Boyd Tonkin: Crime pays – but should not brag

The week in books

Tenants on exclusive parkland, a passion-maddened couple break an ordinance from the landlord forbidding fruit consumption; soon eviction, and recrimination, follow (The Book of Genesis; Paradise Lost). After a road-rage incident, a royal traveller unwittingly slays his father; further oracular investigations prove that he has incestuously married his other parent (Oedipus Tyrannos). A young woman's abduction escalates into all-out gang warfare between rival clans marked by sanguinary tit-for-tats (The Iliad). A prince seeks proof of his father's murder by a detested stepdad; and, at length, plots homicidal revenge (Hamlet).

As its advocates note, the stories cemented into the foundations of our culture are almost all crime fictions. Human narrative art dwells on the disruption of order and the struggle to restore it. Communities needed, and still need, to know what threatens them and how they may hold together after the smashing of taboos. So crime stories begin almost with an evolutionary bonus compared with other forms.

Add to that their emergence, over 150-odd years, as the most popular and profitable branch of global publishing, and you have a dominant genre that feels as if it's encoded into our cultural DNA. It mutates fast, and ruthlessly, as well. Random House has just announced a boom in the group's e-book sales in early 2011. Which authors led the digital charge? James Patterson, Lee Child and Jo Nesbo.

Crime pays, and stays. All the book market's cards look stacked in its favour just now. In Britain, the appeal of crime in translation has lent the sector an extra gear. As part of the Bristol CrimeFest convention next weekend (itself another sign of rude health), I will be discussing the tide of foreign mystery on a panel moderated by Ann Cleeves – whose own outstanding series about DI Vera Stanhope has been occupying prime-time slots on ITV.

Authors who make a reputation in other branches of the craft are now magnetically drawn – and not merely by the lure of more cash and sales – into the criminal orbit. In 2008, a quiet, nuanced and austere Swedish novel about Ingmar Bergman as he shot his film Winter Light captivated me: The Director by Alexander Ahndoril. With his wife Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, he now figures as half of the chart-storming crime duo "Lars Kepler". Good luck to the pair of them. How tough, though, might it prove to revert to the watercolour shades of The Director after the Technicolor hues of crime?

You will probably have detected a proviso on the way. I have a caution to deliver to crime and its champions. Hubris beckons – and the sort of crowing arrogance that sets the story-telling pulse, muscular characterisation and socially-observant backbone of the strongest crime writing against the supposedly etiolated and decadent "literary" novel. It really is time to bang up this facile dichotomy for good and throw away the critical key. A certain chippiness still drives these assertions. But look at the balance of publishing power now, and you see that real clout rests these days with the money-spinning criminal fraternity. As for the Man Booker prize and other small tokens of coterie esteem - felony-loving brothers and sisters, do you really care that much? I suspect not.

Instead, we should pay more attention to the generic elements of so-called "literary" fiction. Novels of history, of romance, of adventure, of psychology, of social satire, of culture and identity: the books that escape the "genre" label often conceal a hidden spine that binds them to familiar formats. Am I the only reader, for example, to find a key to Martin Amis in the unstable fusion of satire and science fiction (with The Pregnant Widow as a sort of Star Trek-like spaceship novel)?

With tales of transgression, investigation and punishment, readers often draw on a deep prior knowledge of forms and themes to steer their judgement. In this respect, crime and its critique can appear more sophisticated than its counterparts. We routinely spot the conventions and assess how boldly a new work has tried to tweak or transform them. Rather than cheer or sneer at that fall-guy the "literary novel", why not read it more closely in the light of its own implicit taxonomy of classes and kinds?

Meanwhile, you high-earning and best-selling criminal kingpins, go easy on that triumphalist rhetoric. Your own plots show where such pride leads. The capo who survives never boasts.

Bristol CrimeFest, 19-22 May:

Smiths stand up, and stand out

With a club tour in full swing and gigs due at the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue and at the Latitude and Reading festivals, comedian (and former rapper) Doc Brown is making a nonsense of the title of a previous show: Unfamous. Now, this is a sensitive subject, because the north London wit has risen strictly on merit. So I mention his big sister – Zadie Smith – for one reason only. The novelist, a true aficionado, writes superbly about the art of comedy (see her essays in Changing My Mind). And the British comedy boom of the past 30 years, which means so much to so many, still lacks the landmark book that it deserves. Smith family values might just fill that gap. I know – fantasy publishing.

Suicide watch for Waterstone's

For many years, Waterstone's has been tied to a walking corpse called HMV. The long crisis of its corporate parent, the moribund audio-and-video retail group, has lain behind so many of the crass management decisions that cheapened and weakened Britain's only major bookstore chain. Then a few slender shoots of renewal emerged. MD Dominic Myers took over with promises of a new emphasis on the core skills, and core pleasures, of physical bookselling. Later, after HMV at last agreed to sell, an approach from the Russian entrepreneur Alexander Mamut quickened hopes that Tim Waterstone might return. But the Mamut bid has made no progress for a month, while this week – at a digital-reading conference – the chain's e-business manager, Alex Ingrams, said that his outlets should promote e-books and readers at the front of store. That, in effect, would encourage many customers to desert bookshops at the moment they entered them. So - back to Waterstone's at its blindly self-destructive worst.