Crime writers are denied prizes by literary snobs, says Rankin

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The Independent Culture

His gritty detective novels have sold an estimated 17 million copies worldwide, yet the Scottish writer Ian Rankin believes that "literary snobs" turn up their noses when it comes to crime fiction.

The Edinburgh-based author and creator of the hugely successful John Rebus books has lambasted critics who ignore the crime genre.

He said: "Most of us [crime writers] are selling much more than any more 'literary' author could hope for so they can be as snooty as they like.

"The best crime writing is as good as anything else in the literary canon, and right now crime writers around the world are confronting society's deepest problems, worries and uncertainties in a way the 'literary' novel sometimes avoids."

His comments were in response to the question of whether a crime novel is ever likely to win the Man Booker prize, which is the most prestigious fiction award in Britain.

He said: "We've always had the segregation between literary fiction and crime.

"We could say the same about science fiction and historical fiction - they are never taken that seriously.

"I think it starts with what you study at university.

"But now that's changing and crime novels are appearing on reading lists. So perhaps the snobbery will end."

Ever since the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, in 1987, the Edinburgh detective has seduced millions of readers by portraying a seedier side of the genteel Scottish capital.

Detective Inspector John Rebus, the overweight, alcoholic, chain-smoking sleuth, has been the hero of 15 books and a television series starring John Hannah. Two more television adaptations, featuring a new star, Ken Stott, as the famous detective, will be shown on ITV in the new year.

In Scotland, the surly Lothian and Borders police officer has become a national treasure and, with around 10 per cent of all UK crime fiction sales, has helped to put modern Scottish fiction on the map. His Rebus books have now been translated into 22 languages and Rankin won the Gold Dagger for Fiction in 1997 for his novel Black and Blue.

Rankin said: "Authors would be lying if they said prizes don't matter and prizes are a recognition of the genre's worth, another step out of the ghetto."

He added: "People aren't as snobby about crime books as they used to be, but they still aren't taken as seriously as some people think they ought to be.

"But then, crime authors can just say look at my sales figures and weep!"

He said that his books had probably been considered for the Man Booker prize, which is currently worth £50,000. "I'm sure I've got looked at by the Booker judges from time to time," he said. "And if they gave me a Booker, I doubt I'd say no. I'm not that stupid!"

But Rankin said he hoped that the next generation of authors and critics would be more open minded as universities began to include crime books on their reading lists.

Crime writers of the century

* Julian Barnes, three time Booker shortlisted, has written crime novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh.

* Crime novels by Patricia Cornwell (right) , featuring forensic scientist Dr Kay Scarpetta, top the bestseller lists. Her non-fiction book, Portrait of a Killerclaims Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper.

* James Ellroy's 18 crime novels include LA Confidential. The murder of his mother was the subject of his 1996 non-fiction My Dark Places.

* P D James has written more than 20 books, won many crime awards and been shortlisted for the WH Smith Literary Award. She sits in the House of Lords.

* Val McDermid's Report for Murder, the first of 22 novels, appeared in 1987, and introduced her heroine, the lesbian journalist Lindsey Gordon.

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