Lawrence Block and the continuing unease of genre

Although it seems as if these days almost every literary commentator acknowledges that genre fiction can be as good as fiction in the literary mainstream, it’s just lip service. Nods are made to Chandler and Hammett (and sometimes James M. Cain too) long after they died, to Ballard and Dick who found braod acclaim only when their mainstream fiction started appearing. The occasional odd exceptions need a hook, and the hype is much more them than their work – Ellroy’s dark past, and William Gibson wrote Neuromancer without ever having used a computer: use other facts please. But nonetheless, getting anyone to give much serious credit and exposure to the best who remain within their genre’s bounds, and who haven’t yet died, seems difficult.

Lawrence Block is a great writer. Not just a great crime writer*. In fact, I’m not sure he is a great crime writer: the most interesting things in many of his novels are the characters, the pastiches, the themes, the literary stuff. The workings out of the crimes, the question of who done it, is often of comparatively cursory interest (and is sometimes ludicrously contrived and awkward). That this is true of many of the greatest writers in the genre is an interesting point. Who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep? Even Chandler had no idea, and I’m not sure that any of the crime writers I admire enormously wrote great whodunnits, created puzzles to match someone like Agatha Christie, who is perhaps negligible in strictly literary terms. But who wouldn’t rather read a good novel of character and mood and meaning and depth with added guns and killings and action?

*I should note that a minority of his novels fall outside the genre’s bounds anyway – Ariel is a ghost story, and the first half of the great Chip Harrison omnibus (I’ve seen this superb volume at remaindered prices in the UK) is barely crime fiction, and might be his best work.