Crime Fiction and Politics

Val McDermid wrote an article recently about crime fiction and politics. She argues that quite a lot of modern crime fiction is left-wing (voice of the little people, the poor, the oppressed), while thrillers (with their international conspiracies, nasty foreigners  and arrogant governments) are more right-wing. While there are many exceptions to prove her rule, it’s true that most crime fiction is by its very nature political, because ‘crimes are an attack against society and the status quo’ (Michael Connelly). It tends to fall down, however, when the authors sets out too deliberately to make a political statement, when the message obliterates the story.

This has provoked, needless to say, a flurry of controversy, and I’m not going to add to the conversation here, other than to say that in both thrillers and crime fiction, the detecting hero is idealised (has to be!) as caring about ‘everyman’, thinking that ‘everybody counts’ equally… which to me does sound rather leftie. Meanwhile, in countries that have had authoritarian regimes, the police is regarded with fear and distrust – and crime fiction of nearly any stripe becomes unpalatable.

French audiences are quite keen on political thinking in their crime fiction, so there were many questions about this at Quais du Polar. I thought I’d summarise some of the most interesting debates and quotes here. The author pictures are all from the official programme, while additional (wobbly) pictures are my own.

Queue to get to see the panel on the Americas.
Queue to get to see the panel on the Americas.

From the Panel: The Americas 

CONNELLY-Michael-c-Hacquard-et-Loison-Opale1-200x300Michael Connelly – US: I’ve been lucky to be able to write about Harry Bosch for so many years, as my books show a man evolving in a city that’s evolving (LA). The man has certainly changed much faster than the city has. I don’t set out to make political statements in my books, but invariably, when I look back on them, they are political in some way. I am a ‘reformed journalist’, I’ve left non-fiction behind, because I believe that fiction allows you to uncover a higher degree of truth about life and people.

ST-JOHN-MANDEL-Emily-c-Philippe-Matsas-Opale-Ed.-Rivages-Copie-200x199Emily St. John Mandel – Canada : Because noir novels look at the margins of society, the underbelly, the notion of ‘margin’ itself is a political statement. Not everyone is making it, not everyone is successful – according to society’s definition of success. Illegal immigration, people without papers, economic collapse in 2009 – it’s a shadow world most of us don’t get to see and I felt a strong urge to write about it.

LINS-Paulo-c-Lucia-Murat-200x214Paulo Lins- Brazil: From the end of the dictatorship in Brazil in 1984, it’s only now that we’re entering a period which bears some resemblance to real democracy. We’ve opened up to the US and Europe, international trade relations have improved, a middle class has emerged and many have moved above the poverty line. But it does mean that criminals have adapted – the very local gang wars in the favelas have now become more organised crime, engulfing all of the country, not just certain neighbourhoods. We like to blame crime on drug dealers, but there’s also plenty of trafficking of weapons, and, sadly Brazil is one of the three most violent countries in South America, alongside Colombia and Venezuela. It’s hard not to feel at times that things are not changing for the better. It’s the regular families that suffer most, those are the people I want to write about. Whenever your child leaves the house, you tremble for his or her safety. Yet, in spite of all that, I do remain positive and have hope for my country.

TAIBO-II-Ignacio-c-J.-Foley-Opale-Ed.-Rivagesjpg-200x133Paco Ignacio Taibo II – Mexico: Mexico is a blend of third world and first world. There are more cinemas in Mexico City than in Paris, more students than in New York. At the same time, there are 160 people being killed by police every month. There is such urban fear, pressures from poverty, electoral fraud, no moral values, it’s a quagmire. Writing novels is my attempt to make sense of something surreal and absurd. However, reality is so much stranger and less believable than fiction in my country that I can’t help feeling at times that I am like Walt Disney…

PADURA-Leonardo-c-Philippe-Matsas-200x300Leonardo Padura – Cuba: It’s hard to write crime fiction in Cuba, not because of censorship, but because most of the crime is about pickpocketing, thefts, these small cons to survive, not assassination. It’s simply not worth killing anyone, as people are all equally poor, so I cannot have more than one corpse per novel. It’s clear, however, that Cuba is changing: differences are starting to appear between rich and poor, small businesses are taking off, people are moving to Havana to find their fortune. I’m not sure where all this is heading, but it will be reflected in literature eventually, it just needs a little more time to follow suit.

