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

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The Independent Culture
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.