In Defense of Crime Fiction: 10 Crime Books to Read this Summer

‘My argument is and always has been merely that there is no such thing as serious literature.’ —Raymond Chandler

‘What, then, is the spell of the detective story that has been felt by T. S. Eliot and Paul Elmer More but which I seem incapable of feeling? As a department of imaginative writing, it looks to me completely dead.’ – Edmund Wilson 

For many of us, summer is a synonym to more time for ourselves. The temperature rises and with it, our desire to do something just for our own personal development or mere enjoyment. One of the most common activities that people tend to jump(or fall ungracefully back) into during vacations is catching up with reading books, an activity that lots of us neglect because of various excuses we make up throughout the working year such as ‘I don’t have time’, ‘I cannot concentrate’, ‘I prefer to watch Netflix because I am tired from working’ etc. Unfortunately, we’ve all been there. When we’ve spent a lot of time away from reading we feel a certain kind of fear that we are not going be able to get back on track, not knowing from where to begin, as we open half-finished novels and struggle to remember even the names of the main characters and feeling worse minute by minute for our rusty, mental state. (Note: If it’s been a long time since you finished a complete novel,  please don’t begin with a book like Meditations on First Philosophy by Descartes on a summer morning, dehydrated and hungover. You’ll hate the guy and you’ll hate yourself even more for your inability to see anything other than ink stains on blurry paper.) What I found helpful though, throughout the years, is starting with a book that is a page-turner, a book that will catch your attention and haunt you until you finish reading it, just to warm up and gain back your old, good confidence. And what’s a better page-turner other than crime fiction? The focus placed on the plot that usually has to do with solving a crime, makes crime fiction one of the best choices to resume the act of reading. But don’t get me wrong, a page-turner is by no means ‘easy’, ‘silly’ or ‘unworthy literature’, even though some people and various literary critics dispute that crime fiction is actually literature. Crime fiction is a product of its societal context and thus is an inextricable part of our real, existential conditions.  

Brief History of 20th Century Crime Fiction 

Focusing on the high or low status of a literary text in the literary canon creates a polarity that limits the different ways one can interact with a text, as it creates a bias even before a person lays eyes on it. The negative aura of criticism that accumulated around pulp magazines during the early 20th century (hard-boiled detective and science fiction found home in those cheap pulps) by the ‘critical fraternity’ created a superstition which aided the marginalisation of the different genres hosted in pulps as the upper classes and intellectuals were negatively biased before coming in direct contact with actual hard-boiled and detective stories. In his essay ‘On Crime Fiction’, Edmund Wilson, a prominent literary scholar, expresses his great disdain for crime literature, comparing crime fiction readers to alcoholics and thus downgrading the genre’s importance by attaching qualities similar to that of an act of unproductive and even catastrophic indulgence: ‘all their talk about “well-written” mysteries is simply an excuse for their vice, like the reasons that the alcoholic can always produce for a drink’. It is notable that Edmund Wilson according to American National Bibliography was privileged enough to attend Princeton, revealing one out of many intellectual, high-class Americans that scorned crime fiction and were almost ashamed if they were seen reading it, as Erin Smith expresses: ‘They “confessed” to being readers of Black Mask’ the use of the verb ‘confessed’ implies that it was almost as bad as a religious sin. 

Reading literature in 19th century America was a luxury relished by the upper classes.  The invention and circulation of cheap ‘pulp’ magazines in the 20th century was thus a revolutionary event, as they constructed a passageway which became the means for literature to reach the hands of the working class. It was literature thrown out of glossy living rooms to the mean streets. As a symptom, literature became a commodity that was bought and sold like a packet of cigarettes at the local newsstand. Not so surprising when bearing in mind that most hard-boiled writers were middle-class workers, trying to produce a lot of words in a short period of time to get paid, as Erin Smith has claimed: ‘Pulp writers had little to say about the aesthetics of their fiction, but they recounted with pride their long hours, speed, and productivity.’ This revolution gave birth to the democratisation of literature, as it was literature written and read by the working class and, usually, the crimes presented in those stories were committed because of class, gender or racial inequalities, underlining the sociological value of crime fiction.

Marginalisation is not a synonym of obliteration, it is simply a position. Crime fiction is still found in the periphery of the literary canon, as it is (dis)regarded as having low literary status in the academia, but the million readers(and viewers of crime series and movies such as ‘The Wire’ and ‘True Detective’) from all walks of life that passionately read these types of books even today, are a living proof that crime fiction is a highly relatable genre. I have chosen 10 crime books you can read over the summer, with a Goodreads link where you can find the summaries, reviews and ratings of the books. Enjoy!

List of 10 Crime Books

1. The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides

2. The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

3. Black Water Rising – Attica Locke

4. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

5. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

6. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

7. Red Harvest – Dashiell Hammett

8. Hardboiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories

9. Το λάθος – Αντώνης Σαμαράκης (It has been translated in English too) 

10. Jim Thomson – The Grifters

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