F ancy spending an afternoon discussing crime? Or would you rather have your ear stapled to an election manifesto by a mystery assailant? Crime and Punishment, the title of today's noon-until-dusk forum at London's South Bank, brings together journalists and fiction-writers for criminal conversation. The event has an earnest, have-you-seen-this-man ring to it, more suggestive of firm government than Raskolnikov's blood-drenched hatchet. But fear not: the idea is to show that new crime writing is tackling complex questions about law and order with a flair that shames the heavy- handed political rhetoric of "cause" and "solution".

The day grew out of the now-expired SBC residence of Mike Phillips, the Guyanan-born novelist who made a name for himself with a body of work that looks at contemporary Britain and New York through the eagle-eyes of black journalist Sam Dean. Phillips believes strongly that the genre's conventions ("at root, someone is trying to find out something") can be used to hook the reader into thorny issues such as nationality and identity, but that the spirit of Miss Marple continues to tangle media representations of crime. "The whodunnit bores me," he explains, "I'm interested in what is happening in society. Many crime-fiction writers have moved on to see criminality as all-pervasive rather than being confined to a kind of individual. But watch the nightly parade of 'true crime' stories on television and what you get is an old, distorted view - that criminals are dodgy-looking types and police spend their time hunting for clues."

The journo contingent will examine why these attitudes persist: Guardian crime correspondent Duncan Campbell gives an account of the underworld past and present, while critic Marcel Berlins asks whether writers ignore the letter of the law in the name of artistic freedom. Juxtaposing Phillips with the Berlin prostitute-turned-controversialist Pieke Biermann (above), whose prose shunts through low-life Germany, and crime king-pin Michael Dibdin, who unpeels Italian corruption, should show that Chandler's children have more than droll one-liners and blood-stained murder weapons to offer.

Brave the South Bank's mean streets and you'll also catch Clinton's favourite scribe Walter Mosley at the NFT introducing a screening of his Devil in a Blue Dress (starring Jennifer Beals, pictured) - hard evidence that this kind of fiction can bring to life a period of social history (here, black LA in the 1940s) with as much intelligence as other, less overtly popular, forms. You're just going to have to tape Homicide, aren't you?

Readings at Royal Festival Hall (0171-960 4242), SBC, London, SE1 from noon; Walter Mosley, NFT2 (0171-928 3232) 8.30pm