Saturday, 26 January 2008

Questions of Identity

Questions of identity – and not just ‘whodunit?’ - lie at the heart of many of the finest crime stories ever written. Ten years ago I wrote an article about impersonation which was included in the Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing. Now Cambridge Scholars Publishing have produced a book of erudite essays called Questions of Identity in Detective Fiction, edited by Linda Martz and Anita Higgie. My copy has just arrived.

A quick glance suggests that the book contains a good deal that is of interest. Gillian Linscott, a very capable writer, is the subject of a study of her ‘suffragette fictions’ featuring the feisty Nell Bray. One chapter addresses Christie’s work for the stage, another tackles Tony Hillerman, yet another (by Suzanne Bray) examines ‘a new generation of Anglican writers’ – the books of Kate Charles, D.M.Greenwood and Phil Rickman are among those considered.

Sharon Wheeler asserts, provocatively but intriguingly, that ‘in the 1980s crime fiction was a tired and stale-looking genre.’ She argues that it was rescued by feminists, some of whom were lesbian writers, notably Val McDermid, who is now widely acknowledged as one of the leading crime novelists in the UK, and indeed the world, and (a novelist I feel deserves to be better known) Katherine V. Forrest. Her main subject is the work of someone I've never read, the American gay writer John Morgan Wilson, and she says of the books: ‘the plotting is of a high standard, but Wilson’s focus is on his central character and how a man who has lost everything can survive.’

Opinions vary about the merits of taking an academic approach to the genre. It can be over-done and in the past I've read some essays which gave the impression that the authors had neither read widely in the genre nor enjoyed what little they had read. But there are some academics whose work is thought-provoking and worthwhile even for those who read crime simply for entertainment. And one benefit of works of crime reference which is, to my mind, indisputable, is that they draw attention to writers who might otherwise go more or less unnoticed. I’m looking forward to finding out which hidden gems the various contributors to this volume recommend.


Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Speaking as the managing editor of the only US scholarly (and peer-reviewed) journal on mystery/detective fiction (as well as a fellow contributor to the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing), I think you miss some important points re academic work on mysteries. Mysteries are still regarded as "fluffy" literature (evidenced in the frequent question to mystery writers as to when they intend to write a "real" book), and journals such as the one I work on convey legitimacy and the unmistakable message that authors can be doing more than providing vehicles for entertainment. These periodicals often are among the few sources of reliable information on the mystery genre. Many of the nonfiction works on the mystery started life as journal articles or academic conference papers. They also showcase the global nature of mystery work, such as our articles by an Australian professor on French noir and by a Swedish graduate student on Minette Walters.

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting observations, Elizabeth. It is true that some people still look down on mysteries. Only this week 'The Times' reported a case where an author was compensated 'after she claimed to have been so intoxicated by fumes from a nearby shoe factory that she was reduced to writing thrillers'!!