It’s time to give crime fiction its due exposure

We’re about to start a journey through the world of crime fiction, a monthly review of novels from around the globe that are genuine works of literature and routinely overlooked as unworthy by serious fiction readers.

With the artistry and explosive popularity of Stieg Larssen’s recent trilogy beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, crime fiction has almost overnight lost the smirch once applied to mysteries by snobbish readers, and opened the door to writers and stories of great literary merit and narrative excitement. During the next year I’ll uncover the best of the crime novels with reviews of books that are beacons in the specialized genre of crime fiction, books that will light up any reader, books that I hope will dispel the prejudice against perhaps the oldest form of storytelling.

First, some guidelines that should mollify the haughty readers of “real” literature. All fiction is mystery; if it weren’t, it would be nonfiction. Fiction by its very nature is a narrative culminating in resolution through twists and turns, innuendo, surprises, suspicions and intimation. Unfortunately, the word “mystery” conjures fairy tales, fantasy, thrillers and science fiction. It shouldn’t, and you should be disabused of making that association. Differentiating literary mysteries from fantasy and special effects will be the rule; none of the books reviewed will require a moment’s suspension of disbelief. Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum and other talented thriller writers are fun to read but merit no claim to literature. Swashbucklers and fanciful adventure stories will also not make the cut. Good crime mysteries are smart, highly crafted, believable and, as in all fiction, psychologically suspenseful.

Character development and sense of place predominate artful mysteries, with some wrongdoing thrown in to set the spring of tension. Literary crime mysteries don’t primarily depend on the who-done-it to engage and enthrall the reader; patterns of behavior are buried deep in the psychologies of personalities and the thoughts and actions of characters. Indeed, when a literary crime mystery reaches its denouement, the reader is so involved in the perversity of its characters both good and bad that a cold shower is called for, just to awaken from a total immersion into the lives of normal people doing predictably abnormal things (think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

An inordinate number of literary crime novelists are Europeans, from Scandinavia, Great Britain and Spain, including the Basque region. Crime mysteries are always on the best-seller lists in Europe, and now, more than ever, achieving that status in the U.S. In fact, on the fiction shelves at Durango Public Library, mysteries comprise 29 percent, librarian Andy White said.

So take this journey with me; I promise that your reading world’s horizons will be expanded. I’ll write the fourth Tuesday of every month. For the initiates, I’ve chosen a debut novel by New Yorker Chris Pavone called The Expats. It is every bit a crime mystery, but without the murders and psychopathic personalities that might disconcert initiates. The faithful crime-fiction reader will be happy to know that we’ll get to the macabre stories after everyone is comfortable practicing in the shallow end of the pool.

Jeff Mannix is a Durango freelance writer who loves a good who-done-it. Reach him at jeff@jeffmannix.com.

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