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

HistoryPanel
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.

Ostern
From ffh.de

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Margot Kinberg?

Good morning, everyone, and hope all of you had a good Easter (if you were celebrating) and at least enjoyed a bit of a longer weekend even if you were not! I am delighted to be back with a new feature. As we were discussing Flavia de Luce last week at the web-based Crime Book Club, the brainchild of the delightful and energetic Rebecca Bradley, it suddenly occurred to me: ¬†I would like to find out more about my fellow crime fiction lovers, what got them interested in this genre and what other books they like to read in their ‘spare’ time. So every fortnight or so I will interview one of my online friends and bloggers about their reading preferences.

Margot Kinberg by www.studiocarre.com
Margot Kinberg by http://www.studiocarre.com

I am starting today with someone whom many mystery fans will know, for she is a walking encyclopaedia of crime fiction lore, a mystery author in her own right, an indefatigable blogger¬†and one of the nicest, most supportive people I’ve met online. I give you the one and only:¬†Margot Kinberg.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

It all started innocently enough. Some Sherlock Holmes stories in elementary school (I blame my Language Arts teacher), and a few Nancy Drews. What harm could that do? But then I started reading some other mystery series and I was in trouble. The turning point came when I received some Agatha Christie novels as a gift. After that, there was no hope for me. I don’t think there’s a recovery program for crime fiction addicts… ūüėČ

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I’m actually pretty eclectic. To tell you the truth, it’s probably easier to ask which ones I¬†don’t¬†prefer. I really don’t like reading truly brutal serial-killer novels. There are a few I’ve read that are good, but in general, something really gory ¬†is likely to put me off. The same is true at the other end of the spectrum. I don’t care much for ‘happy, frothy’ kinds of cosy mysteries, particularly if there’s too much emphasis on a romance and not much on the mystery plot. Other than that, I’m usually willing to try a wide variety of crime fiction.¬†

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

That would be Paddy Richardson’s¬†Swimming in the Dark. I’m still reflecting on it even a week after I finished reading it. She is one of my favourite authors, and her work always has a profound effect. This one is no different. It’s a novel of psychological suspense as much as it is a crime novel, and explores several other aspects of human life too. Highly recommended.
If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?
¬†Oh, that is such a difficult question! There is far, far too much crime fiction that I would hate to part with. If forced to, though, I would probably choose Agatha Christie. Her work has inspired me, and she wrote such a diversity of different kinds of stories. But I would have to insist on the entire collection of all of her work, including her novels as Mary Westmacott. And unless I was caught, I’d probably sneak some other books along too, wherever I could hide them.
What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
Coming up soon is Geoffrey McGeachin’s¬†St. Kilda Blues, the third in his Charlie Berlin series. I’m very much looking forward to reading that. I’m also looking forward to reading Ann Cleeves’ new Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez novels. Oh, and there’s Mari Strachan’s second novel¬†Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers. That’s also on my must-read list. So is Michael Connelly’s¬†The Gods of Guilt¬†(I’m a Connelly fan). There are a lot of others, too, but that’s a partial list anyway.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
I like historical fiction, and in that genre, I always recommend Edward Rutherfurd. James Michener too, for those who haven’t read his work. Kate Grenville’s historical fiction is also terrific. As far as non-fiction goes, I’m a fan of the work of Jonathan Kozol, who for the past forty years has written some brilliant work about education and literacy in the US, and the impact that social class and race have on a child’s chance at educational equity. It’s hard-hitting and eye-opening. I could keep going on, but that’s at least a tiny smattering of what I read outside crime fiction.
Thank you, Margot, for taking part. Quite a few surprising answers there, even though I thought I knew your reading preferences quite well. Hope you all enjoyed this as much as I did! And let me know if you would like to take part in this. I’m a real old Nosey Parker when it comes to finding out what people like to read.