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 from why they did it and how they will get caught, the police procedural has always been a socially conscious, if not progressive, genre. That tradition extends from Lawrence Treat’s V as in Victim (1945) to Joseph Wambaugh’s latest Hollywood Station novels, and survives on the small screen with series like Dick Wolf’s Law & Order (1990-2010) and David Simon’s The Wire (2002-2008).
Instead of following the ratiocinative exploits of a single great detective, the procedural disperses our attention across the members of a crime-fighting unit. Modern detection is not just a team effort; it is also a highly bureaucratic one. Sjöwall and Wahlöö are keenly aware of this convention and use it to full effect. Although their lead character, Inspector Martin Beck (eventually chief of Sweden’s National Homicide Squad), is at the heart of The Story, he remains a somewhat remote and enigmatic figure. Phlegmatic, taciturn, introverted, Beck provides the occasion but not the voice for Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s political critique; indeed, Beck “always [tries] to avoid conversations of political import” (The Locked Room, 1972).
Beck is a police officer, not a crusader, and the men he leads are similarly uninspiring:
[Beck] disliked Gunvald Larsson and had no high opinion of Ronn. He had no high opinion of himself either for that matter. Kollberg made out he was scared and Hammar had seemed irritated. They were all very tired, added to which Ronn had a cold. (The Man on the Balcony, 1967)
Their idiosyncrasies and failings are reiterated across the series with affectionate consistency and touches of the authors’ characteristic dry wit. Melander, for example,
was generally known for his logical mind, his excellent memory and immovable calm. Within a smaller circle, he was most famous for his remarkable capacity for always being in the toilet when anyone wanted to get hold of him. His sense of humor was not nonexistent, but very modest; he was parsimonious and dull and never had brilliant ideas or sudden inspiration. (The Fire Engine That Disappeared, 1969)
“Briefly,” this character sketch concludes, “he was a first-class policeman”: Melander’s conspicuous limitations are virtues in a world where crimes are solved through painstaking police work, not flashes of insight or ingenious deduction.
The characters’ personal circumstances emerge over the course of the 10 novels, but their home lives are always subordinated (for them and for us) to the incessant and often tedious demands of police business. Crime itself, after all, is incessant and tedious. Indeed, it’s crime’s unremitting sordid repetition that necessitates the institution of the police force in the first place; this vicious cycle is embedded in the form of the police procedural, which is premised on the knowledge that there will always be another case.
The procedural’s focus on crime as a chronic problem shifts the real object of inquiry from the individuals who commit it to the broader social and economic conditions that cause it. The procedural is rich with political implications, a feature fundamental to Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s literary accomplishment. As their team of officers investigates specific breaches of order, what they invariably uncover is the more general failure of the state to meet its citizens’ needs:
All that the police really succeeded in doing was to stir up the dregs — the homeless, the alcoholics, the drug addicts, those who had lost all hope, those who could not even crawl away when the welfare state turned the stone over. (The Man on the Balcony)
Far from fighting nobly for an ideal of justice, the police often labor merely to preserve the appearance of social harmony — a delicate veneer over a miserable reality. With Martin Beck’s promotion, for instance, comes “the doubtful pleasure of reading confidential reports”:
[S]ecret memoranda on [suicide] cropped up with increasing regularity. The point of departure was always the same: Sweden led the world by a margin that seemed to grow larger from one report to the next, but, as with so many other things, the National Commissioner had decreed that nothing must get out. (Cop Killer, 1974)
Each case they solve repairs the social façade but effects no meaningful improvement. Often, in fact, the police make situations worse because their top commanders are committed to a blunt ethos of power and control:
Now the Swedish police were armed to the teeth. All of a sudden, situations which formerly could have been cleared up by a single man equipped with a lead pencil and a pinch of common sense required a busload of patrolmen equipped with automatics and bullet-proof vests. (The Locked Room)
Those on the front lines of criminal justice are well aware that violence exacerbates rather than solves problems. Martin Beck reflects that “it wasn’t so long since they used to chop a thief’s hands off. Yet people still went on stealing. Plenty of them” (The Man on the Balcony). Kollberg, his closest associate, refuses even to carry a real gun. Nonetheless, they must implement (and bear the consequences of) policies created by people who “thought that water cannons, rubber billy clubs and slobbering German shepherd dogs were superior aids when it came to creating contact with human beings” (The Fire Engine That Disappeared). Predictably, “the results were according to those beliefs”:
There had been an enormous increase in assaults on private persons. Every hour of the day and night people were being struck down in the city’s streets and squares, in their own boutiques, in the subway, or in their homes, indeed, everywhere and anywhere … The existing social system was obviously hardly viable. (The Locked Room)
Again, the form enables the content — one story could hardly make this general point, but reiteration across the series leads us to view crime as a byproduct of a world marked by corruption and inequality. Beck and his team have some success against individual wrongs and injustices, but they have no hope of bringing about any large-scale reform. Though they themselves never advocate drastic change, their work makes them witnesses to its necessity. These procedurals thus become vehicles for Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s revolutionary vision simply by depicting cops going about their routine business.