From the Panel: The Burden of History

From left to right: Tom Rob Smith, Yasmina Khadra, Michel Bussi, Attica Locke.


LOCKE-Attica-dr-200x250Attica Locke – US: The idea for The Cutting Season came to me when I attended a wedding on a plantation in Louisiana. The idea of visiting such a place for fun struck me as incongruous, and I had a visceral reaction of pain and sadness when I got there. Then I saw all the migrants from South America working on this ‘theme park’ and realised that all we’d done was exchanged one shade of brown for another. I don’t have to try to be political, it comes naturally to me. So, instead, I focus on the story. What I want to do is shift the lens a little, get readers to view things through someone else’s eyes.

KHADRA-Yasmina-c-E-Robert-Espalieu-200x300Yasmina Khadra – Algeria: I come from a family of macho Arab/Berbers and was forced to join the army at the age of 9. I grew up fully expecting to die for my country, fought for eight years against terrorism, collected my colleagues by the spoonful following explosions and felt survivor’s guilt when I finally retired from the army. Why was I the one spared? I started writing to justify my continued existence… and to serve my country in a different way. Books are all about raising awareness, waking people up, while television (advertisements, consumption society etc.) is all about lulling people into a false sense of security, putting them to sleep.

BUSSI-Michel-c-Philippe-Matsas-200x300Michel Bussi – France: I have no pedagogical or educational mission. I write to entertain, but in those first couple of books (set in Normandy), I try to convey my love for my native region and its emotional scars dating from the D-Day landings. I am a geographer by profession, so for me it’s all about the setting.

SMITH-Tom-Rob-c-James-Hopkirk-200x293Tom Rob Smith – UK: I’d never have dared to set my books in such an unfamiliar environment as Stalinist Russia, if I’d not had an experience in my youth of writing a soap opera for Cambodian television. I found out that some stories feel truly universal, that they transcend cultural influences and borders. Of course I did a lot of research (mostly based on books and archives, rather than actual travelling), but it’s all about finding that emotional connection.

From the Dialogue between Ian Rankin & Val McDermid: The Passionate Thistle

One last sound check with the interpreters.
One last sound check with the interpreters.


Val-McDermid-new-photo-c-Charlie-Hopkinson-200x133Val McDermid: Isn’t it funny how we only mention politics in a novel if it is leftwing politics? No one says anything about ‘look what right-wing views Patricia Cornwall displays in her latest book’? I’m naturally a very political creature, so of course it finds its way into my books. But if I were to set out to do it deliberately, that would be dangerous, it needs to service the story and the characters. The best crime novels have politics with a big P and a small p in them (like Sara Paretsky, McIllvaney).

Of course the Scottish Referendum will be reflected in Scottish literature. You can’t live in Scotland and not engage with it in some way. It’s like writing a book about 1914 and not mentioning the First World War. I’m always astonished, however, when people ask my opinion about current affairs. After all, I just sit in my room and write. I don’t have a dog in this fight, though I have an opinion. But so does everyone else, why should my opinion count for anything more than theirs?

RANKIN-Ian-c-Ulf-Andersen-200x134Ian Rankin: I naturally gravitated more towards urban problems, so was initially attracted more to American authors (British crime fiction at the time was more cosy, set in picturesque villages or amongst the middle classes, things I couldn’t relate to). I seemed to end up reading a lot of James-es (Ellroy, Lee Burke, Sallis) – they didn’t have to be called James, but it seemed to help.

