Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Genre Bender

(Editor’s note: Over the last few years, Scottish author Peter May has become a favored concocter of fiction for at least several Rap Sheet contributors. We’ve interviewed him and hosted his essays about previous books. Today, we give space over to May once more, this time in order that he can remark on how his novel Runaway—which is being released this week in the States by publisher Quercus—like  other of his most recent works, stretches the boundaries of crime fiction.)

Police procedural, whodunit, hard-boiled, cozy, thriller—the list goes on. As “genres” go, the loose coverall of “crime” or “mystery” must be the most varied and all-encompassing there is. Is it really possible to push against the boundaries and extend the limits further?

We are now reading more non-English writers in translation, the swathe of Scandinavian authors, French writers like Pierre Lemaitre, or the Italian Roberto Costantini. And we are embracing the cultural differences they bring. The boundaries of the genre often vary from country to country.

The French definition of crime writing also includes the roman noir or “dark novel,” a fact that changed my life when I unwittingly banged up against London editors’ preconceived limits of what was “acceptable” as a crime book a few years ago.

The Blackhouse (2011) involved a policeman investigating a crime on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. This remote archipelago was a place I knew very well, and I wanted to take readers to explore its unique culture and atmosphere. As I began to inhabit the being of a recently bereaved policeman returning to his birthplace with a lifetime of emotional baggage and regrets, his personal journey became even more important to me than the crime he was investigating. I believed his story was a strong one, and I felt sure readers would be engaged and moved by it. However, readers in Britain were not to get the chance to find out. The editors of all the London publishing houses turned the book down. They sent effusively complimentary rejection letters praising the quality of the writing and the strong atmosphere and characters, but they felt that they would have difficulty selling the book to their marketing departments and ultimately to readers.

I was devastated. I put the book away and was forced to pursue other ideas and stories. It wasn’t until a few years later that my French editor asked to read The Blackhouse. She loved it and bought world rights. When the book was translated and published in France it was declared a “masterpiece” by the French daily newspaper L’Humanité.

It went on to win several awards in France in the genre of crime writing as well as a major national literature award, the Prix Cezam Litteraire. And that’s the difference in France … there is no difference. The French don’t separate crime and mystery writing from “literature.” They believe a good book is a good book whether it belongs to a “genre” or not. They judge the book on the quality of its writing.

The Blackhouse went on to be published all over Europe, with editors falling over themselves to snap it up at the Frankfurt Book Fair, including a young publishing house in the UK that hadn’t been around when the book was first presented to those London editors. The managing editor at Quercus strongly believed in The Blackhouse and took it on without hesitation. Looking back, it was perhaps not such a difficult decision for him. Quercus was the publisher that had brought Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series to the English-speaking world. And in those years that followed the Larsson phenomenon all those Scandinavian authors, with their psychological stories set in cold northern climates, had actually expanded the boundaries of the crime genre for the British reading public. Now The Blackhouse was squeezing its way into the publishing world as a Scottish cousin in the subgenre of “Nordic Noir.”

Those editors who initially turned the book down need not have worried about readers’ reactions, The Blackhouse was selected for the UK’s Richard and Judy Book Club (like Oprah’s book club in the USA) and was voted the “best read” by readers. When The Blackhouse was eventually published in the USA, it won the Barry Award for best crime novel.

The Outer Hebrides, with its very low crime rate, was never destined to become a setting for a long-running series of crime books, but I was persuaded to follow The Blackhouse up with two more novels, creating what became known as the Lewis Trilogy. The Lewis Man (2012) and The Chessmen (2013) followed in the same style. Each book involves a crime and an investigation, but the main part of story concentrates on the history of the characters and their relationships.

More than two million copies of the Lewis Trilogy have been sold in the UK alone. I am inundated with requests to continue the stories and write more books involving Fin Macleod, but I spent many years as a young television scriptwriter, writing for soap operas and I won’t be returning to that!

I followed up the trilogy with the standalone Entry Island (2014). Pushing boundaries again, I suppose, this story is set half on the Magdalen Islands in Quebec, Canada, and half in 19th-century Outer Hebrides. It’s part crime story and part historical fiction, with a love story, too! That might sound like an odd mix, but Entry Island won the Deanston Scottish Crime Novel of the Year, UK ITV Crime Book Club Dagger for Best Read of the Year, and the French Revue 813 Award for Best Foreign Crime Book of the Year.

Runaway, the standalone which followed Entry Island, also ventures into untrodden territory. There is a crime and a mystery, but the story alternates between two time frames, 1965 and 2015. One story line follows a musical group of teenage boys who run away from home in Glasgow, Scotland, to the bright lights of London in the Swinging ’60s in search of fame and fortune. In parallel, the second story line follows three of them retracing the steps of their youthful journey now as infirm, elderly men on a quest to right a wrong from their past.

Am I stretching the limits of the mystery genre? I’m not setting out with that intent. I simply have stories to tell, and plotting and resolving a mystery is one of the most satisfying ways to do it. After all, nothing hooks a reader and engages his or her imagination faster than a mystery.

Perhaps there are purists who believe that there are formats and rules that should be adhered to, but I think that the crime and mystery genre is a broad enough church to accommodate us all.

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