The trouble with the question, Is the crime novel literature? is that it implies that something has to rise to the level of art before it can be worthy of our attention. When critics write that a crime novel “transcends the genre,” they believe they’re paying a great compliment. But it’s backhanded, implying that the whole project isn’t worth doing in the first place. For them, “whodunits” will forever and always be whodunits and nothing more. That very term—like the equally-dismissive “mysteries”—tells you how out of touch the people who use it are with the reality and variety of crime fiction. The judgment is handed down from a literary establishment which fails to see that the contemporary literary novel has itself become a kind of genre writing. Why else is nearly every new novel that’s an accomplished feat of storytelling invariably described as “old-fashioned”? What type of novel can’t be described as genre writing? The realist novel? The experimental novel? The nouveau roman? The question of whether literature is high or low is on some level a way for a critic to evade the job of focusing on the particulars of a work, of describing the experience of reading it, and of suggesting how it relates both to other fiction and to its moment.
While it’s a mistake to equate popularity with worth, endurance isn’t the same thing as popularity, and as a genre the crime novel has endured for more than a century. Edgar Allan Poe usually receives the credit for writing the first detective story with the publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841. After Poe, there are faked police “memoirs” and intermittent bestsellers until—with Sherlock Holmes’ initial appearance in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gives us the first really memorable fictional detective. Among the many reasons why the mystery has endured is a basic one: its form and movement together are a metaphor for the experience of reading.
A reader is nothing if not a detective. What prompts the reading of fiction is the desire to find out what comes next—an impulse all too easy to trivialize. Something has gone seriously wrong with our understanding of why people read when a good critic like James Wood talks about “the essential juvenility of plot.” Asked about that phrase in an interview, Wood said: “I like destroying the tyranny of plot . I don’t think I need a plot to sustain my enjoyment. Formally speaking, if you really did believe in plot you’d say, ‘I can’t reread Anna Karenina, because I know what happens.’ But it’s obvious that there are deeper, more sustaining beauties underneath. Or if you go to Lear, you know what’s going to happen, but the joy is in seeing new facets.”
But the foundation for the discovery of those sustaining beauties, those new facets, is the plot. The agonies and glories of Anna Karenina or King Lear can’t be divorced from the narrative line, and the pleasure of good storytelling—the sense of recognition it imparts—doesn’t end even if we already know how the story does. It’s the same with biography and history. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov says that writing a memoir is discovering the plot of your own life. The historian John Demos begins The Unredeemed Captive—his wonderful account of the 1704 Indian kidnapping of the minister John Williams and his family—with the line, “Most of all, I wanted to write a story.”