Crime fiction not an escapist genre

There’s a move afoot locally to hustle crime fiction into the thriller category. Evangelisers of this new gospel say crime is too stark a reminder of contemporary South Africa realities.

But so it should be. What’s the point of a wholly escapist genre, divorced from the fabric of social, economic and political realities and drawing conveniently on only “nice” things such as locale, cuisine, culture and viniculture?

Besides which, thriller is something more readily associated with Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth, although the latter features under the “spy fiction” entry in The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Alongside Forsyth is John le Carré, whose latest, A Most Wanted Man (Harvill Secker), is a devastating critique of the state of post-Cold War espionage, and of its devalued ethics. Yes, there was honour among spies, but as Le Carré shows, it disappeared since the United States arrogated to itself supralegal powers of arrest and detention.

Another old master, PD James, loses not a trick in her latest, The Private Patient (Faber and Faber). As ever, this is billed as “An Adam Dalgleish Mystery”: note the deliberate and accurate removal from the realm of the run-of-the-mill (detective fiction) and the extravagant (thriller). That notwithstanding, James provides her hallmark blend, examining the mysteries of the human heart and mind in her trademark remote setting (akin always to a locked-room murder) with real terror rather than mere thrills.

Place is integral to James — whether an isolated island (The Lighthouse), or headland (Death in Holy Orders), or self-contained worlds in the midst of urban sprawl (Original Sin and The Murder Room). Place and time are crucial also to RN Morris, who brings Dostoevsky’s investigating magistrate Porfiry Petrovich brilliantly to life in A Vengeful Longing (Faber), the second in the self-styled “A St Petersburg Mystery” series. Paying due acknowledgement to Dostoevsky this time round, Morris’s filigree recreation plunges us into 19th-century St Petersburg and a rash of poisonings and deeply hidden motivations.

Iceland’s unfortunate irruption into the global credit crunch had me reading Arctic Chill (Harvill Secker), the new Arnaldur Indridason police procedural, with even greater interest. Reykjavik’s fictional finest, Inspector Erlendur, uncovers anti-immigrant tensions in the Icelandic capital while tracking down the killers of a young Thai boy.

It is impossible to pigeonhole So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger (Quercus). It is about detection and discovery. It has mystery and a remorselessly pursuing Pinkerton agent. It is all of those and so much more; elegy to the Western, cowboy caper, rite of passage, romance, and wry meditation on writing. Enger’s book is brave, vital and handsome and demands to be read.

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