Philip Hensher: Ian Rankin should be satisfied with what he's got

The pleasures of the 'roman policier' are, in the end, those of a beautiful, conventional form
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The Independent Online

Ian Rankin is a sensible man, as well as a very good writer, and I was surprised to see him complaining about the way crime fiction is treated in this country. In his view, crime fiction and other genres are explicitly excluded from serious consideration by our old friend "the literary establishment"; they are not considered for major literary prizes such as the Booker.

Mr Rankin argues that "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". He added, too, that it usually sells a good deal more.

The vulgar response to a popular writer like Mr Rankin who starts hinting heavily that he'd quite like something official is that he ought to be satisfied with his sales - 17 million and counting. The slightly subtler response is that Mr Rankin will do very well without artificial aids like prizes. However much one admires Mr Rankin's books, their fate would not be greatly affected by winning the Booker. There might well be better uses for something like that.

Novelists are notoriously never satisfied, and if Mr Rankin were only complaining about his own treatment, one could get a little impatient. I would say that not only does he sell in enormous quantities, he is highly respected by the "literary establishment". When some popular novelists make this sort of complaint, it is obviously hilarious - Jeffrey Archer is supposed to have wondered out loud about the likelihood of the Nobel Prize.

But Mr Rankin is an excellent craftsman, an admirable, literate writer with a vivid imagination. His staking a claim on literary excellence is not at all absurd, though perhaps he is not the person to be saying these things about his own books.

But he is making a more general point. Genre fiction, in Rankin's view, isn't treated with the seriousness it deserves. It doesn't get prizes; it is hardly ever taught in schools or universities; it just exists in a sort of ghetto. In fact, much of it is not only immensely popular, but, as Rankin says, highly serious in intent.

To a large extent, I quite agree that genre fiction is underrated. Actually, many of the great glories of English literature are works of genre fiction - MR James's ghost stories, Sherlock Holmes, John Buchan, PG Wodehouse, HG Wells's science fiction. Genre fiction has as good a claim on immortality as anything else.

It is, indubitably, infuriating to see rather a limp exercise in science fiction by Kazuo Ishiguro shortlisted for the Booker and treated with the utmost solemnity, when a really expert and powerful novel in the same genre by a committed practitioner - say Ursula Le Guin - remains in its particular ghetto. Literary novelists for years have been showing some interest in genre fiction - science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, the school story, even crime fiction and thrillers. Few of them, however, have seriously rivalled the best of the professional practitioners.

In the last resort, though, crime fiction has a limitation which can't be overlooked. Overwhelmingly, crime novels work with the assumption that evil can be understood; can be tracked; can be contained. It presents reasons for wickedness, and almost always reassures us that the wickedness can be brought, in every sense, to book.

A good crime novel isn't a trite experience, but, whatever its horrors, it is almost always comforting. It has to be. Evil in a crime novel is usually a spectacle at first, and subsequently the object of a successful chase; it is difficult to see how else the form could cope with it. The form has very clear limits, and those limits fall well short of real evil; nobody could possibly write a crime novel set in Auschwitz or Rwanda.

Crime fiction, almost certainly, is limited in its literary ambitions in another, fundamental way. One of the striking things about Mr Rankin's defence of crime fiction is that it is conducted entirely in terms of the subjects it deals with; it is important because it deals with important subjects. But that isn't true of any novel. What he overlooks is the power of language.

A good crime novel, like any other good novel, will be very well written. But here again, some kind of limitation on its ambition is very soon apparent. One couldn't imagine a crime novel in an experimental, or even an extravagant, prose style. And the reason is that the reader needs constant reassurance and security.

Only by resorting to the first person and an unreliable narrator could a crime writer start to play with language. A writer may not particularly want to write in anything but a plain, classical style, but it is surely a limitation if his genre won't permit him to do anything else.

Mr Rankin is right to deplore the second-class status which genre writers occupy; he is right, too, to draw attention to the skill and ingenuity exhibited in examples of his own genre. But the pleasures of the roman policier are, in the end, those of a beautiful, conventional form.

In reading it, the pleasures are in watching the ingenuity of the writer in contriving elegant variations. The result is, at best, a delight, and one which offers high pleasure. What it doesn't aim at, and shouldn't, is the very highest. A great crime novel is an object of craftsmanship so exquisite it looks very much like art. That ought to be enough for anyone.