BOOK REVIEW / Whodunnit? Well, Kafka for a start: The Picador Book of Crime Writing - ed Michael Dibdin, pounds 14.99

THIS IS not a book for the traditionalist. Neither Conan Doyle nor Agatha Christie is included in Michael Dibdin's eclectic new anthology of crime literature and criticism, and the tradition of British crime writing they represent is barely even acknowledged.

Instead, Dibdin offers an exhilarating mixture of the violent and the profane, some of it obscure, a good deal of it surprising. Julian Symons, Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard may be many people's idea of good crime writing, but Kafka, Chekhov and Zola? Surely, even the most fervent advocates of the genre's literary merits would think twice before claiming these authors as their own.

It is to Dibdin's credit that he does not shrink from doing so. Setting out to prove the apparently simple proposition that 'good crime writing is good writing', he demonstrates how broad the definition of crime writing can be, and how attracted to the genre the literary mainstream has always been. Dibdin's own fiction has tested the boundaries of crime fiction's conventions, and his selection here does much the same, taking its cue from a remark attributed to Dave Hare: 'If I have a preference at all, it is for those (writers) who work against the form to make it something to which it is not apparently suited.'

To this end, extracts include the hallucinogenic paranoia of Kafka's short story 'A Case of Fratricide'; the touching solicitude of Antonio Gramsci's prison-bound admiration for G K Chesterton; or the dazed humour of Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as our narrator and his companion swap horror stories with a drink-soaked attorney at a narcotics convention.

Despite the quality of the company they keep, the more traditional crime writers do not suffer by comparison. As well as the best of the American tradition - Chandler, James M Cain and Dashiell Hammett from the past, Elmore Leonard, George V Higgins and Walter Mosley from the present - Dibdin highlights the work of pre-war British writers who shunned the contrivances of the Golden Age whodunnit in favour of more experimental approaches. The most impressive discoveries here are Raymond Postgate, whose Verdict of Twelve is steeped in a sensitivity rare for British crime fiction in 1940, and C S Forester, who, before the constrictions of the whodunnit drove him to abandon crime writing in favour of Hornblower, produced in Plain Murder a novel of crisp psychological insight.

One of the points raised most insistently by the anthology is the breadth of the gap that still remains between British crime writing and its American counterpart. It is not just the claustrophobia of most British settings that sets our writing apart, or the deference we afford our policemen - something that Dibdin feels comes dangerously close to propaganda on occasions - but also the way in which the American tradition has always sat more easily within the literary mainstream.

When it comes to the actual act of killing, however, there seems little to choose between the two. Murder is murder wherever you are, and one of the achievements of this anthology is to show just how shocking the actual moment of death can be. Stripped of all preamble, for instance, the murder of 'the Greek' in James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice becomes a moment of the purest drama and poignancy, as the victim's voice echoes back across the canyon while he lies twitching and dying in the back seat of the car.

Not all the extracts work well - however good Masako Togawa's A Kiss of Fire may be in the original Japanese, it suffers badly here from a clumsy translation - but it seems churlish to pick holes in a collection full of such energy, humour and sheer brazen originality. In deliberately eschewing the obvious and showing instead just how pervasive has been crime's influence on writers and critics of all literary disciplines, Dibdin has rendered crime fiction an enormous service and, in the process, done a good deal to redefine the genre.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot