Who Cares Whodunnit? (Part One)

April 22nd, 2014


I’m here today, in part, to air a grievance.  And to do it at some length.  In fact, in two parts.


I write whodunnits. I work hard at it. I do the best I can every single day and usually wind up tossing half of my work. I am perpetually faced with something I have no idea in the world how to write, and I write it anyway. Once in a while, I think, I do it reasonably well.

But, like everyone who writes crime fiction, I know that I’m looked down upon. I’m a “genre” writer. I practice my craft in a downscale literary ZIP code, where there are cars parked on the lawn and the houses lean a little and the children usually have stuff on their upper lip. My stories, even the best of them, according to certain people, are not . . . actually . . . books.

crome fiction Zip

The crime fiction ZIP code. You can’t see our beat-up cars because the banks foreclosed on our lawns.

Some of the people who write, edit, publish, and criticize so-called “literary fiction” look down on people like me. We’re not quite real writers. They see themselves atop the high, white marble towers of literature in which they and their readers live, raising knowing eyebrows at each other and tossing off quips while we genre mutts drag ourselves around in the mud on our elbows, grunting at each other and squabbling over chicken bones and the occasional bright bead.

If you’re a reader of crime fiction, you’ve probably come up against this attitude, too. There are people in my life, and probably in yours, who, when they ask what you’re reading and learn that it’s a “whodunnit,” pause for a second, make a sort of Downton Abbey sound like, “Euh,” and then ask, “Is it interesting?” As though (a) it would be a waste of time to come up with a better question for someone on your reading level, and (b) it can’t possibly actually be interesting. In any serious way, that is. For a serious person.

stupid question2

A seriously stupid question.

These people try to build literary fences around us, as though our books might somehow cohabit with their books and accidentally make them, you know, interesting. Nonfiction and literary fiction receive serious and relatively frequent newsprint, but genre fiction is reviewed in a modest little column that appears on odd-numbered Thursdays in months without an “R” in their name.

They restrict our books to their own little ghettos in bookstores, too – the aisles of which I’m happy to say, often have more customers in them than some other aisles I could name. Because that’s the dirty little secret. A medium-selling mystery outsells a medium-selling lit-fic novel, and genre fiction has a really uncomfortable way of taking out longterm leases on the top rungs of the bestseller lists. But you, know, that’s because ordinary people buy them.


Defiantly ordinary reader.

Those of us who write thrillers and whodunnits can get a little defensive about being classified as literary invertebrates. For one thing, we write an awfully broad and complex spectrum of books to be crammed into a one or two-word description. We write the kind of classic puzzles, dependent on clues and timetables, that marked the s0-called “Golden Age.”

We write hard-boiled private eyes, we write cooking mysteries like Murder In the Yeast or Chili Con Carnage. Or craft mysteries like The Dropped Stitch of Death.  Or elaborate, amazingly literate mysteries set in the Louisiana bayous, like those of James Lee Burke. Or character-steeped police procedurals like Henning Mankell’s. Or flawed half-villains and their sometimes treacherous friends, like Patricia Highsmith’s characters. We write night-black noir, like Jim Thompson and Ken Bruen.

vanderbilt house2

The House of  Crime.

It this genre were a single house, it would need rooms for Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Harry Bosch, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, Father Brown, Kinsey Millhone, Commissario Brunetti, Arkady Renko, Sam Spade, Easy Rawlins, Jack Reacher, Lew Archer, Lydia Chin, Flavia de Luce, Precious Ramotswe, V.I Warshawski, Inspector Maigret, Lord Peter Wimsey, Dave Robicheau, Rabbi David Small, Brother Cadfael, Father Brown, and literally thousands of others. The house would need a lot of bedrooms, and it’s hard to imagine the conversation at the dinner table, because these people don’t really have much in common.

I’ve barely scraped the surface, and I could go on all day. If this is a genre it’s so broad and varied that the people who chose the word need to go back and come up with another.

And if you doubt that the word is pejorative, a few weeks ago J.A. Jance, a writer who has sold more than twenty million books, called the college from which she graduated and volunteered to put in a month working in their writing program. She was told, and this is a quote, “Oh, no, we don’t do anything with GENRE fiction; we only do LITERARY fiction.”

Why the negative judgment? What is it about so-called genre books, including whodunnits, that gets the literary highbrows’ knickers so twisted?


Untwisted knickers.

My first theory is that it’s just another manifestation of the eternal human fact that everybody needs somebody to look down on. Obviously, this thought isn’t original with me, but I defy anyone to make the case that this isn’t a universal and instinctive desire.  It’s why the few all-first-class airlines, like MGM Grand, have all gone broke.  The problem wasn’t that there weren’t enough people who could afford it.   The problem was that there was no tourist class for the people in the front of the plane to feel superior to. What’s the joy of stretching out in first with your foie gras if there aren’t a bunch of grunts in back, folded up like paper clips and eating K-rations and envying you? What’s the fun of boarding the plane first, if no one is boarding second?

