The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction by Martin Priestman (Ed.) (Shane's book 7, 2010)

Like John Scaggs' Crime Fiction, which I read last year, this is an academic overview of the crime fiction genre. While I was disappointed with Scaggs' book - I felt I had already read too widely to appreciate it - I enjoyed this one a little more, mostly because each chapter is given over to a different specialist.

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I found the first two chapters, dealing with early crime fiction, particularly interesting. Ian A Bell's chapter on 18th Century crime writing explains how early works didn't seek to provide reassurance to the reader and largely omit any kind of detective figure. That's followed by a chapter on sensationalist fiction by Lyn Pickett, who offers some good insights into the relationship between 'high' and 'low' literature during this formative period.

Next is a chapter on how crime fiction developed primarily through the medium of the short story, followed by one focusing exclusively on French crime fiction. The latter, by Sita A Schutt, is pretty much the only acknowledgement of non-British or American crime writing in the whole book, which is a shame, but in itself it's a thorough survey.

The bulk of what follows is fairly ordinary, partly because it covers the ground with which I am most familiar and also because it covers much of the same ground as Scaggs. We move through chapters on the golden age, the private eye genre, spy fiction, the thriller and then a chapter each on post-war British and American crime fiction before things start to get interesting again.

There are chapters on women detectives and on black crime fiction, both of which are areas with which I'm unfamiliar and both offer a different take on the purpose of the crime genre. It's a common belief that crime writing is essentially a conservative genre concerned with reassuring its readers that the status quo will be maintained, however, that notion is challenged when the genre is subverted by feminist, homosexual or ethnic minority characters.

Though as Andrew Pepper writes in his chapter on black crime writing, few examples fall into such neat categories. Even when the characters are white men, the writer sometimes undermines the notion of a dominant social order by showing a law enforcement regime that is ineffective, under-resourced, unjust or beset by low morale.

A different perspective comes in the final chapter - Detection and Literary Fiction - which was by far my favourite. Laura Marcus raises the possibility that there is no social message in crime fiction at all: "The concept of 'fair play' in the construction of detective narratives suggested an ethical dimension, but was rather more important as a way of emphasising the ludic aspects of the genre..."

Marcus looks at the assumed opposition between modernist literature and detective fiction and finds it to be an over-simplification and one complicated by the fact that at least some modernist authors enjoyed detective fiction. From there she goes on to look at the post-modernist approach to crime fiction taken by some authors whose work I really enjoy, including Borges, Pynchon, Auster, Eco and the Oulipians.

If you're looking for an introduction to crime fiction I would recommend this over the Scaggs. There's also plenty in here to interest someone with more knowledge of the genre, though they will also find plenty that is familiar.