Traditionally, Edinburgh was viewed as the nice place, while Glasgow was the one beset with social problems. I didn’t grow up in Edinburgh and seldom visited it until I went to university, but I wanted to show something about the city beneath its pretty tourist facade. 30 years later, I’m still trying to discover and understand the complete city, it keeps on changing. Edinburgh is like the Tardis – much bigger on the inside.

As for the referendum, we Scots are cautious people, we weigh things up very carefully, so it was a struggle between heart and head. I tried to show that in my new novel as the difference of opinion between Rebus (who votes No) and Siobhan (who votes Yes). And the debate is continuing, it refuses to go away, a whole generation has now become politicised.

Well, if you’ve made it to the end of this loooong post, you deserve something pretty to help you prepare for the long Easter weekend (if you celebrate Easter): the German tradition of decorating Easter trees.










29 thoughts on “Crime Fiction and Politics”

  1. Oh, this is absolutely fascinating, Marina Sofia!! I really enjoyed reading the way different authors feel about the messages they send. And to me, what’s fascinating is that these great authors focus on characters and stories for the most part, not ‘Which political message should I send?’ Perhaps that’s what really makes a novel a good one: tell the story first, and make the characters real. The rest follows…

    1. Absolutely, Margot. Call me naive, but when I first read the Martin Beck series their left-wing politics went over my head. Or rather, I just thought of it as typical of Scandinavia of the time, even though I could feel the barbed wire of their social critique. I’m currently reading Attica Locke’s Pleasantville, which is all about American elections, so very political… and yet it’s a cracking story as well. It just adds an extra dimension, for those who want it.

  2. Excellent post, Marina Sofia (have put up a link from mine as I think they go together rather well). What I like from your report (and this comes across in Val’s article as well) is how engaged the Quais Polar writers and audiences are with politics and the role that crime fiction can play in critiquing political and social structures. This is sometimes lacking at crime conventions in the UK. When Dominique Manotti came to CrimeFest last year, she brought a totally different kind of discourse with her that was like a breath of fresh air!

    Now I must check out the writers on your list!!! Lots there who are new to me.

    1. Thank you, Mrs. P. I was at first inclined to agree with Val McDermid’s statement when she made it, but then I started finding counter-examples, so it’s more nuanced than that. In the end, though, I think crime fiction of any colour or description is of necessity more rooted in the social fabric, power structures, everyday fears and cultural taboos of each society – so will reflect it more than other types of fiction perhaps!

  3. Brilliant post, Marina! You write what I’m often vaguely thinking, but in my head it’s in a completely messy and incomprehensible way, as that’s how my brain works – I have great admiration – and, ok, hands up, envy! – for your articulacy. We’re fortunate, as bloggers, to have your input, as you have been on both sides of the Curtain, as it were – I’m not sure how old you were when it collapsed, but it means you can give us a fascinating view of both sides, and how the police are perceived in them, respectively. I like the bit between Rankin and McDermid, too (for obvious reasons!) – I read a lot of American James’s too – the same ones. I’m intrigued too by Rebus voting No; Siobhan voting Yes (haven’t read that book yet!) I thought it would obviously be the other way round! I’m glad, though, my no.1 hero detective voted with me (fictionally, of course!) This is SUCH a great post; I’m going home to read it again! Bravo!

    1. Oh, you flatter me! The latest Rebus book will be out in September, and I can hardly wait to read it myself. Interesting that Rankin said that Rebus is an old dinosaur and would struggle with any change to the status quo.

  4. What an interesting and thought-provoking post. Do you think that certain creative types are stereotyped or assumed liberal? I must admit I box certain authors, some more easily than others, in to preconceived political affiliations without even knowing. Some are more even. Sounds like a fascinating forum. Would you mind if I shared on my blog as a reblog straight from site with all of your credits intact?

    1. Please feel free to reblog, very flattered you want to do that. And yes, we do sometimes subconsciously box certain authors (certainly Manotti, Manchette, Izzo are easy to identify with left-wing 1968 French politics), while others manage to stay mysterious and aloof.