So here’s my second theory.

The term whodunnit.

I’ll get to that in Part Two.

14 Responses to “Who Cares Whodunnit? (Part One)”

  1. Bonnie Says:

    We poor mystery readers can still look down on romance novels; right? You know, those books that outsell all the others?

    The fact is, these stupid labels are only marginally helpful. Sure every genre has its formulaic schlock, but let’s not forget Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope wrote romance novels, and if John LeCarré’s espionage novels aren’t “literary,” I’m not sure what is.

    Surely what these lit snobs are saying, in code, is that mystery (or genre) fiction isn’t “good” enough. But, while we might quibble about this author or that, many of these authors can and do give “literary” authors a good run for their money, or even surpass them, in style, character creation, layers of symbolism, and depth of meaning when portraying the struggle to survive in a hostile environment. Perhaps these folks are too pure, or timid, or lazy, to actually stick their toes in these waters?

  2. Peg Brantley Says:

    Hear, hear! You’ve put in writing some of the ideas many of us have discussed, and then some.

    And when you’re a crime fiction writer who is also self-pubbed, well…

  3. Kevin Says:

    Rant on … I like it.

  4. Jinx Schwartz Says:

    Well written, Tim. I’m sure Judy Jance is crying all the way to the bank:-)

  5. Steve Liskow Says:

    I also write crime fiction, and I used to be an English teacher. I don’t understand the snobbish separatism because at one time or another I taught ALL the following books, which revolve around a crime or crimes: Oedipus the King, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, Great Expectations, Cry the Beloved Country, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Intruder in the Dust, Silas Marner, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Hamlet, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, King Lear, Othello, The Stranger, 1984, The Turn of the Screw, Ethan Frome, Heart of Darkness, and Brave New World.

    I could go on, but you get my point. When these books were published, they were simply popular fiction. Most of them are still viewed as “serious” literature rather than genre, but that distinction is fairly new, much like the fake literary elitism that drives so much of marketing. I don’t apologize for writing what more people want to read.

  6. Everett Kaser Says:

    Wow! Knock my socks off and twist my knickers, ANOTHER new blog! 🙂

    Your last two paragraphs (your first theory) hits it right in the bread-basket. I was just talking to a friend the other day about audiophiles, and how they first supported a small industry of vacuum tube amplifiers well into the ’70s, claiming that they were SO superior to the sound of a TRANSISTOR amplifier. Then those same audiophiles whined and complained for decades that CDs’ digital sound was too harsh, that it just wasn’t as warm and DEEP as the sound from LPs. Now, it’s repeating again with MP3s which, of course, lose SO much quality because of the file compression algorithms. It’s so bad that I can’t even stand to listen to music produced today, it just sounds like cats fighting and people banging on garbage cans.

    Well, maybe that has more to do with me getting old than the technology, but I’ll deny it to my dying breath!

    A lot of folks only feel good about themselves if they have someone else to look down upon, and others never feel good about themselves because they think everyone else is so much better than them. Fortunately some folks have found the ability to be happy with themselves for being who they are regardless of what the folks around them are like. But it’s a careful balancing act, like walking a high-wire without a net or a balancing pole. Of course, those people never (or rarely) appear in novels because they’re usually so undramatic. 🙂

  7. Steve Liskow Says:

    I also write crime fiction and I used to be an English teacher. While teaching, I assigned ALL the following “classics,” which contain a crime or crimes as important plot elements: Oedipus the King, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter, Silas Marner, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Ethan Frome, Intruder in the Dust, To Kill A Mockingbird, Cry the Beloved Country, Brave New World, and Something Wicked This Way Comes.
    I could go on for at least twice as long, but all these books were popular fiction when published and had no taint of “genre” because bookstores and snobs weren’t making that distinction yet. Now, crime writers, SF writers, and romance writers get derided because they write stories people want to read. Go figure.

  8. Terry Shames Says:

    I was recently looking for a “mystery” in a bookstore and the bookseller sighed and said we’d have to look in the mystery section and the literary section because it’s becoming harder and harder to define the difference.

    That fact is that at the heart of even the most highbrow literary fiction lies a mystery.

  9. Marilynne Says:

    I guess that makes me a low-class reader. I don’t want to puzzle out the complex meanings in the book. If the author can’t write, he/she shouldn’t expect me to fill in the blanks. I also think that so much of the “meaning” in literary books came long after the author was dead.

