Why isn’t every novel that hinges on a crime or criminality considered a crime novel? When books come along and we throw them into their chosen pigeonhole, it feels like our aim is often a little off. Here are five famous books that could, with just a little argument, be considered crime novels.
The Literary Novel: Up at the Villa by William Somerset Maugham
A story about passionate affairs that becomes a short novel about dumping a body without being caught. When the overwrought waiter she took pity on shoots himself in her bedroom, Mary turns to good, old-fashioned cad-about-town Rowley Flint to help her get rid of the evidence.
They laid him on the floor and Rowley wrapped the towel around the dead man’s middle in case the jolting caused a flow of blood. He jammed the soft hat on his head.
Switch it around and present the story from the point of view of someone looking for the dead man, or trying to work out where the gunshot had come from, and you have an unabashed detective novel. Present it from Mary’s view, throw in some posh angst, and you get to dress it up as a literary novel.
The Spy Novel: The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming
According to Wikipedia (so it must be true) the reaction to this book was so disappointing that Fleming tried to suppress elements of it. Perhaps the disappointment is that it’s really a crime novel, shorn of many of the usual Bond tropes. It’s the least Bond-y Bond, and no worse for the experiment.
I heard a single bullet crash into the metal frame of the door, and then, with my hand cushioning the ice-pick so it didn’t stick into me, I was running hell for leather across the wet grass.
Calling it a Bond novel when he only turns up on page 100 of 164 is rather… bold. It’s really a Vivienne Michel novel, the young Canadian woman working as a caretaker at an American motel out of season when two murderous gangsters turn up. It’s a gangland crime novel that a sociopathic Englishman happens to wander into the middle of. It was published in 1962, and in 1966 Richard Stark published The Handle, a Parker novel that had a faint whiff of Bond’s world about it. The moral of the story, I suppose, is that great writers influence other great writers, even if accidentally.
The Classic: The Trial by Franz Kafka
A lot of crime novels are not about crime, but about justice. In many it’s the successful pursuit of a definitely guilty party, but there are some where we see things flipped around, and the innocent become the hunted.
All I want is a public discussion of a public outrage. Listen: I was arrested about ten days ago. I can laugh about the fact of the arrest itself, but that’s not the point.
A novel about a crime not committed is still a novel about a crime. The consequences of what did, or did not, happen lies at the heart of much crime fiction, and poor Josef K wasn’t laughing about his arrest when they (spoiler alert) stuck a knife in his heart.
The Classical: Medea by Euripedes
Looking for references to the earliest crime fiction tends to lead to the early- to mid-nineteenth century and names like Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins. Terrific writers of crime fiction, no doubt, but arguably two and a bit thousand years late to the party.
…she and all who touch the girl will die in agony; such poison will I lay upon the gifts I send. …I weep to think of what a deed I have to do next after that; for I shall kill my own children.
Take away the mythological flourishes and the heart of the story is a wife and mother, Medea, abandoned by her husband, Jason of “Golden Fleece” fame, for another woman. Medea extracts hideous revenge by poisoning Jason’s new wife and murdering two of her own children. The evil wrought by revenge, criminal acts in a family setting. This is slightly cheating in that it’s a play and not a novel, but as there were no novels in 431 B.C.m we’re categorising it as crime fiction and putting on the list.
The Fantasy Novel: The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
There’s a clue, I guess, in the title of this, the third of the Gentleman Bastards series. Protagonist Locke is hired to help rig elections, while in flashback we see the start of his career as a thief among a youthful gang pretending to be actors.
It wasn’t any sort of row that Locke recognised. Fisticuffs, theft, murder, domestic quarrel—all of those things had familiar rhythms and notes, sounds he could have identified in a second.
A lot of fantasy follows themes of murder, betrayal, revenge, and other staples of crime fiction. Sure, there are a hell of a lot more swords, magic, and funny-looking kingdoms to draw the eye, but there’s more than enough crime and criminality to fall onto our list.
Malcolm Mackay is the author of The Night the Rich Men Burned, which is definitely a crime novel, and the Glasgow Trilogy, which has been nominated for several international prizes. The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter was shortlisted for the Edgar Awards’ Best Paperback Original, the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, and the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. How a Gunman Says Goodbye won the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award. Mackay was born in Stornoway on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis, where he still lives.