  5. Tremendous post, Marina! Many thanks for it. I think that this observation, which you attribute to Val McDermid, is as striking and perceptive as anything she says in her Guardian piece: “Isn’t it funny how we only mention politics in a novel if it is leftwing politics?”

  6. For those who couldn’t attend, this is a great post, and the quotes are priceless. You can see how each author’s culture impacts their writing.

    1. Thank you, glad you enjoyed it. My favourite quote is one I did not put in, as it did not fit with the topic. When the (very ebullient) Mexican author was told by the French moderator that he has the same delightfully digressive style on the panel as he has in his books, he replied: ‘Only a Frenchman could believe that the straight line is the best route between A and B!’

  7. These are very interesting thoughts and I am so glad you shared them. I thought the comment about how we have “exchanged one shade of brown for another” very apt. I think political themes make fiction more interesting, but sometimes I tend to just read for the mystery and ignore other themes … depends on the author and my mood.

    1. I agree – and that’s why the story and characterisation have to stay at the forefront. Political, social and other factors add another layer of interest, but we need entertainment, not a lecture!

  8. What a fantastic post, when I read Val McDermid’s post I was inclined (on a broad level) to agree but it is fascinating to look at the issue in more detail and from a wider viewpoint, of outside the UK too. I’m sure most of the political points, intended or otherwise, pass me by in contemporary crime fiction although I do tend to notice it more in older crime fiction and historical crime fiction… I need to pay more attention methinks and now the issue has been raised it will probably be something I think more about.

    1. As long as it doesn’t come at the expense of the story, I’m all for it. I must be naturally more political, like Attica or Val said they were, so it adds a bit of interest for me. Doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy some domestic noir too – or would that be gender politics?

  9. Thanks for posting this, Marina. It’s very interesting to read the authors’ quotes as they give a real feel for some of the social issues and challenges in writing crime fiction in each country. I was particularly struck by the comments from Lins, Taibo and Padura…

    1. Hmm, wonder why… could it be that you like reading literature in translation, perhaps? 😉
      There is no tradition of crime fiction in many Latin American countries – when reality overtakes fiction and the police shoots so many people (mostly blacks and young people, according to these authors), no wonder you don’t want to read about crime… Something similar was happening in South Africa, but that has changed now. Not sure why or how.

  10. Great post! I can’t help but agree with Val McDermid that I’ve never fully understood why authors get asked about political questions – unless of course they are specifically writing about politics. And interesting to see both the Scottish authors talking about how dominant the independence question was, and still is. I liked the irony in the Cuban author’s contribution that it will be easier for crime writers when the country gets richer – not an angle I’ve ever considered before when thinking about poverty!

    1. Val then proceeded to answer her own question by saying ‘Perhaps they think we’re relatively well-known and articulate… although not particularly so before I’ve had my second cup of coffee in the morning…’

  11. Reblogged this on Worth Getting in Bed For and commented:
    Here’s an excellent post I had to share from Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write about an article written by Val McDermid. This generated great discussion worth looking at. Finding Time to Write is a favorite blog of mine and I encourage you to check it out for thoughtful coverage and reviews. Meanwhile, enjoy and please share you thoughts.

  12. I always enjoy your blog posts Marina, and this one is a special treat for me at holiday time with two of my fave writers, McDermid and Rankin – thanks – and have a great hol 🙂 x

  13. Very interesting thoughts.

    I never really thought about that but in a sense, the genre allows you a great cover. You can write a gripping story and make a statement about the state of the nation. So you attract readers for the plot and take advantage of their rapt attention to bring up other issues.

    1. Exactly: some of the best crime fiction I know (whether it’s police procedural, thriller, psychological or whatever, I don’t distinguish all that much) also raises awareness of wider societal issues. It just doesn’t force it down your throat like a political pamphlet…

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