    So, I, as a low-class reader expect to be entertained, to be taken someplace interesting where I can share an interesting story. I expect good writing. A mystery, sure. A long session analyzing why Tim Hallinan said “Why?” when he could have said “When?”. NO. I avoid “literary” writing for the most part for that reason. The literary books I’ve read all the way through, I usually liked, if not enjoyed.

    Keep on writing. Us Low-class readers love it.

  10. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I agree with all of the commenters, and I resent being told I’m reading lesser books when I read “genre.” I also fid that modern literary fiction is often dreary, dealing with the incomprehensible tragedies of our modern world. Don’t need that in my life, although “The Queen of Patcong” was terribly moving and dealing with the difficulties women face. And then there’s Miaow. Damn, these books are just too darn serious to be “genre” fiction. Btw, I learned in Counseling 101 that we all build hierarchies to be meter than… and animals to it too. You’d think we were smarter than that. Apparently not!

  11. Larry Chavis Says:

    There’s a certain Tim Hallinan who also belongs in that list of superb practitioners of the art of fiction. A well-done crime or mystery novel will not only be driven by ‘whodunnit,’ but will delve as deeply into the human condition as any so-called literary effort. The fact that such a novel is, well, interesting to boot shouldn’t be held against it. I’ll trade a dozen volumes of navel-gazing losers for a single ride-along with guys like Dave Robicheaux, Clete Purcel, Harry Bosch, or Junior Bender. And I’ll glean as many insights –maybe more– into character.

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, I’m amazed that so many of you got all the way to the end, and grateful for the tone of your responses.

    LARRY — That’s really kind of you, and you’ve apparently already read Part Two — I promise, its going to sound very familiar to you. Crisis, is, after all, what reveals character, whether it’s “Hamlet” or NEON RAIN. And thanks for ranking me with Connelly and Burke — big dogs in anybody’s booK.

    LIL — QUEEN is one of my favorites, even if it was agonizing to write, and it always makes me happiest when it’s a woman who likes it, because it was really when I began to write women. And thanks also for mentioning Miaow, to whom I feel especially close right now, after writing FOR THE DEAD, which is really Miaow’s story.

    MARILYNNE, all we low-class readers want the same things: characters we can believe in, issues that matter, a story that moves us. I think that’s pretty much what the readers of litfic want, too, which is why the whole genre thing makes me grind my teeth.

    TERRY — First, I just reviewed A KILLING AT COTTON HILL on Amazon, but it hasn’t appeared yet, which is kind of odd because it was about three days ago, I gave it the five stars it deserves and went on at some extremely positive length. And I couldn’t agree more (as you’ll see when/if you look at Part Two) the mystery is the engine of much of the most “lit” of litfic.

    Will come back later and continue to respond. I’m about to be very late for something I should actually be early for.

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    BONNIE — I don’t look down on romance (or on sci-fi) but they don’t interest me. I don’t read self-improvement, either, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe it’s valuable for some people. You’re absolutely bang-on about the misapplication and misunderstanding of genre labels.

    KEVIN and JINX — Thanks so much. Jinx, Jance did seem more than a bit miffed about it, and why shouldn’t she be? She’s a wonderful writer and being dismissed by some academic twit is waaayyy below the level of reaction her work would provoke in a world that saw that there are good books and bad books, and it doesn’t matter much what they’re about.

    PEG, I know exactly what you mean about being self-published. Same old shit. But still, in the end, our books are about ourselves and our relationship to the text, and I think if we took that relationship seriously and discharged it the best we could, then everyone else can fuck off. That doesn’t mean we can’t get better — or course, we can. But for the vast majority of writers, getting better is synonymous with getting less bad, and both states are just stages in development rather than a pin that fixes us permanently at a point on some nonexistent absolute scale.

    EVERETT — On the nose. Happy people aren’t interesting enough for most novels, or rather, many writers aren’t skillful enough to show how interesting happy people are. When Tolstoy said all happy marriages are alike, I think he was reassuring himself that he should stick to unhappy unions because drama and conflict are easier to write than peace and harmony. That’s why Maugham’s THE RAZOR’S EDGE is ultimately unsatisfying, and has never and will never make a good movie. And then there’s people who have to feel that they have the only enlightened view on some trivial subject and voice it repeatedly to demonstrate their superior discernment.

  14. Mark Says:

    So does it make me odd that I actually like the divisions in the bookstore? I can go straight to the mystery section and it’s easier to find what I might be interested in buying when it’s all there next to each other on the shelves. Then again, I have fun in the kid’s section when stuff is all together still.

    But yes, I get the looks when I am reading fiction, much less mystery fiction. I did my time with assigned reading. Now I read for fun. This is what I find fun.

    (And if you really want to feel looked down upon, be an adult reading middle grade novels.)

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