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American crime writing
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For decades American writers have been the most adept at exploiting crime fiction in all its forms, but the evidence here suggests that those forms have become so encrusted with decorative excrescences that they no longer function. Some might take as proof of that malfunction a collection of essays such as Criminal Proceedings: the contemporary American crime novel, edited by Peter Messent (Pluto, pounds 13.99). It's not that popular literature is beneath critical rigour, but does rigour need to have such a dead hand?

Or perhaps the cultural-studies essay itself is generic, bound by rules none may break. One such is that your title must come in two sections; first the punchline, then the apologetic explanation. You know the form: "Law Crimes: The Legal Fictions of John Grisham and Scott Turow"; "Policing the Margins: Barbara Wilson's Gaudi Afternoon and Troubles in Transylvania", and so on.

In his introduction, Messent suggests that the private eye novel no longer works as "far as the representation of criminal activity and its containment goes". I'd say that, even for Chandler, "containment" was not on the agenda; but too many recent US crime novels seem content with the familiar comforts of the first person "I" of the private eye. What has changed is the form that eye takes: "he" may be a she, and she may be a skip tracer. So it is with Janet Evanovich's Three to Get Deadly (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 13.99). Stephanie Plum calls herself a "bounty hunter" but is otherwise a traditional private eye, working outside the system to bring justice to the downtrodden. No problem there, but Evanovich sees the private eye as a lifestyle option. What matters is that Plum drives the wrong (read: right) kind of car, eats the wrong (read: right) kind of food, lives in the wrong (read: right) town and is the wrong (read: right) gender.

Such tiny inversions change nothing. Plum is a standard-issue saint with a gun, though not as outmoded as the detective in Lawrence Block's The Burglar in the Library (No Exit Press, pounds 16.99) - the eighth of Block's novels to feature Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller, burglar and solver of mysteries. Block is a witty writer, aware of the games he plays with convention, but here they become mannered. He resuscitates the locked room mystery, and even places his murders in an English country house, albeit one in upstate New York.

This is apparently an application to join that mainly British club of crime novelists identified by Julian Symons as farceurs. Here we demand more grime and grit from US crime fiction. James Lee Burke duly obliges in Cimarron Rose (Orion, pounds 16.99). Burke's PI is Billy Bob Holland, a hairy- chested lawyer racked with guilt but determined to bring terror to a Texas town as corruption threatens. He's tough and tender but, like Stephanie Plum, he has too many points to make.

Walter Mosley's Gone Fishin' (Serpent's Tail, pounds 9.99) is the sixth of his Easy Rawlins novels to be published, but the first he wrote. Here Easy has still to acquire the badges of generic acceptability: he hasn't yet seen action in World War Two, he hasn't moved to California, in some ways he hasn't even acquired full negritude. That provisional status gives him and his accomplice, Mouse Alexander, licence to roam. In one virtuoso scene of Southern Gothic, Mosley spends pages on a black preacher's sermon in a town called Pariah, while Mouse brilliantly encapsulates the hardboiled credo: "I think wit' my mouf". Only 150 pages long, Gone Fishin' is sprawling, inchoate, exhilarating.

Someone else who thinks with his mouth is Joey One-Way, the sullen hero of Joel Rose's Kill Kill Faster Faster (Rebel Inc, pounds 6.99). Lurching in and out of first-person narrative, Joey doesn't fit in high society, nor is he your conventional lowlife. Yet he can talk about the "critic" and "everyman", and characterise the food in the River Cafe (Brooklyn model) as "drizzle on the plate." In prose like a breathless incantation, Rose has written a witty and poetic variation on several genres: tough guy, proletarian, prison, rags to empty riches. And not a private eye in sight.