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Book reviewers need to get out from Between the Covers

It’s time for members of the BBC’s weekly book discussion group to emerge from Between The Covers and broaden their field of vision.

Doing so might change their outdated and somewhat snobbish attitudes to the vast world of crime fiction. Even put some excitement and joy into their studiously serious lives.

This tired old viewpoint was well demonstrated  in a recent program in which the entire panel expressed little knowledge of crime fiction. They seemed aghast that anyone could even consider it as “serious” writing.

Clearly it is not for them. Nor for any “serious” readers.

Heaven forbid that works of this ilk ever be regarded with the same reverence and respect as attached to those reviewed and read by such earnest beings as themselves.

Never would crime fiction sully their bookshelves. Never would they walk in the footsteps of Rebus, Wallander, Maigret, Brunetti, Bosch, Perez or even, horror of horrors, the perceptive Poirot.

It is they, however, who are the losers.

Crime fiction is universal, a genre on a par with all its so-called literary companions. It encompasses the world and illuminates every corner of place and mind.

But  the panellists gathered weekly by the shouty Sara Cox follow party lines and dismiss it as lightweight, throwaway entertainment never to be considered as “literary”, whatever that glib phrase might mean.

It is no modern Johnny-Come-Lately. It has been with us since Sophocles presented the ancient world with the investigation of a crime in Oedipus Rex.

But then, as now, the crime and the solving of it, are predominately pegs upon which to hang often deep explorations of all levels of society. And vivid depictions of places that no guide book can ever match.

To explore the world, read crime fiction. To understand its history, read crime fiction. To learn of political and societal changes down the decades, read crime fiction.

Take, for example, my present nightly read.

The Shadows of Men, like the four previous books in this excellent series, should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the current tidal wave of anti-colonial activity infiltrating so many levels of society.

Crimes are committed – a murder and various other serious misdemeanours. And, true to form, the two regular heroes, members of the Imperial Police Force, face all manner of setbacks, dangers. deceptions and dead ends as they track down the culprits.

But it is the setting that is the real story; the full-on richness of  a portrayal of the many aspects of India as it was, and in many respects, still is. A country of extremes. Not merely between rich and poor but throughout all strata of society.

The dominant and domineering British depicted so brilliantly by author Abir Mukherjee may have long gone, but the rifts and divisions remain. They are as much a part of the plot as the actual crimes.

As he himself has said, the detective with access to all levels of society is the perfect tool to study the human condition. Which is why crime fiction is not to be derided or sniffed at as happens on Between The Covers and throughout the “literary” community.

Despite his name, Mukerjee is Scottish born and bred, growing up in a country with a tradition of social commentary. ‘Using the crime novel to discuss social issues is in our blood,’ he comments on his website.

Indeed it is so. Think of Denise Mina, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Ann Cleeves and numerous others among his compatriots who use their crime novels and their detectives to highlight social ills and shortcomings.

Banerjee’s main men are Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath ‘Surrender Not’ Banerjee. Neither are without failings and together they make ideal yin and yang guides to life under the Raj.

Readers are immersed in India in the days of the Raj as lucidly and as deeply as in any academic tome pontificating with ponderous phrase and tone.

We are shown the characters adhering to strict social and religious traditions that divide as much as they unite. Such as the inflammatory (literally so) chasm between Hindu and Muslim. And how other religions play their supporting roles.

And how to unite a nation with such a immense proliferation of languages and dialects. Communication is fraught with pitfalls.

All this plus sparkling dialogue and rich descriptive prose. In one of those crime novels?  Really?

Can it be so? Indeed it can, dear Beyond The Covers coterie.

All that is needed is to step outside the narrow Bookerish world of “literary” fiction and into the realm of crime.

Truly excellent writing awaits, and on a global scale.

Plus tales to tantalise.

The Shadows of Men would be an excellent starting point.

 

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