Culture Literature

Crime Fiction is Not Low-Brow

The high-brow/low-brow debate – no longer limited to the confines of literature – has now proliferated across popular culture and become increasingly commonplace. We have all been there and done that, haven’t we? Many of us have secretly (and perhaps unconsciously) reprimanded individuals, holding their literary tastes against them. We have looked down on specific genres, squealing into the inner void of our minds, “why would anyone want to read that?”

Although widely beloved as a genre, crime fiction tends to occupy a rather peculiar fringe position. While people will delight in reading crime novels while travelling home or waiting at airports, there is an unspoken reluctance to admit crime fiction to the hallowed precincts of the academic curriculum. When one says “high-brow”, it is always Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Proust, or contemporary writers of literary fiction that spring to mind. How can crime fiction, the poster child of guilty pleasures, be among the towering high priests of literature? This is what I intend to address.

Let us begin with the doyenne of crime fiction: Agatha Christie. Known popularly as the ‘Queen of Crime’, Christie’s outstanding oeuvre spans 81 books, with many among them serving as the wellspring that birthed Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Anyone who has read a Christie thriller will know her trademark style is impeccable: careful and intelligent scene setting, excellent plot design that unfolds meticulously, and characters with more layers to them than a Matryoshka nesting doll. Christie is notorious for not giving away freebies. She weaves her story with impressive control, placing every element exactly where it should be. Her language is also very alluring in that it is always poised at the precipice of lucidity, sophistication, and tension without ever coming across as jarring. There is significantly more to an Agatha Christie mystery than its entertainment value. I believe it improves the reader’s analytical thinking and close reading abilities, training them to read between the lines and look beyond the fine print. 

The same can be said of Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes series. Like Holmes, Doyle’s novels and short stories are intelligent, incisive, and replete with instances of marvellous deduction that readers can learn from and even apply to their daily lives. What’s more, many writers of crime fiction, ranging from Doyle to Christie to du Maurier to Coben, offer thrilling, exhilarating narratives interspersed with erudite commentary on society or – in the case of Julian Barnes – life itself. 

In my opinion, crime fiction allows readers to have the cake and eat it too. It marries the entertainment of genre fiction with the austere intellectualism of literary fiction. Although major awarding bodies like the Nobel Prize, the Booker Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize rarely choose to bestow crime fiction writers with their laurels, no one can dispute the facts: Agatha Christie has only been outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare. Sherlock Holmes has come to capture the imagination of an entire nation, unlike any other character before him. 

In his book chapter, ‘Can crime fiction be taken seriously?’ Richard Bradford quotes Paul Auster’s insightful commentary from his novel City of Glass: ‘We become like a detective, alert to matters that might seem otherwise inconsequential, aware that we are reading two novels at the same time. We divide our attention between our sense of characters as variations upon the real world and their function as a repository of clues to matters such as motive, circumstantial evidence and ultimately, in the case of classic detective fiction—who committed the crime?’ To this, he adds: ‘In [literary fiction] too, we are constantly gathering evidence, attempting to make sense of patently unreal creations—by definition, puzzles—and close the gap between what we think we know and what the next page will tell us.’ 

Perhaps it is time to get off our high horses and give crime fiction the respect it deserves.

Image Credit: Agatha Christie” by Agatha Christie plaque -Torre Abbey.jpg: Violetriga derivative work: F l a n k e r is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.