Crime fiction vs. “serious” fiction (oh, no, not this again…)

April 16, 2007 at 9:09 am (books)

Every once in a while, the controversy named in the title of this post gets dragged back into the spotlight. Lovers of crime fiction and mysteries (of which I most certainly am one) get huffy and defensive, demanding to know why their favorite genre gets ignored when the high profile fiction awards are being handed out. One response to this persistently irritating phenomenon has been to pick up our collective toys and go play elsewhere; namely, where organizations consisting of crime writers and readers bestow their own accolades. The best known of these is the Edgar Allan Poe Award, given by the Mystery Writers of America. Almost as famous, probably as prestigious, are the dagger awards bestowed by the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain. (There has recently been something of an uproar over the daggers; I’ll address this subject in a subsequent post.) Of course, we now have the Agatha Award, the Anthony Award, and numerous others. For a comprehensive rundown on awards for mystery fiction, see

To view a recent volley of newspaper articles, blog posts and comments on this subject, click on

At issue is a comment made recently by one Steve Proctor, currently the deputy managing editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, to wit: “The ability to empathize with and understand all kinds of characters is the difference between popular writing and serious fiction.” (Popular fiction being code for genre fiction, of course.) Sigh…

I think the difference between serious, sometimes called literary, fiction, and crime fiction has more to do with emphasizing rather than empathizing. Books in the mystery genre do tend to be more plot driven. But is this to the detriment of characterization? Sometimes yes, but not necessarily.

Anyway – here are some of my favorite “mysterious” characters:

Commissario Guido Brunetti and his brainy, outspoken wife Paola. (Donna Leon);

Former jockey Sid Halley, a courageous and compassionate man (what my gradmother would have called a “mensch”). (Dick Francis);

Earthy, over-the-top Andy “Fat Man” Dalziel and his cerebral second-in-command, Peter Pascoe. And Peter’s wife Ellie, who, is, if anything, even brainier and more outspoken than Paola Brunetti. (Reginald Hill);

Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s melancholy Swede;

And two couples who are desperately trying to work things out:

Joe Gunther, probably the most decent cop in literature today, and his long time lover, the politically ambitious Gail Zigman (Archer Mayor); Episcopal priest and army veteran Clare Fergusson and (married) Sheriff Russ Van Alstyne (Julia Spencer-Fleming).

Needless to say, I could go on…

And don’t forget that if you are looking for information on the order of books in a mystery series, where the series takes place, who the main character is, or what his or her profession is, go to

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