Murder Most … (Appealing engrossing enthralling beguiling alluring enticing mesmerizing—or is that…foul?)?
The Personal: Today is the first day of the part of the rest of my life that will be devoted to murder mysteries, days which will include: on-line research, reading, blogging…maybe even trying to write some little “starter” murder stories myself. I will be using the terms crime fiction and murder mysteries almost interchangeably.
In an earlier post I talked about the early days of my crime fiction addiction from Nancy Drew well into le Carré. Why so many of us throughout the world become enamored of this bloody genre is another question. One to which I am sure I’ll find various answers around the web. In the meantime, my research will not have that much depth and scholarship.
Just googling “crime fiction” and then reviewing the first couple of pages is an adventure in itself. Some examples: Detectives Beyond Borders/Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home; International Noir Fiction; The Independent (UK newspaper) Crime Fiction: Around the world in 80 sleuths; Scandinavian Crime Fiction; Crime fiction from southern Africa: Women Writers; Contemporary American Crime Fiction (from crimeculture.com); New York Magazine feature/scandinavian-crime-fiction-guide-2011-5; barbarafister.com Scandinavian Crime Fiction; MYSTERIES in PARADISE; Crime Fiction Lover; an Afrikanner African Studies page “Investigating African Crime Fiction” and a number of Henning Mankell/Inspector Wallander websites.
Where to begin then? My personal fascinations with this whole genre focus firstly on the sense of place and secondly the sensation of realism that all the best crime fiction offers. It’s often as atmospheric as travel literature. Yes, that in itself earns my love. Then add a big dose of political/social commentary, a surly, almost-failed male or female cop/detective/spy, a grisly unsolved murder or two and a good deal of excitement and suspense involved in the solving. What is not to love?
The Beginning: An appropriate first entry in what will be an ongoing commentary and review of crime fiction might be a quick look at the first of the several articles I just read. It did seem like Crime fiction: Around the world in 80 sleuths, an article in The Independent, a UK newspaper, printed in 2008, would be the perfect starter. However it turns out to be a bit slim in covering the contemporary scene even five years ago and it committed a major faux pas in my opinion—no mention of Southern Africa except for Alexander Mccall Smith’s sweet but silly Lady’s Detective Agency novels which the article refers to as “cozy crime.” Some of the best crime fiction of all is coming from that part of the world, Deon Meyer being as good as it gets in meeting all of my six criteria and more. There are a number of others but in fairness several of them may have been just starting out when this article was written. Still, not mentioning Deon Meyer is a crime all on its own.
The writer Jonathan Gibbs does mention several of my favorites in the UK: Ian Rankin and Denise Mina from Scotland; Colin Dexter from Oxford—have I actually read his books or only seen the PBS series?) and my new favorite Brit mystery writer, Peter James from Brighton, whose Roy Grace series is packed with my six musts. The UK is definitely in third place for good crime fiction, Scandinavia being first and Southern Africa second.
The article spends a lot of time around Europe which in general hasn’t proven to be rewardingly murderous. Obviously I must explore further, but so far Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen novels leave me unafraid and the few others I’ve sampled over the years were less than memorable. Historical crime may be more in fashion in Europe than elsewhere, also a sub-genre I’ve never found interesting—not sure why since I read almost as much history as mystery.
There are two other mentions of which I highly approve: Omar Yussef whose two books are set in Gaza and West Bank and Colin Cotterill’s series which takes place in 1970s Laos. The latter is a little too cute in the same way as McCall’s Botswana and they are historical—still, they’re definitely atmospheric with a great anti-hero hero.
Since American murder mysteries are generally not my cup of tea, and Scandinavian and Southern African crime fiction will be discussed over many posts, this is a good place to end. Gibb’s article did make a number of references that whetted my appetite for more and more ‘murder most foul’ and that will lead to further research and reading, and further comments.
For now I offer the most horrific description of being a witness to murder one can imagine in one’s darkest moments.
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love–
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
(Act 1, Scene 5/Hamlet [from the Literature Network])