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Open Letter To Those Who Still Claim That Mystery Fiction Is Not Literature




   How many novels, that is how many fiction stories inhabited by fictitious characters that go trough fictitious experiences and made you suffer and rejoice because of fictitious events, have you read in your life? One hundred? One thousand? Ten thousand? Okay. If you exclude mystery novels, would you be prepared to say that they are all “literature”?

That unconvincing story, ineptly situated in 19th century London, was that literature? That fake travel diary that seemed to have been written by a sloppy, pimply adolescent, was that literature? And that soft-porno novelette? And that intimistic drivel? And that adventure story without a had or a tail? And that utterly boring family saga? And that sentimental torment? And that book with the green cover that you recently turned round in your hand for quite some time unable to remember whether you have read it or not?

   You certainly would not say you were dealing with “literature” in these cases. Neither it would occur to you to say that you were dealing with “second-division literature”. You would say that they were badly-written books, rubbish, trash, wasted ink, trees needlessly cut down etc, etc.

   You would judge them, one by one, on their merits.

Then why lump together a hole world of books that are called detective stories, mystery novels, crime novels, roman noir, thrillers or whatever you like, and classify them, for that very reason, as a second-division literature? And subsequently, when decades later a publisher who is more discerning or more astute than others publish Simenon or Scerbanenco

   in a “serious” series at a price ten times higher than that of the paperback, you have to admit reluctantly that in that rare, that very rare case, you are dealing with a “true” author.

   Are those authors that take your breath away from the first page to the last “fake”?

   No, they are not “fake” – you will admit, yielding a little – what’s that got to do with it? However, it is very unlikely that what they write is “literature”. For the most part they are stories for entertainment. To pass the time, to relax, to dream, to feel emotions, to imagine being in other places, in other ages. Stuff you read during the holiday, or in the train, or when you have nothing else to do, or even in the toilet.

   Good. Very good. I totally agree with you. Because you finally have admitted that mystery novels are exactly like other novels. And that, like other novels, they will add to the appalling mass of printed paper that has been produced from Gutenberg’s days till now. And that among them, just as among other novels, only sporadically a brilliant work will stand out which can be called “real literature”.

   With the extenuating circumstance that mystery literature is a drop in the ocean of all that has been written in the world, if for no other reason than that it is definitely a very young genre, having originated only one hundred and sixty years ago. Not having gone trough the skimming process of many centuries it is only logical that it should have yielded fewer masterpieces. You have to give it time.

   Have you ever wondered how many intimistic novels had been written before “A la recherche du temps perdu” made all of them suddenly sink into oblivion? Or how many anxieties had been badly committed to paper before Kafka captured them forever? And how many serials has served as wrapping paper for potatoes before Dumas turned out masterworks at a few cents a page? How many plays were drowned in yawns in order of those by Shakespeare should reach us? How many stories of war and conquest had been dictated to scribes before Julius Caesar wrote his “De bello gallico”? And how many times poetry was only used because “heart” rhymed with “part” before Dante wrote his “Divina commedia”?

   Well then. Will you therefore not allow us, authors of crime fiction, to write piles of bad, mediocre or utterly run-of-the-mill novels, exactly the way all other authors do, without your prejudice blocking our access to great literature?

   However, it must be admitted that is not all your fault if you harbour prejudice because from the outset and for a long time after that practically the only goal of our narrative genre was to develop a plot by manipulating characters that were little more than caricatures, at best supplied with a tic, with a clear physical characteristic, or simply with a cigarette always dangling from the corner of his mouth. In those novels the train of events sufficed to capture the readers, without being disturbed by elegant descriptions or psychological investigations, and to carry him to the happy, and almost always comforting, dénouement. The bad were punished, the good triumphed, and they all put out the light and fell asleep, happy and satisfied.

   Maybe such novels are still being written in the world. And certainly a vastly successful new type of novels is written, in which the author cleverly mixes number of notions that belong to high culture with more or less original plot and a very predictable, cheap love story. The result is a thousand pages that charm the reader with the worst of mystery fiction giving him at the same time the illusion that he may not be a man of culture, but that he can at least get close to it.

   Of course all this has nothing to do with literature. But those who read mystery fiction have certainly become aware that this genre has undergone a great may transformations, it has changed, is has matured and branched out in several directions, some of them irritating, some of them very interesting, and some definitely demanding, also from literary point of view.

   Confess that you have at least once had the experience of remaining silent for a few minutes after having finished a mystery novel, the book still in your hands, in order to completely absorb the emotions you have felt, to understand in detail which chords have been touched, which inner part of you affected, which truth laid bare, which answer given, which question asked.

   Than that novel certainly belonged to the exclusive world of great literature.

   Because even if every one of us has a different sensitivity, and even if something by which one person is moved may not touch someone else, in the least, when we come in contact with greatness we are always perfectly aware of it.

   What happened? The narration and the story have changed into something universal, that is what happened. We are not anymore dealing with a more or less imaginary representation of reality, but with art. We are not anymore talking about narrative but about literature.

   And yet, how strange, it was only a mystery novel.



Contribution to:

Crime Writers Seminar


Amsterdam 2004