Newsletter - Crime Fantasy by Jack

Monday Jul 30 2012
by Jack

One of the first problems we faced when we took over Whodunit? was to decide exactly what books we would stock. The question arose particularly when we bought used books offered us by customers, but it really was a more general issue. We quickly decided that we were a crime fiction rather than simply a mystery fiction bookstore, but while most books (and authors) categorized themselves, quite a surprising number caused us trouble, because they were in various “cross-over” genres. Over the years, the cross-over genre which has caused us the most trouble is that of fantasy. Curiously enough, the difficulty is less in deciding which fantasy writers we ought to carry than in attempting to persuade our customers to buy them after we have brought them in. Most crime fiction readers seem to have a distinct aversion to reading fantasy, perhaps because they are drawn to modern crime fiction by its realism, while the outstanding characteristic of fantasy is its unreality. Moreover, many people view fantasy as writing for children, although Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Orwell’s Animal Farm are only four of many great books which qualify as fantasy.   Others have difficulty in wrapping their heads around worlds that do not observe the physical rules of our universe but instead require a submersion in worlds with other rules, often demanding a suspension of belief as well. Nevertheless, three of the most popular authors whose books are currently in bookstores and libraries – J.R.R. Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, and Terry Pratchett – are unabashedly writers of fantasy. Of these three, the name of Terry Pratchett is probably the most unfamiliar to most of our customers, although he is also the most relevant to readers of crime fiction, since many of his books have a decidedly and deliberately criminous flavour. 

Sir Terence David John Pratchett, OBE (born 1948) – to give him his complete moniker – is at least arguably the world’s best-selling author. His major accomplishment is a multi-volumed series of fantasy books (about forty) set in an imaginary universe of his own creation called the “Discworld,” a flat world that travels through space on the backs of four giant elephants. The Discworld is filled with magic, and populated by witches, sorcerers, strange creatures (like dwarves, elves, golems, werewolves, and goblins), as well as folk who seem remarkably like humans. Many of the humans live in a city-state named Ankh-Morpork, which has the entrepreneurial sensibilities of Victorian London and the technology and institutional structure of the fourteenth century. It controls crime by licensing it through the Guild of Thieves and manages politics through the highly professionalized Guild of Assassins, which quite literally executes contracts.  It also has a police force called the Watch, headed by a cop named Samuel Vimes and his second-in-command the dwarf Corporal Carrot, who is over six feet tall and really heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork (if it still had a monarchy) but was brought up by the dwarves and thinks of himself as one. Carrot will subsequently fall in love with one of his colleagues, who is a beautiful werewolf named Angua. The Watch fights crime in a number of volumes in the Discworld series, starring in eight books (Guards, Guards; Man at Arms; Feet of Clay, Jingo; The Fifth Elephant; Night Watch; Thud!; and Snuff) while appearing in several others. Actually, there is precious little ordinary crime to fight, since it is well-controlled by the Guild of Thieves; one can actually take out insurance with the Guild to protect oneself from burglary and other depredations. Most of the trouble in Ankh-Morpork comes from the constantly increasing presence in the growing city of new immigrants drawn to it by its employment opportunities. The newcomers come in different colours, sizes, and species, and there is a lot of prejudice and constant rivalry leading to violence. The main theme of the series is the modernization and integration of an ancient police force to meet the new needs of an industrializing society.

As is usual in police procedurals, the Guards series has one star cop and a large cast of underlings, most of whom are fascinating characters in their own right. The star is Samuel Vimes, who over the course of the series develops as a larger-than-life character worthy of Raymond Chandler’s “Down these mean streets a man must go….” Vimes is a decent man doing a difficult job with both integrity and panache. He is species-blind (in the Discworld, different ethnicities are characterized as distinct species, such as elves and dwarfs), treating all living species as legitimate residents of his city. In the latest Guards novel, Snuff, Vimes has to deal with society’s refusal to recognize one specie, the goblins, as sentient creatures. With the aid of his wife, the aristocratic Lady Sybil, Vimes succeeds in freeing the goblins from chattel slavery and in getting them accepted – both in the Watch and in the world.  In the process he is forced to deal with one of the archest of arch-villains, a professional knife-wielding killer. Interestingly enough, this killer is in the end dispatched by Vimes’s personal man-servant, Willikins, who turns out to be quite proficient with the knife himself. As with most of Pratchett’s work, this novel can be read on a variety of levels. Only last week Whodunit? had a ten-year old customer walk into the store – unaccompanied -- and buy a copy of the book, but most of the Pratchett fans who purchase his books from us are considerably older. They have by their own admission gotten over any notion that Pratchett’s work is anything but adult and very serious.

