Wednesday 1 December 2021

The Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction

I've been deplorably slow to discuss The Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction on this blog, but since the book has just been awarded the International Crime Fiction Association's 2020 Book Prize, the timing of this belated post now seems perfect...Many congratulations to the four co-editors responsible for putting this hefty volume together: Janice Allan, Jesper Guiddal, Stewart King and Andrew Pepper. Given that I contributed a chapter on 'Plotting', I take particular pleasure in the book's success!

I'm the only non-academic who wrote a chapter in this book and the reason I accepted the invitation to contribute was because I felt it would be fun to write for a genuinely scholarly tome. I'm definitely not an academic, but it amused me to impersonate one. And in my twenties, I seriously considered a career in academe, at a time when I struggled to see myself working in a solicitors' office. I went so far as to have lunch with my old tutor Don Harris to discuss the possibility, but he encouraged me not to make the change, especially given that I hadn't done a further degree (which even in those days cost a lot of money, money that I did not have). Looking back, I am sure he was right. I do have some academic leanings, but if I'm brutally honest with myself - not enough.

I have for many years been extremely keen to bridge the gap between academic writers and crime writers. I am convinced that we can learn a great deal from each other. Just before the pandemic, for instance, I had a great time with Professor Mike Wilson and his colleagues and students at Loughborough University and a few years ago I took part in a terrific set of seminars about noir fiction organised by Steven Powell at Liverpool University. More recently I also enjoyed an online conversation with Jamie Bernthal when I was a speaker at an academic conference on Golden Age fiction. Mike, Steve, and Jamie are all people after my own heart, enthusiasts for the genre. The same is true of a number of my academic friends from overseas.

What's more, in working on The Life of Crime, I've benefited enormously from comments made on the manuscript by a number of distinguished academics. Scholarly insights can be invaluable. That said, my book (like The Golden Age of Murder) tells a story and I've been very keen to resist the trappings of academic work, such as footnotes, which I think sometimes get in the way. Now that so much information is available online, I think there's a case for challenging the value of the traditional approach to academic writing. Take academic citation, for instance: is this more about demonstrating that one has done one's homework, rather than providing material of genuine value to the reader?  And what about the quality of writing? I've read one or two academic books in the past where the author didn't seem interested in the writing process, just in making some polemical point in the dullest way imaginable.

I also worry that the price of academic books puts them out of reach as far as readers without access to a university library are concerned. This is a real shame, because accessibility should surely be a priority. As a strong believer in authors' rights, I also think it's interesting that, despite huge cover prices, contributors seem almost always to be unpaid. Whether that particular publishing model is, or deserves to be, sustainable in the medium to long term, is another question ripe for discussion - and perhaps even a polemic or two?

But let me get off my hobby horse and return to The Routledge Companion. I'm not sure readers will be rushing out to buy their own copies, because the pricing is clearly aimed at university library budgets. But I hope that people do read the book, because my fellow contributors have supplied a great deal of info and analysis that I found really interesting. Given the wealth of erudition between the covers, it's hard to pick out particular chapters, but as an example, I did find the discussion of the impact of digital media on the genre especially thought-provoking. I'm grateful to the joint editors for asking me to take part, and also for their forbearance when confronted by my tendency to rebel against the constraints of academic writing. Putting together a book of this kind takes a lot of work and time and they deserve wholehearted congratulation. 

Whilst I'm discussing academic works, I'd also like to make a quick and again belated mention of another scholarly volume, Criminal Moves: Modes of Mobility in Crime Fiction?  which came out a couple of years ago. Two of the editors are Jesper and Stewart, along with Alistair Rolls, and the book explores fresh ways of looking at the genre. Not every crime fan wants to dig deeply into the minutiae of crime writing, but many do, and the growth of academic interest in this wonderful genre is, in my opinion, to be welcomed. Now the challenge for everyone is to make the academic materials more widely accessible and to see increased focus on the quality of the writing as well as the intellectual analysis.


Monica said...

Great review, Martin, and yes, academic publishing is a strange world of its own.

At least the Routledge Companion is available in digital form - although still very expensive!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Monica, and a good point about digital.