THE DEBATE OUGHT to have been over by 1944, when Raymond Chandler credited Dashiell Hammett with proving that "the detective story can be important writing." "The Maltese Falconmay or may not be a work of genius," Chandler declared in "The Simple Art of Murder," "but an art which is capable of it is not 'by hypothesis' incapable of anything." Though Chandler strongly contrasted Hammett's novels to "the average detective story" (a "more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction"), he emphasized that Hammett "did not wreck the formal detective story." Far from transcending its conventions, Hammett excelled by realizing the full potential of the specific form he had chosen, by showing what it was capable of.
Yet the debate goes on. Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin bristles when his Inspector Rebus novels are praised for "transcending the genre" of crime fiction. "I mean, what happens when you transcend the genre?" he demanded in a 2007 interview.
Is it no longer a crime novel? If that novel involved a guy doing what Rebus does but he wasn't a cop, would that then not be a crime novel? ... I think crime fiction should be taken seriously. I don't think it's any longer about a little puzzle that you read on a train on the way to somewhere and when you're finished it's done and you've not gleaned anything except you've had a nice time solving a puzzle.
Chandler and Rankin rightly dismiss the supposed dichotomy between crime fiction and "literary" fiction as a red herring. Despite the persistent assumption that some literary forms are inherently more formulaic than others, all writing relies on genre markers, and "genre" itself is a notoriously unstable term, invoking categories that are both permeable and endlessly mutable. The real issue — the critical issue — is how form is used, what it enables us to discover. We shouldn't ask whether crime fiction needs to transcend its traditional forms, but rather how those forms have evolved, and what they have made possible.
Consider Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Swedish co-authors of a series of police procedurals collectively titled The Story of Crime. Predating the fabulously successful Scandinavian crime novels of Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and Jo Nesbø by a quarter century, Sjöwall and Wahlöö's 10 volumes — first published between 1965 and 1975 — develop a slyly devastating critique of the social and political condition of Sweden during that tumultuous era. Sjöwall and Wahlöö had no need to transcend their genre to reach this goal. The form of the police procedural (in which they were schooled by Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels) perfectly supported their interest in investigating systemic, rather than individual, dysfunction. Deriving its suspense not from whodunit, but fr...