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Literary Genre: A Comfortable Old Coat, or A Moth-eaten Relic?

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The framework of genre – be it sci-fi, detective fiction or thrillers – is, when used well, like a comfortable old coat, into which you slip with an anticipatory sigh of comfort. But once a novel strikes a false note, you suddenly start to notice the moth-holes, and the musty smell dry-cleaning cannot remove.

Out of my holiday reading, three books fitted into the classic – don’t break the mould – take on genre. Martin O’Brien’s Jacquot and the Waterman is that particular sub-formula of the foreign detective novel. The police detective is still usually an outsider, a mess with women, often with an alcohol problem – the only twist in this case is that Daniel Jacquot is a former rugby player “still remembered for the winning try he scored for France in a Five Nations Final against the English at Twickenham”.

The investigation, of nasty, sudden killings of women, proceeds on its expected path – the rate of crimes increasing, the police force under pressure from the media, until the final twist that reveals the killer. (Here telegraphed a long way out.)

There’s a touch of local colour – descriptions of the backways of Marseilles, a smattering of French words, but they fail to lift the entirely prosaic story, and character out of the mundane and predictable. This is genre used as the grungy old parka.

Then there was The Art of Getting Bent, by M. Sahm. Pure science fiction, it imagines a world in which a plague that annihilated millions has forced humans to either don cybernetics suits, or to become “Splices”, taking on a significant proportion of human genomes in order to be resistant to the plague.

It is an interesting idea, and the science is carefully explained in the classic genre matter. Unfortunately, however, the quality of the writing doesn’t match that of the thinking. The dialogue is clunky – all of the characters sounding the same, and the similes … well the writer would be well advised to lock that particular rhetoric tool in a strongbox and throw away the key.

Finally, and the best of this classic bunch, is Christopher Brookmyre’s Boiling a Frog. The comic thriller is perhaps one of the hardest genres to do well, and Brookmyre is one of its finest exponents. With Frog Brookmyre is back on his best milliennial form – his Not the End of the World had me very nearly rolling around on the floor in hysterics.

The first set-piece of the novel involves a prominent politician who has a name for being a womaniser, but is actually gay, an unfortunate accident with a vibrator, a straightlaced, Catholic spindoctor and a good-type female GP who suffers a broken angle on her medical mission of mercy to deal with the vibrator. In the wrong hands this could just be silly, but Brookmyre’s pen is sure.

So that’s straight genre. You know what you get. But what about the cross-breeds?

First up is Minette Walters The Shape of Snakes This is psychological mystery/detective story, with the added trappings of “real crime” – letters, photos, computer records. And it is absolutely gripping. At its centre is the death of “Mad Annie”, an eccentric, mentally ill woman living in London in 1973. Her former neighbour, the amateur detective in the case, returns after many years away and seeks finally to solve the “case”, not that anyone else who lived in the street or was associated with the death sees it as such, or at least wants to admit it as such. Gradually, however, the realities are peeled back, and much rot is revealed beneath polite suburban surfaces.

Then there’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, a novel published this year to considerable critical attention. It could easily be billed as science fiction – at its centre is a man who is shifted back and forth through time – something over which he has absolutely no control, and this “fact” is given a serious, scientific explanation. It is a conceit that works brilliantly. To manage this naturalistically, in a manner that the reader comes to suspend disbelief and really feel for the man’s plight, is an outstanding task.

Yet this is not being billed as sci-fi, but a love story, which it is, but that is very much the weaker part of the book – soppy, Hollywoodish and fairytalish. But perhaps because women are perceived to like “romance”, and they buy far more books than men, “romance” is the label it wears.

So what conclusions have I drawn from this sample across a range of classic beach reading? “Pure” genre done well can be a joy, but a blend of the same quality is always going to be richer and more gripping, just because you’re never sure how the yarns will come together into the whole fabric.

*This is my long-delayed review of my holiday reading. Very alert readers of my home blog Philobiblon may recall I promised it about two months ago. Such a pity they haven’t yet invented a conduit between your head and the keyboard that doesn’t require use of the fingers. But phew; now I can finally remove that reproaching pile from the corner of my desk.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • GoHah

    Enjoyed this very much–you made me want to seek out Boiling a Frog, and the Shape of Snakes (do these suggest new genres like amphibilit or reptilio-procedural–I know,I know, you can’t judge a book by its title, either).

  • Mark Sahm

    You know, I’ve written your criticism on a Post-It and stuck it to my monitor… so thanks for the motivation. :o)

  • Natalie Bennett

    Sorry Mark, but you have to review for readers, while trying to be constructive for writers.