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.
From the Panel: The Americas
Michael 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.
Emily 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.
Paulo 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.
Paco 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…
Leonardo 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
Attica 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.
Yasmina 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.
Michel 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.
Tom 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
Val 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?
Ian 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.