What are some examples of crime literature that serves as deep social commentary?

I ask this question in the interest of furthering the high respect that I think crime literature deserves.  In the news recently there have been many journalists kidnapped and killed.  Could it not be that in some places in the world writing fiction to explore social injustice, bigotry, religious extremism, corruption, organized crime, and violence, that it may be safer to do in a fictional vein.


I in no way mean to suggest that crime fiction can, or should replace journalism, just that in some places it might reach a wider audience, and the story element might pull people through a longer and deeper exploration of ideas and points of view, than would a strict journalistic article.


As the European editor of Noir Nation, I would love to see some non-fiction short stories on these topics, and have a journalistic tie-in.



The discussion on this forum has gotten quite a lot of responses.  This has inspired us at Noir Nation to add a new section to the first issue of Noir Nation wherein writers opine on the following question: Must crime noir have a moral point?  The word limit is 300 to 500 words. Include short bio, and photo. There is a $25 honoraria, payable on publication. Best five get published in Issue No. 1. Send to eddie@evegaonline.com -- Eddie Vega

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Oh, a tough guy, eh?  I be you write some killer dialogue!

You do have a point about people, especially young men, not reading, and when they do they might tend to go for the news"paper" in what ever form, though there are a lot of people who do read crime fiction.  To refine my thought slightly I suppose I meant the people who do read crime fiction over journalism for escape, when a journalistic story with the same elements may be avoided (funny how a novel about the same crime, violence and despair can be an escape, when the article is too close to home and depressing).  I tend to think of crime, and here I mean repeat criminal offenders, in a vein similar to that of addiction:  both can lead to death, but people do it anyway.  Thirdly, I suppose it could be cowardice to respond to a dangerous reality by switching to fiction, however, a well written novel stands a better chance of staying in a public's mind longer than the 24 hour news cycle.  (Uncle Tom's Cabin, did sway opinion among certain influential people)


I agree that journalism should not be softened, though crime fiction, good crime fiction, isn't necessarily a softening either.  I think a novel about Muslim immigrants to Europe can be just as hard hitting as an article.  And the example you gave sounds more like an opinion, than journalism. (Perhaps I didn't catch your intention there?)


Your last point about reaching younger folks, is why Noir Nation and the books coming out on Bare Knuckles Press this fall will be published electronically, for e-readers, iPads, iPhones, Androids, etc.  I will say however, that having also been a teacher for 18 years the recent movement to get books that are fun to read into schools, has gotten more kids to read.  I have seen it with my own eyes.  Yes they may be reading Harry Potter or Vampire books, but they are reading and getting better at that basic skill.  Whether or not they find there way to deeper "literature" or "more important books" later on remains to be seen, but it has also been shown that any increase in basic literacy brings a decrease in poverty and an increase in health, especially that of women an children.  Yes that may be a bit idealistic for some, but that's just who I am. 



European Editor of Noir Nation

That is an important distinction.  Kind of like church and state?  An interesting comparison, not sure if it's apt.
The last John Le Carre novel I read was about a Muslim immigrant.

It should be remembered that it was Muslims who invented Algebra and brought it, via trade, to Europe, thus adding a key element that helped kick off the Renaissance:  Galileo down to Newton and Descartes could not have done what they did without that key element .  And that it was a wave of Christian immigrants that set up America as we know it, but they also brought religious fundamentalism and the seeds of groups like the KKK.  Every wave brings good and bad.  A wave on the shore brings a peaceful rhythmic rolling roar, as well as jelly fish, used condoms, and dead rats.  The trouble is you see one condom or dead rat, and it blinds you to the massive wonder of the ocean.  Perhaps the good thing a "wave of Muslim immigrants" might bring is that it reminds us of democratic ideals and the necessity of tolerance.  The trouble is that while in the shit we are blind to the good side of what it might bring.  In the Czech Republic everyone complains about the Ukrainian immigrants, but they are willing do do all the jobs Czechs refuse do to.  Without them they'd be cleaning their own toilets.  It's a similar situation with Mexican workers in the US.  I don't mean to open a can of worms here, but if given a can opener I'm not going to shy away from this (thus the catch phrase of Noir Nation's sister Bare Knuckles Press:  "Books worth fighitng for.")


