The Crime Fiction Handbook

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The Crime Fiction Handbook, Peter Messent, book reviewAny crime fiction fan will realise that the number of crime novels and writers that a book on the genre might cover is enormous, and that anyone writing such a book is going to have to make some really hard decisions on who or what to write about. The title of this “handbook” led me to expect a more scholarly version of the Rough Guide to Crime Fiction aimed at the general reader. In fact, the approach and style is more that of a textbook for an introductory course on crime fiction. Peter Messent is a retired academic (Emeritus Professor of Modern American Literature at the University of Nottingham) who used to teach a crime fiction module to students in the US and Britain.

About half of this 200 page book is about the politics, main forms and key concerns of crime fiction. Messent states in the introduction that his teaching experience was in the crime fiction of the US, and his general commentary focuses on authors from the US, Britain (England and Scotland) and Sweden, although there are a few others – I just counted 88 crime authors in the index and was quite impressed that he managed to pack so many different references into the text.

He defines four main types of crime fiction – classical detective, hard-boiled detective and police fiction, and transgressor narratives (stories told from the criminal’s viewpoint), and then discusses the social concerns that are so much part of crime fiction, including the city, violence, gender and race politics. Messent is clearly drawn to crime fiction by the many writers who are very critical of society and of racism and sexism, and I think I liked this book as much as I did because we share some political sympathies.

The second half of the book consists of more detailed analysis of 14 “key works in crime fiction” published between 1841 and 2005, by authors including Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christie, Chandler and Hammett, Cornwell, Rankin and Stieg Larsson. His selection is not based on his favourite books or authors, as I suspect this would exclude the paranoid conservative works of Patricia Cornwell in favour of someone like Sara Paretsky or even Sue Grafton – it is chosen to illustrate as wide a range as possible of attitudes, approaches and styles within the confines of a short textbook (or course syllabus) with obvious space limitations.

Some crime fiction fans might prefer a more general readers’ guide to the subject, but for those of us who enjoy a more academic approach, this is worth reading as an academic introduction to the subject, and one which might well prompt reading (or rereading) some of the texts discussed in detail and/or mentioned in passing.

This is one of a series of academic-style literary handbooks published by Wiley-Blackwell.

I received a copy of this book through the Amazon Vine review program.

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Crime Fiction Handbook, The
by Peter Messent

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Written by elkiedee