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COMMENTARY

A thriller stirs this Man Booker long list

Tom Rob Smith's 'Child 44' is revealed to be in contention. Does this mean the line between genre and literature is fading?

August 01, 2008|Sarah Weinman | Special to The Times

Every summer, the announcement of the Man Booker Prize long list kicks off a conversation that lasts until October, when a winner is named. So it's no shock that this year's slate, announced Tuesday, has done exactly that. What is surprising is the presence of one name among the 13 long-listed authors: Tom Rob Smith, a 29-year-old London screenwriter who made a critical and commercial splash earlier this year with his debut thriller, "Child 44."

That's right: The prize known for its literary acumen has put a thriller on the long list for the first time since such lists were made public and official in 2001. Needless to say, it's a development some book people find problematic.

"I cannot respect a judging committee that decides to pick a book like 'Child 44,' a fairly well-written and well-paced thriller that is no more than that," fumed Canongate publisher Jamie Byng on the Booker Prize message forum. One suspects that if Edmund Wilson -- who dismissed genre fiction in his 1945 New Yorker essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" -- could climb out of his grave to protest and then die again, he would.

And yet, if "Child 44" -- a serial killer novel that takes place in the last years of Stalin's Russia -- appears at first glance to be a brash upstart, a closer look suggests that its inclusion might not be so unlikely after all. Indeed, this is the most recent example of the blurring of the line between crime fiction and literature, which raises hope that the so-called genre wars are lurching toward, if not an end, then at least a tentative cease-fire.

The notion of "genre wars" goes back to Wilson, who decried the entire field of detective fiction based on selective reading of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. Genre enthusiasts recoiled.

In the years since, this pattern has been repeated. Consider the angry letters written in response to Ben Yagoda's 2004 Salon essay "The Case of the Overrated Mystery Novel," which used a handful of award-winning crime novels to frame a negative argument about the genre.

Yagoda's essay, with its emphasis on prize recipients, unwittingly highlights a peculiar irony: The most prestigious genre award in America, the Edgar, has begun skewing more toward the literary. Both John Banville, who writes crime fiction as Benjamin Black, and Michael Chabon, long a champion of blending genre tropes with aesthetic ambition, were among this year's best-novel finalists.

Robert Clark's 1998 win for "Mr. White's Confession" still provokes teeth-gnashing within the mystery community for its greater emphasis on metaphysical mysteries than literal ones. Jess Walter managed the neat trick of winning the Edgar for one novel ("Citizen Vince") and receiving a National Book Award nomination for the next ("The Zero").

It's a far cry from 20 years ago, when such genre stalwarts as Lawrence Block, Stuart Kaminsky and Margaret Maron regularly took home the top prize.

Such a sea change has a lot to do with the influence of writers who understand the conventions of genre fiction rather than disdain them. Banville's Benjamin Black novels reflect his admiration of Georges Simenon and Richard Stark; Kate Atkinson's detective trilogy works because of her familiarity with the form.

Catherine O'Flynn's "What Was Lost" takes a little girl's investigative zeal and melds it to a larger tale of lost opportunities. And the stylized, rhythmic syntax of David Peace's "Tokyo Year Zero" needs the backbone of a murder investigation to underscore the mood of apocalyptic doom in post-World War II Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"I do think there's a growing openness to genre, because these kinds of fiction provide good bones for story," said Naomi Hirahara, award-winning author of the Mas Arai novels. "Genre writing forces a story to leap into hyper-reality, accentuate what's there on an everyday, mundane level. And it does this through entertaining the reader -- the best service an author can provide."

Clearly, the Booker committee's inclusion of "Child 44" on the long list suggests that the judges were entertained, and, according to Val McDermid -- whose psychological crime novel "A Place of Execution" was on the unofficial shortlist nearly a decade ago -- "it validates what most of us who read contemporary crime fiction already know, which is that the genre has transformed itself to a point where the best of its output can stand shoulder to shoulder with any other novels."

Even as the bookies' third-favorite to win the Booker, Smith must clear many hurdles to make the shortlist -- and invite greater respect for the genre.

Long-listing "Child 44," notes Michael Carlson, a London-based book critic specializing in crime fiction, "is like giving the Oscar to 'Unforgiven.' It's a fine novel, with a sharp edge in history, but it isn't something that stands out above other genre works."

In other words, maybe the fuss about "Child 44" is that there need be no fuss at all.

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Sarah Weinman writes Dark Passages, an online monthly mystery and suspense column, at latimes.com/books. She blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com.

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