On realism in crime fiction

I was very interested in this stimulating piece by Christopher Fowler in the Independent because it touches on questions that I have grappled with in my own approach to writing crime fiction. This, in particular, struck me:

“…publishers are keen to convince us that their latest murder mysteries are grittily realistic. They are not, but, more to the point, they never were and never will be.”

The writer Steve Mosby added a thoughtful contribution to the discussion with a piece on his own blog. He makes this very good point:

“An average reader’s conception of what an autopsy scene in a work of fiction should look like is not dictated by real world knowledge of what they do look like, but by an ever-enlarging sample of how they have encountered them before in other works of fiction. That is not being realistic. That is an arms race built around suspension of disbelief.”

I think it’s fairly clear that realism in literature (of any kind) is itself an artificial construct. It’s a mode of expression that happens to be in fashion at the moment, in crime fiction certainly. But it hasn’t always been. And maybe it won’t always be.

If I’m right in my reading of Fowler’s piece, he seems to be arguing that if you mean to be realistic, then be realistic. Don’t indulge in a kind of faux-realism that is, when you look closely at it, more ludicrous than anything dreamt up by a proponent of Golden Age detective fiction. Often it’s nothing more than an accumulation of “gritty” cliches that has very little to do with the tedium of real policing. But he also seems to be saying that that isn’t the only mode of expression open to you. He holds up “Golden Age mysteries frequently featured absurd, surreal crimes investigated by wonderfully eccentric sleuths” as another possible model.

Perhaps these supposedly realistic crime novels, and TV dramas, that turn out to be anything but realistic are actually works of surrealism manque, as the French might have it. (I suspect there should be an accute accent there, but wordpress won’t let me do it.) But it does seem unfair that ersatz realism should be used as a stick to beat those writers who are writing in a different, perhaps more playful mode.

I have to say, as someone who has consciously decided to plough that furrow – to create an absurd rather than a gritty fiction, one that’s deliberately surreal rather than speciously realistic – I find Mr Fowler’s piece enormously refreshing. The elephant in the room has finally been mentioned, and it’s wearing a brightly coloured waistcoat.

By a quirk of coincidence, of the type favoured by “unrealistic” writers, it just so happens that I have written a piece that touches on this very subject, which you can find over on The Rap Sheet. I should say it is not intended to be a response to either Christopher Fowler or Steve Mosby, as I had no knowledge of their articles when I wrote it. It is meant purely as an explanation of my own approach.


1 thought on “On realism in crime fiction”

  1. Didn’t some long-hair in flowery dress once write, “The play’s the thing?”
    I’d say that’s the starting point.
    Any artist, the writer in this case, attempts to create a complete, functioning universe, a way of things, its own laws of nature. Whatever the approach to violence, it’s gotta play, doesn’t it?

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