The radicalism of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s social critique is most apparent in their final book, The Terrorists (1975), which juxtaposes the squad’s attempt to prevent a political assassination by a terrorist cell against the story of a young woman repeatedly failed by the state that’s supposed to protect her. “She realized,” her lawyer argues, “that someone must bear the responsibility” — and so she strikes back. Is she, too, a terrorist? Maybe — she’s certainly a murderer — but the preceding books in the series have primed us to listen sympathetically to her defense:
I think lots of people know perfectly well they’re being cheated and betrayed, but most people are too scared or too comfortable to say anything. It doesn’t help to protest or complain, either, because the people in power don’t pay any attention. They don’t care about anything except their own importance, they don’t care about ordinary people.
Her lawyer argues that, far from being an outlaw, “she is wiser and more right-thinking than most of us”; after what we have seen, it is difficult for us, too, to condemn her.
That’s an unsettling position to find oneself in. It certainly undermines the common assumption that the boundless popularity of crime fiction rests on its assurance that reason and order will always triumph in the end. Yet the disruptive potential of our sympathy is carefully contained. She herself is an accidental revolutionary; her naïveté prompts pity, not further rebellion. The lawyer who speaks so forcefully on her behalf is a peripheral character; our enduring relationship is with the police, who (though much kinder to her than to the thwarted terrorists they beat savagely on arrest) still submit her to the imperfect justice of the state she turned against. The alternative, as they realize only too well, is not utopia but chaos. As Beck says, chastising a group of citizen vigilantes:
The very idea of militia comprises a far greater danger to society than any single criminal or gang. It paves the way for lynch mentality and arbitrary administration of justice. It throws the protective mechanism of society out of gear. (The Man on the Balcony)
Beck does not walk down the mean streets of Stockholm either untarnished or unafraid. But he still goes to work every day, even when (as is so often the case) he has a bad cold, because he believes in that “protective mechanism.” Though he is neither an ideal nor an idealist, his daily drudgery in the service of a system he knows to be deeply flawed is its own dogged kind of moral heroism.
Reflecting on his first encounters with Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books, Jonathan Franzen recalls “how perfectly comforting” The Laughing Policeman was when he was “sick in bed and too weak to face the likes of Faulkner or Henry James”:
Once I’d made the acquaintance of Inspector Martin Beck, I was never again so afraid of colds (and my wife was never again so afraid of how grouchy I would be when I got one), because colds were henceforth associated with the grim, hilarious world of Swedish murder police. (Introduction to The Laughing Policeman [orig. pub. 1968], 2009)
Each book in The Story of Crime, he declares, is “readable cover-to-cover on the worst day of a sore throat.” Franzen means to praise the series, and indeed much of his discussion is appreciative. His affable condescension, however, betrays the same belittling attitude against which Rankin chafes. Far from having “wedded the satisfying simplicities of genre fiction to the tragicomic spirit of great literature,” as Franzen proposes, Sjöwall and Wahlöö are among those who show that, in the hands of visionary and capable writers, crime fiction can simply be great literature. The only transcendence required is the reader’s.