For Want of a Genre

In the latest edition of "The Telegraph", Susanna Yager reviews new crime fiction, as she does on a regular basis. It's a section of "The Telegraph's" book review pages that I check pretty regularly - whatever is published in the UK will generally see the light of day in Australia before too long.

So this week I was interested, and confused, to see a review of the new Arturo PĂ©rez-Reverte novel, Purity of Blood. It's the second in the continuing adventures of the author's Captain Alatriste series set in 17th-century Spain. The first of these, taking the main character's name as its title, was published here last year, and I read and enjoyed it. It wasn't anything spectacular but it was certainly pleasant enough and I was looking forward to the others in the series. My problem lies not with the publication of the book but how it could, in any estimation, be considered as "crime fiction".

In an earlier life I had a number of conversations, written and verbal, with many people about a definition of the term "science fiction", so I'm aware of the problems associated with being proscriptive about these sort of things. Whenever you think you've finally nailed it, along comes someone with a work that blurs the boundaries of your definition and you have to start again. Better not to start at all. And yet I confess to liking labelling and categorization. I like the ability to be able to say, "yes, that's a crime novel," and "no, that's fantasy, not sf". It makes it easier for me to recommend a book or dissuade someone from reading it. It's a shorthand, if you like. A shorthand with all the accompanying problems.

Now, I have no problem with genre novels. I lived in the sf "gutter" for long enough that I don't talk to people who dismiss genre novels as lesser quality purely because of how they're labelled. That's their problem not mine. I'll try to convince them of my point-of-view, but not for long. So, a definition which seems to be fairly reasonable: "Crime fiction is the genre of fiction that deals with crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives." This is an extract from the Wikipedia entry. There's more, though that is mainly interested in sub-genres like "detective", "hard-boiled", "courtroom dramas" etc.

Of the novels I've read this year, I can safely say that the Bruen and the Disher novels are definitely crime novels: it's what they live and die on. Yet Grace, by Robert Drewe, has, at its heart, a crime - the crime of stalking - and if you were to put to Drewe that his work was a crime novel he'd probably have apoplexy. So I think we need to add a word into our definition and amend it to read "...the genre of fiction that primarily deals with crimes..." etc. And then I get a bit happier. Bruen and Disher stay in, and Drewe is excluded.

I have no doubt that somewhere in its pages there is a crime committed in Purity of Blood. It's the 17th century, and the period was given to a certain lawlessness, not least on the part of Captain Alatriste. But it still doesn't make it a crime novel. The book is not primarly concerned with Alatriste's crimes, it deals more with his personal manoeuvring on the political, sexual and societal stages. It fits somewhere else. The question is, where? The books seem, to me, to fit into the Hornblower, Indiana Jones, Patrick O'Brien and Rafael Sabitini moulds: historical action adventures. It's got a ring to it, but it's a bit of a mouthful and I can't see the bookshops taking it up.

Purity of Blood as crime fiction? No, I just doesn't jell for me.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 9, 2006 10:20 AM.

Combined Reviews: Sandstone by Stephen Lacey was the previous entry in this blog.

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