Thursday 12 November 2009


A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession plays a part in the story-line of The Serpent Pool. It was a pleasure to give a nod to a book that I greatly admired when I first read it, not long after it won the Booker Prize (now the Man Booker Prize.) The novel is splendidly written, for sure, but it also tells a really good story – and there are some very well written books which don’t really do that as effectively as one might wish.

There’s a lot of debate about literary snobbery, and the reasons, or supposed reasons, why crime novels never seem to get close to winning the Man Booker. I don’t think crime writers should be overly sensitive about this sort of thing, but I do believe that there are some crime novels which deserve serious consideration when the best books of the year are ranked. Perhaps more serious consideration than they have actually received over the years.

It’s ironic that people doubt whether ‘genre’ novels are worthy of being classed as high-quality fiction, given that publishers are often keen to brand ‘literary’ novels as ‘detective stories’, no doubt in the hope that this will broaden their appeal to the reading public.

Possession, certainly, is a book that can be described as a kind of detective story. A young researcher called Roland Michell teams up with an academic, Maud Bailey, as they hunt for the mysterious truth behind the relationship between poet Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Byatt ensures that interest never flags as the story unfolds. I don’t know if she has any aspiration to write an out-and-out detective story; perhaps not. But I bet she could write a very good one, if she wanted.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Interesting question about crime fiction and literary snobbery. I've often wondered, myself, why some people consider crime fiction to be in a separate category from "literary works." Whatever the reason, I agree with you that there some crime novels that deserve praise (and awards) as literary achievements.

Deb said...

(Long-time lurker; first-time poster)

In her book "13 Ways of Looking at a Novel," Jane Smiley says that every novel, whether marketed that way or not, is at heart a mystery novel in that something unknown is always being uncovered.

Possession has been one of my favorite books since I first read it. A friend loaned me her copy, saying, "I think you'll like this." I liked it so much, I went out the next day and bought my own copy.

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, the question of how one divides crime fiction from literary fiction is one of perennial interest, and I'll be returning to it in due course.

Martin Edwards said...

Hello, Deb, many thanks for commenting!
I don't know the Smiley book, but the quote is truly thought-provoking and I'm glad you've drawn it to my attention.

seana graham said...

I loved Possession as well, and actually am currently reading her latest work, The Children's Book, which is a wonderful example of the both the scope and the high level of her talent. No mystery aspect, though, Except perhaps in Jane Smiley's sense.

I'm quite intrigued to hear that Possession figures in The Serpent Pool. Hope to start the Lake District mysteries very soon.

Minnie said...

Yet another incentive to read 'The Serpent Pool'! Agree that 'Possession' is terrific, also that the very best of crime fiction suffers quite a lot from artificial forms of categorisation (along the lines argued by P D James & Ian Rankin a few years ago). Also with you on mystery being at the heart of so much successful non-crime fiction (the late Michael Cox's two novels, e.g.). Deb's point about Jane Smiley is interesting, too.

名言チェッカー said...