on Leningrad So I wasn’t surprised to find that in her most recent book she turned her hand to a cold war thriller, set in England in the early 1960’s. In Exposure Penguin, 2016) Although she uses three points of view…the hardened old double agent, the fresh, young candidate pushing a pen in the office of MI6, and his wife, mother of two young children, a typical stay-at-home mum, but a woman with a sharp mind. The shock of the killing towards the end of the book demonstrated for me that one of our most outstanding writers (Good Housekeeping review) can
‘do’ murder and do it well, focusing on the victims, both of the spying industry, and of the machinations of corrupt individuals. Is this literary fiction? Or a spy thriller? I can’t honestly see why it can’t be both.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project didn’t win the Booker in the end. But Burnet’s book is the one that I enjoyed the most from the shortlist. I enjoyed it so much, that I now have a little more sympathy with his comment about literary fiction.
His novel is centred around a vicious triple murder – a man, his teenaged daughter and his baby son – by an angry young boy who lived in the same crofting community in 19th Century northwest Scotland. Burnet uses several point-of-views to create the novel, starting with the gripping account by Roderick Macrea as he languishes in jail, waiting for his trial to begin. This account is the gruelling and bitter story of his short life as a crofter. Although he shows promise at school, he leaves early to start working with his widowed father, who is perhaps a bit lacking in the smarts department, unlike his son. Life is backbreaking, crushing. And the powers who own the land turn a cold, heartless face away from the punishing routine that puts meagre food in the crofter’s mouths. Very soon, as the story is related, it becomes clear why Roddy kills. He is drawn to do so, from the moment he has to batter an injured sheep to a humane death. The second half of the book are accounts from the defence lawyer and the early 19th psychologist he has called in, and from newspaper articles about the trial.
I could not put this book down. Firstly, I needed to know why and how the murders happened. Lastly, I needed to know if his kindly lawyer managed to secure Roddy clemency from the gallows.
Is His Bloody Project a piece of crime fiction, Mr Burnet? I would say so. A piece beautifully written, and a deeply investigated book which looks into the nature of murder. It's also a book that may stay loved over generations and thence become ‘literature’, but at the moment, it’s crime fiction.
A romping good read, but also, like Bauer’s and Dunmore’s latest fictions, it’s about murder. They’ve all written about the deadliest of crimes, and I cannot see what is wrong with admitting that they’ve ended up with great stories that are crime fiction.