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Scene of the Crime

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I’m Jonathan Baker, a journalist and crime writer in Canyon, Texas, and I’m here to talk to you about our Radio Readers Book Club topic, on crime and suspense books. 

We’ve got a busy spring for all you mystery lovers out there on the High Plains. Over the next three months, we’ll be discussing an overflowing cornucopia of dark deeds and dastardly villains, with regular radio essays—which we call “Bookbytes”—being read by nine different discussion leaders.

Our leaders will be talking about all manner of crime books, from the coziest mysteries to the most harrowing suspense novels and the most labyrinthine spy novels—and we’re even going to throw in some true crime for good measure.

I think, before we get started, it would be best to define crime fiction. This is actually a trickier matter than it seems. Wikipedia defines crime fiction as “a literary genre that fictionalizes crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives.” What strikes me here are those two words at the beginning. A “literary genre.”

When I worked in the world of New York publishing, this term might have been seen as something of an oxymoron. That’s because “literary” and “genre” are often seen as opposed ideas. In publishing, a “genre” novel is a book that falls squarely into a category, like mystery or science fiction or romance. “Literary” fiction, by contrast, is work that’s about ideas. I’ve often heard it said differently, that genre fiction is “plot-driven” and literary fiction is “character-driven.” I myself have often thought of the distinction this way: a genre novel is interested in telling a story. A literary novel, on the other hand, is more interested in asking a question.

Seems easy enough, right? And as crime novels are generally about the solving of crimes, and often involve murder and gunplay and lots of plotty goodness, we can safely define crime a crime novel as a type of genre novel, right? Not so fast.

One of my favorite crime novels, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, asks all kinds of big questions about identity. And there is no mystery to be solved, in fact, we follow the murderer along his bleak path as he kills one person after another, trying to cover his tracks. We even find ourselves rooting for Ripley, in some strange way. This is a character-driven narrative through and through, and certainly one about ideas. Yet, no one would argue that Highsmith’s masterpiece is not a crime novel.

Likewise, The Great Gatsby, Crime and Punishment, and Lolita are all about criminals and crimes. These, in my book, are crime novels. And they are literary novels. So, I think it’s safe to dispense with the genre vs. literary debate, and simply define a crime novel as any fictional work that deals with criminals, no matter how supposedly “literary” the book is.

Now then, let’s define the difference between a mystery novel and a suspense novel. This distinction is, I think, a bit more easily handled. A mystery novel is, as its name would indicate, any book where the reader (and the protagonist) is unaware of who committed a crime, and the narrative follows the hero as he or she solves that crime. In a suspense novel, by contrast, the reader knows who the criminal is from the beginning (though the detective character may not). The narrative tension in a suspense novel is therefore generally derived from the reader waiting to see if the criminal will get away with his or her crime.

The Silence of the Lambs is a suspense novel. We essentially know who the serial killer Buffalo Bill is from the beginning, and we watch him commit his crimes. We follow Clarice Starling’s attempts to find the killer, rooting for her all the way. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a mystery. We have no idea who committed the murder on the train, and we follow Detective Hercules Poirot as he tries to solve the crime.

We’re looking forward to you reading along with us this spring!