Thursday, March 23, 2006

Is Crime Fiction Inherently Reactionary?

In the course of some musings about genre fiction over at The Sharp Side, Ellis had this to say about crime fiction:

But there’s a problem with crime fiction, which is that the form is inherently reactionary. Crime fiction is about a disturbance to the established order. The hero or heroine restores the existing state of things. Crime fiction celebrates the restoration. Crime fiction celebrates stasis. It projects comforting fantasies of justice in the world. Hence the ubiquity of crime drama on television.

I certainly find much television crime drama to be reactionary. I often find myself gnashing my teeth over shows like Law & Order where the accused always seems to be presumed guilty and that presumption of guilt is used to justify police brutality and all manner of unethical conduct on the part of other players in the justice system.

But what of crime fiction? There’s no question that some crime fiction is reactionary, but is it fair to say that the form is inherently reactionary? I agree with Ellis about the projection of “comforting fantasies of justice in the world.” In almost all crime fiction the villain is unmasked and punished in the end. I sometimes opt to read it for this very reason. Occasionally someone takes me to task for describing as “comfort reads” books in which multiple murders occur, and I explain that what’s comforting about them is that everything comes out right in the end.

But coming out right in the end is not necessarily equivalent to “restor[ing] the existing state of things.” In an unjust world, coming out right in the end might mean a drastic change from the existing state of things. I think that there are lots of ways in which crime fiction can be subversive rather than reactionary. Let me offer up just one example.

Incompetence and corruption on the part of societal authorities is a mainstay of crime fiction. Thus, even if the goal is to set things right, those authorities are rarely trusted to do the job. In contrast to the standard Law & Order scenario that I describe above, the police are frequently depicted pursuing and arresting the wrong person; in fact, they often point a finger at the hero or heroine at some point in the investigation. It’s up to this renegade figure to make sure that the authorities get it right. In a cozy, that figure is likely to be a bumbling amateur sleuth, in a P.I. novel, a lone wolf private investigator. Even in a police procedural, the police officer at the centre of the tale is usually something of a maverick, at odds with the higher-ups and willing to break rules when necessary.

This strong anti-authoritarian streak doesn’t sit well with blanket assertions about the reactionary character of crime fiction. The genre is much more complex and interesting, much more versatile than that.


Dorothy W. said...

I agree! Actually, I don't read much crime fiction (although maybe I should!), but I agree with your larger point that one shouldn't pigeon-hole an entire genre as "reactionary" or "subversive" or whatever. That's way too simplistic. People have made similar arguments about poetry -- that if you write in traditional verse, you are necessarily advocating the status quo and that if you write without a set form, you are subversive. This makes no sense to me.

Julie said...

Nice post, Kate. I'm not a big fan of the genre usually, but you've given me quite a hankering.

dj sciz said...

This reminds me of various intense discussions I've been a part of about the superhero genre (some of which I've started). Usually, when it comes to superheroes, the candidates for "subversive" literature are proposed as those which subvert the genre, not those which assume a subversive stance towards the actual world. The meat-and-potatoes of superhero stories is violence, no matter who the prepetrator, the reason or cause, and the legitimation.