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Murder Most Famous: Crime writing reality TV

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Sunday, Jan 27, 2008

The Scotsman puts it best: “It had to happen.” In the fine tradition of shows like Celebrity Love Island and Dancing With the Stars, UK celebs are signing up to compete in yet another lame-brained reality show. This one is called Murder Most Famous, and get this—the celebs, under the tutelage of Minette Walters, will study criminology and forensics in order to write their own crime novels. The winner will see their novel published by Pan Macmillan next year.


The competitors are a group of people The Scotsman calles “C-list celebrities”. Their names are Brendan Cole, Sherrie Hewson, Angela Griffin, Matt Allwright, Diarmuid Gavin and Kelvin MacKenzie. Famous in England, I guess.


What? I don’t even know where to begin. Shame on you, Pan Macmillan, for letting this abomination go ahead.


The news of the show comes hot on the heels of this article in The Guardian that poses the question, “are crime books easier to write than ‘serious’ novels?” The article talks about Joan Brady, a Whitbread winner, who sued the cobbler living downstairs whose weird cobbling chemicals seeping through her floor caused her to go a tiny bit mental. This new lack of brain function manifested itself, says Brady, in her abandoning her serious literary writing to pen a substandard crime novel. The fumes made her do it, she cried, and she and the cobbler settled out of court with Ms. Brady receiving quite a hefty sum.


So, according to Ms Brady, crime writing is for spaced-out dunces. It’s something a writer must be reduced to doing. But where did such thinking come from? It’s a big debate in Book World, that crime novels aren’t “real” literature, falling into the category of “genre” writing alongside horror novels, science-fiction, and romance. If you ask me, such thinking is pretty much bupkiss. Crappy crime writing is just crappy crime writing. It doesn’t mean all crime writers are lame, just the lame ones. After all, plenty of great modern literature is set in space. I think all well-rounded readers know this. So why can’t Ian Rankin shake the stereotype perpetuated by the Joan Bradys of the world?


I blame James Patterson. And crime fiction publishers and marketers everywhere, truth be told. Patterson’s books, when viewed next to Ian Rankin’s, look a bit similar. And like Rankin, his books feature recurring, damaged characters in dire need of redemption. Their books are always mysteries, a couple have been turned into movies, and all can get quite grisly. The difference between the authors is, while James Patterson blurts out five novels a year, all told in the same gimmicky, rapid-fire and ready for TV style, Rankin waits a while between stories, and writes chapters that need more than a trip to the dunny to be fully digested.


But, this, too, is well-known. So, is it a case of some writers spoiling it for everyone? I think it is. There are serious crime writers and there are hacks. Just as there as serious musicians and crappy synth-ed robot people with guitars. It’s a popularity game, and we all know it, so why is the question still coming up? Why can Ms. Brady get thousands of pounds out of a poor cobbler for doing what every author and his dog who wants instant chart success seems to be doing?


The readers don’t help, either. Or is it our new fast and loose lifestyles that mean we only have time for Patterson-sized chapters quickly scanned before lights out? The readers demand these books—remember that statistic about Mills and Boon consumers from last week? Someone is reading, so publishers are getting that product out there. It’s business. And as with anything that gets too popular, too in-demand, the quality has dropped. I remember when crime novels were by Joseph Wambaugh and Norman Mailer, epic and researched and good. Even the popcorn-y ones like Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys were more literary than anything Patricia Cornwell has shat out in past 10 years. It’s a cycle, maybe. As Pearl Jam Xeroxed a hundred times becomes Nickelback, so Norman Mailer becomes Michael Kimball. All hope is not lost, though, because while they’re lumped in with the crap, people still read Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane and Scott Turow, and the other thinking crime writers we do really need.


The Guardian‘s question is just wrong in its phrasing. It’s not easier to write crime novels, it’s easier to writer crappy crime novels.

Murder Most Famous airs on BBC2 in March. Patterson’s Double Cross was released in November. His Sail will be out in June. The paperbacks of 6th Target and Saving the World came out this month. The paperback of The Quickie arrives in April. Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Crows in out in March.


And, just for fun, Joan Brady’s latest crime novel, Bleedout is out 29 January.


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