Having lived in Europe for 18 years it's been my experience that most Muslims are fine people, and that it is, like in every culture or religion, the few percent of bad apples that gives the whole of a religion a bad name.  I was down in Bosina in '96, just at the end of all the shit down there, and I swear that when you are lost in in the Republic of Serbska, you prayed the next folks you came upon were Muslims, instead of Serbs, because Muslims were  always---in my experience there---genuinely nice and helpful people.  I'll hold my tongue on my experience of the Serbian soldiers.



I don't know that this is the place to get into such a discussion.


However, my point was merely that any movement of populations, such as immigration by people of a certain religion, has positive and negative aspects.  And it is the positive aspects that take longer to show.  And by only focusing on the negative aspects blinds us to the possible wonderful contributions that same influx of people may bring. 


I (Alan, am speaking for myself here and not the other editors of NN) feel that your statement "The only thing of significance they [Muslims] have contributed to the world as a group is misery, since about 750 A.D. when Mohammad galvanized the culture, gave it a name, and prescribed subjugation and murder of those not like himself. And the morons bought it."  Is a dangerous sentiment to hold.  They said the same of Jews.  The power hungry leaders of the Serbs said the same of "muslims" in Bosnia, even though many of those "muslims" where non-practicing completely secualr people who merely had traditionally muslim last names, and had never been to a Mosque in their lives.  Islam is not the only religion that has factions that proscribe murder of those not like itself.  Christianity in various forms has done that for just as long if not longer.  


What if, in terms of say Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, I changed your statement to something like "The only thing of significance Christians have contributed to the world as a group is misery, since about 1500 A.D. when Martin Luther galvanized the culture, gave it a name, and prescribed  yadda yadda yadda. And the morons bought it."


Maybe it would be better to focus the scorn on religions plural, as Islam has not monopoly on horror, it only seems that way though the narrow historical window we are peering through. 


Post the passages of the Koran where it proscribes subjugation and Murder.  I can post a couple from the Bible.

The first novel that leapt to mind: le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.


Books written in the last few years, the first thought is Richard Price's Lush Life.

Richard Price in general qualifies. CLOCKERS is his best. I recently read SAMARITAN, which was also very good.


It's not "literature" per se, but the crime/social commentary mix has never been done better than in THE WIRE.

I read Price's Lush Life, that is a good example.  Some Walter Mosley also fits the bill.
Apart from the fact that crime novels and stories (all short stories are fiction by definition) do show the impact of crime on society and take a position on this, I prefer that they not have an overt agenda.  It tends to take  away from plot and character development.
Yes, in that way they can lay out the facts of what ever "reality" they are representing or set in, and let the reader decide.  I'm always on the lookout for books or stories, where different readers come away with different ideas, or even a different idea of who the good guy and bad guy is.

I don't have a problem with an agenda, as long as I don't strongly disagree with it! The best way to go about it seems to be to immerse the reader in a world they wouldn't encounter otherwise. Motherless Brooklyn and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time offered an inside view of mental health issues, as did the old series by Abigail Pagett. Sara Paraetsky and Laura Lippman both tackle economic and racial injustice. Colin Cotterill embeds the otherwise-inexplicable attraction communism has to Laotians in his series. I like finding something worth chewing on. Sure, it can be too heavy-handed. Anything can be done poorly. But done well, I think it adds.


PS There is a long history of fiction writing used to protest injustice in societies where honest journalism will quickly get you killed. To call this cowardice is naive.

That is a good list of authors and books and a great point in the PS.  I liked Motherless Brooklyn very much.


What made me ask the question in the first place was that I used to publish a literature magazine in Prague back in the 90s (Optimism Monthly) and when a lot of those people and friends heard that I was now working on a crime/noir publication, or when I approached them for support in building the European leg of the network, I felt noses being looked down at me; no one said anything, but I did get comments like "Sorry, I'm a poet don't read crime fiction," or "Not interested, I only read literature."  Again I think of Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Les Miserables.


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