Mick Herron’s foreword to Postmortem, the 2019 UEA Crime Fiction MA anthology, published by Egg Box, followed by Tom Benn’s afterword
FOREWORD by Mick Herron
Some while ago I met a man who told me he’d once tried writing a novel. His problem, he explained, was that he’d only really wanted to write ‘the good bits’, as he called them. Having completed these he lost interest, and all he was left with was a patchwork of unconnected scenes.
He had fallen, of course, into a common error: that of believing that a novel has good bits. Or, put another way, he’d failed to appreciate the novelist’s fundamental task, which is to feel that he or she is always working on the good bits. Open any Dickens novel at random and you’ll find him in full flow; pick any paragraph by Jane Austen, there’ll be a line worth reading aloud. Neither saved their energy for the story’s highlights. They left it all on the page, every time.
Judging by the extracts contained in this anthology, those undertaking the University of East Anglia’s MA in Crime Fiction have had this lesson drummed into them. Against settings ranging from London in the ’60s, through Norwich past and present, to an independent Scotland in the near future, and whether writing about snow in Tokyo or big-game poaching in Kenya, about artists, private eyes or music-hall artistes, they’ve left it all on the page. In doing so, their only point in common is that each has chosen to work within the crime genre. This in itself is neither surprising – it’s abundantly clear that the genre offers scope for both escaping from the anxieties generated by a body politic in disarray, and for examining those anxieties and their causes – nor is it especially significant. Genre is frequently thought of as being a series of border walls, when in reality it amounts to little more than road markings. Crime, romance, fantasy, even actual “literature”: what novels in these different lanes share is that they are novels; that this is the vehicle their author has chosen.Genre is frequently thought of as being a series of border walls, when in reality it amounts to little more than road markings. Crime, romance, fantasy, even actual “literature”: what novels in these different lanes share is that they are novels; that this is the vehicle their author has chosen. But then, the purpose of writing a novel is not having a particular journey in mind, or even a particular story to tell. It’s having the need to write.
It’s not only the writer who has work to do, of course. Readers have their part to play too, and it seems only fair that they should be held to the same high standards that they expect writers to meet, ideally matching those reached by Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend, of whom it is famously observed, ‘You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader … He do the Police in different voices’. Doing the Police in different voices is the reader’s job, but the writer’s is to make that possible by treating everyone on the page – police and villain alike – with equal care, and by approaching every character’s appearance as one of the good bits. The writers collected in this anthology have made that effort. Readers can happily rehearse their different voices, and look forward to being put to the test by the variety of opportunities on display here, in what is at once a snapshot of what the crime novel is doing now and a glimpse of the directions it might take in the future. It’s a comfort to know that this part of the future, at least, is in steady hands.
AFTERWORD by Tom Benn
Crime novels are narratives generated and sustained by questions and transgressions. What is the crime? Who committed the crime? How was the crime committed? And why? Different books, eras, modes and subgenres centre a different question, and elect to answer all, some, or like Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, dare to answer none definitively.
What then, are we left with, after some questions have been conditionally answered, and the transgressors brought to a legal, moral or cosmic reckoning?
Good crime fiction often keeps the land but redraws the map to better welcome and trade with its neighbours. It is suspicious of borders, especially its own. It crosses them to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.Good crime fiction often keeps the land but redraws the map to better welcome and trade with its neighbours. It is suspicious of borders, especially its own. It crosses them to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. It might interlope, interrogate, cross-pollinate, provide catharsis, excite, outrage and dissent. And when it starts to over-rely on a trope, it won’t be long before said trope is warped by others to reveal something true again, about itself and us. Crime fiction demands this flexible, sceptical framework for its own increasingly rude health. The eleven writers in this third MA Crime Fiction Anthology understand this. Irrespective of subject, setting, theme or prose style, each uses the multitudes of the crime genre to embrace and reflect who we are and how we live now. Each understands and respects the genre, even as they dismantle its traditions.
‘A lot of people worry about technique,’ Walter Mosley, a respectful dismantler, says. ‘[But] craft doesn’t make art. Craft just makes good sentences.’
Good crime fiction needs goods sentences, but Wise Walter is right. Good sentences can’t be all we are left with. You might find that these crime writers do provide answers to crime fiction’s perennial questions when you read their published novels. But they don’t claim to have all the answers. Crime fiction is written to provoke the uncertainties. Critic Scott McCracken writes: ‘More often than not, we read [crime fiction] for the uncertainties provoked by the mystery rather than the security given by the solution.’
Over the two-year course, we tutors provide students with frustratingly few answers or solutions, and no doubt teach them little other than craft; to worry about technique. Yet here, over the preceding pages, is the postmortem proof they have learned much. They are already asking new questions. Which leaves us, leaves them, and leaves the crime novel, with plenty.