Terry Pratchett is undoubtedly the star of criminous fantasy in our bookstore, but his is not a solitary voice. Three other authors are perhaps worth mentioning in this brief article. One is Simon Green, like Pratchett a British writer (it is almost impossible to think of fantasy being written by anyone but the British, although I must admit that the Canadian Guy Gavriel Kay is very good if not featuring crime in his work). Like Pratchett as well, Green is very prolific, writing a number of series virtually simultaneously. The two most important from Whodunit?’s perspective are the “Secret History” and the “Nightside” ones. The “Nightside” books might perhaps be familiar to some of our readers, since the series has appeared on television. Set in a mysterious hidden underworld London full of magic and strange technology, Green’s private detective John Taylor deals with various problems, most of them from the world of the occult and paranormal. “John Taylor’s the name. I’m a PI working a small slice of mystical real estate in the hidden centre of London It’s a place where the sun refuses to rise, where monsters and men walk side by side. And if you want something found in the Nightside, I’m your man.”  The series is more action-oriented and less clever than Pratchett’s work, but still a good read.  The “Secret Histories” series follows the activities of Eddie Drood (aka Shaman Bond, with its obvious invocation of Ian Fleming), who is a principal member of and field agent for the Drood family, for many centuries the protectors of humankind from the dark forces of the paranormal world. (Parenthetically, for those who would insist that they do not read fantasy because it is not “realistic”, it is difficult to view the work of Ian Fleming in any light other than fantasy.) Perhaps even more than the Nightside series, the Drood books are clearly written tongue-in-cheek.

Another author who sets his work in the near future and emphasizes the struggle against the paranormal is the British writer Charles Stross, who is a computer specialist exceptionally good at extending the virtual world of the computer into the world of unreality. Halting State (2007), for example, involves the robbery of a cyberbank within a multiplayer on-line game, which has to be investigated by a special unit of the Edinburgh police department set up to deal with cybercrime. Stross returned to this unit in 2011 in Rule 34, which chronicles the police investigation of a series of murders of computer spammers, all of whom are killed in gruesomely inventive ways appropriate to their misuse of the computer.  Stross has another group of novels more clearly to be labeled fantasy in the “Laundry Files” series. These involve agent Bob Howard of a British underground investigative unit named “the Laundry” -- it is housed in one -- which is responsible for dealing with any crime outside the ordinary and hence typically involving the paranormal universe.  Bob usually ends up saving the world from some terrible Armageddon, but the struggle can be quite entertaining. 

Our final British writer is China Miéville, who is best-known for his award-winning science fiction. A few years ago, however, he wrote a one-off novel which can only be categorized as fantasy. The City and the City is set somewhere in a present-day Eastern Europe. A murder occurs in the city of Beszél, which is European and Christian, but the investigation by Inspector Borlú of the Extreme Crime Unit takes him to the neighbouring city of Ul Qoma, which is eastern and Muslim. The two cities are neighbours unlike any others in the world, because they occupy exactly the same space, yet are totally separate. Residents of one city are forbidden from even acknowledging the existence of the other, and if they cross the line they are eliminated by an agency called “Breach”.  Borlú must deal with two conspiring and contending parties, one of which seeks to unify both cities and the other of which seeks to destroy one. The novel offers a fascinating take on modern reality and illusion, highlighting the ways in which we selectively “see” the world in which we live. It is definitely a parable for our times and demonstrates how fantasy can be employed for serious political purposes, a point earlier writers like Swift and Orwell clearly understood and which is often forgotten in an eagerness to disparage the genre.  

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