Social inequality and sense of place in crime fiction

Ian Rankin fans will enjoy reading his conversation with the Indian communist leader Prakash Karat, who has read all his 17 Inspector Rebus novels and did his Master’s in politics at the University of Edinburgh, in Rankin’s hometown.

Rankin talks about his working-class parents, his being the first from his family to go to university — he read English at the University of Edinburgh — and his early struggles as a writer. Knots and Crosses, his first Rebus novel published in 1987, wasn’t a hit with the critics and readers. Instead, piquantly, he became a crime suspect as the plot resembled a murder case, he says!

Success came only 10 years later with Black and Blue, his eighth Rebus book.

Now, says the Hindu, “Ian Rankin is the best-selling writer of crime fiction in the United Kingdom, accounting for 10 per cent of all its crime book sales.”

The Indian newspaper published his conversation with Karat during his visit to India last month under the headline, “Crime fiction is about social inequality”. You can read it here and here.

The headline is a direct quote from Rankin.

Discussing politics and crime fiction with the Indian communist leader, he says:

I think crime fiction is almost like a product of capitalism. It’s about social inequality. Why do people do bad things to each other? Much of the time, it’s economic. It’s to do with basic human nature — greed, a sense of injustice, other people having things that you want, a sense of grievance that something’s happened at work. That’s what I like about crime fiction specifically. It tells us that the civilised world is just a veneer, a very thin veneer.

Political corruption and social inequality are certainly part and parcel of Rankin’s novels. He writes about the gangs, unscrupulous businessmen, bent policemen and politicians, and the lot of the working class.

Karat tells Rankin: “You and Henning Mankell in Sweden and Michael Connelly in the United States have been at the forefront of this new breed of crime fiction writers over the last two decades. Is crime fiction being taken more seriously?”

Rankin replies:

It is being taken more seriously than it was previously. But it is still the case in some cultures, and the U.K. is one of them, there is still a certain literary snobbery. A lot of people won’t read crime fiction, because they think it means Miss Marple…it means obscure poisons used to kill the cardinal in the billiard room. I’m afraid crime fiction has moved a long way from there now. What I like about crime fiction is the sense of place. You are right to mention Michael Connelly and Henning Mankell. If I want to find out about contemporary Sweden or contemporary Los Angeles, I will go to these writers. Not to the literary writers, but the crime writers.

The situation has changed in perceptions about crime fiction, because crime writers are writing better and better books that deal with serious issues and big moral questions… You can now study my novels in high school in Scotland. There are various literary courses at the universities in the U.K and beyond where you can study crime fiction… There is a Professor of English at the St. Andrews University who has written a book about my books. Thirty years ago, when I went as a young man to the University of St. Andrews, in my final year at high school, to ask them what modern literature would I study here as a student, the answer — straight-faced, no irony — was John Milton. Paradise Lost! That was modern. Now you can study the novels of Ian Rankin. So there have been changes, and the changes in academia will eventually translate into changes in popular perception. And then the prizes will start to consider — the Booker Prize, the Pulitzer in America — will start to consider crime fiction.

Crime fiction, past and present

Whether crime fiction is better than before may be open to debate, but it is certainly different.

For example, there is a difference in attitude to power and authority.

Watson was discreet and respectful in his allusions to the illustrious personages, as he called them, who sometimes consulted Sherlock Holmes.

Modern crime writers are more likely to write about corruption in high places.

The forces of law and order have also become more suspect.

Holmes had to contend with bungling policemen, but not with the corrupt cops we meet in the novels of Ian Rankin and Michael Connnelly.

The villains are also more brutal. Thomas Harris, James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Deaver, John Connolly, John Sandford, James Lee Burke have all portrayed some terrible psychopaths.

Crime fiction today is darker than it was in the time of Agatha Christie. She and her contemporaries and their immediate successors — writers like Michael Inglis and Edmund Crispin — tended to write whodunits. They were puzzle pieces: readers read them to find out who had committed the crime. Modern crime fiction is not necessarily a whodunit. Leonard, Connolly, Sandford, Burke may straight away identify the villain. The story then becomes a thriller, not a mystery, we turn over the pages to find out how the villain is brought to book. That entails a journey through the underworld absent from Christie.

Rankin, Connelly, Sandford, Burke have all written about the homeless and the destitute, the drunks and the junkies who live on the fringes of society. They are far removed from the country house mysteries of Agatha Christie and Michael Inglis.

While bringing criminals to justice, they look not only at the crime scene but also at the world at large. And their takes can be memorable. There is no shortage of local colour in Rankin, Burke, Leonard. Sandford can pull off memorable descriptions, too, when he wants to. And Connelly is unputdownable.

“What I like about crime fiction is the sense of place,” says Rankin.

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