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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Don't diss your work, Benjamin, not even in jest. 
I take my work seriously. I do not afford myself the same luxury.
Crickey, Benjamin, do it! 
"In the Heat of the Night" by John Ball was a fine police procedural and explored racism powerfully. "They call me Mister Tibbs." Classic line.

"In the Heat of the Night" is an excellent example.  I've seen the film a number of times but haven't read the book.  I will make a point of it.



European Editor, Noir Nation

Spot on, here.  I think crime fiction has been reaching wider audiences than straight reporting forever and, definitely, it has been an impetus for safely exploring social injustice, bigotry, etc. 


I cite right off the bat Nabokov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and many others, which are most likely more literary than the crime literature to which you refer.  However, I wish to add context to my reply.


I turn then to LeCarre, who taught us all about the Cold War and the Gulag and harsh minds and twisted politics.  And, finally, I turn to Truman Capote whose In Cold Blood forged--in my mind--the whole genre of true crime and creative crime fiction.  Of course, Helter Skelter helped the world indulge its penchant for violence through a hefty dose of realistic but creative nonfiction. 


Not having visited Noir Nation yet (but I soon will), I've no clear idea whether you're speaking of more recent spates of crime fiction with a journalistic tie-in: I'm assuming you are, but I'd like to hear a few examples and then respond.   

Wow, how could I have forgotten Nabokov and Lolita?  I've read it a number of times over the years and the whole literary culture I was in blinded me to the fact that it is, in essence a crime novel on a number of levels.  Perhaps this is why when old New York friend Eddie Vega, a fine fine poet I got to know back in the day via our one of our mentors---Allen Ginsberg---first asked me if I wanted to edit a crime/noir magazine he might as well have punched me in the face.  It was one of those punches that knocked a bunch of pieces loose and let them settle into place. You just settled a few more. Thank you.


I've read and loved In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter, and again you are so right.


You know, I first found Crime Space because I was trying to extend the network for Noir Nation, in essence selling something, but have been drawn in and educated.  I, just today, ended a ten year teaching job so that I can get back to writing and publishing.   This site is great. I've been missing out. It's funny one of my old Prague friends, Julie Chibarro, who's most recent book is a young adult novel "Deadly" once said to me, Alan, why don't you write a crime novel, and I laughed it off.  Funny how little we know ourselves sometimes. 


I haven't had a chance to look at your page yet, so I don't know if you are a writer or just a reader.  I sincerely hope you are a writer.  I want to see what you have done.  I liked your encouraging remarks to Benjamin Sobieck. 


I'm assuming, possibly wrongly, that you are in the US or Canada.  If so send Noir Nation's North American editor, Cort McMeel cortmcmeel@yahoo.com, a story for NN issue 2.  Tell him I sent you.

Alan, just picked this thread back up today, July 1, and was thrilled.  Yes, yes, yes.  Lolita is the supreme crime novel and Nabokov's work and, probably, Dostoevsky's, the quintessential precursors to our modern day crime fiction.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it: I'm not sure how many people make the connection, but it's there.  It's there.  Wouldn't it be fabulous to talk to Nabokov and Dostoevsky and ask them their opinion on this?  Closing my eyes, imagining . . . . Oh, it's an exquisite thing to ponder.   


Yes, I'm in the U.S., and I'm a struggling/clawing-her-way-to-publication writer.  Suspense and mystery are my main genres, but I also write in multiple genres, including SF and mainstream.  So the discussion you've begun on blurred lines across noir crime fiction and journalism and even literary genres resonates deeply with me. 

Any good crime novel should have an underlying social commentary. Crime in itself is a result of a problematic social core.


After finishing JACK HANGER I actually sat down and read it. Without even realizing it, I'd delved into a number of serious social problem areas with my heavy-handed writing voice. From child abuse, the fatherless generation, social unrest like riots, and the obvious rise in drug usage, were just some of the issues I'd explored. That was not my aim, but I had somehow found my voice, paragraph by paragraph.


As authors, our art is our voice. We use our words to form a deep social commentary. Every author should let himself go when he starts. Restraint is the writer's enemy. We use a fictional account, but in it hides a sting of truth.


You are right in assuming we should not be journalists. Who can bear a weekly deadline?! But we should exercise our freedom to highlight the problem areas in the modern social fabric. We should also be able to take it apart at will. Who knows, maybe in our haphazard analysis a solution to key issues might present itself.



James, this is a well-articulated response.  Well put. 
Yes, but that is very different from making a particular issue the focus of the whole book.  That's what I call an agenda.  That sort of thing tends to distort reality by the heavy emphsis that is placed on it to the exclusion of other things, or opposing views. I had this issue once with a book by a nameless female author who focused on domestic abuse. The entire book ended up showing all men to be brutes.

Oh dear lord yes, I.J.  And come to think of it, that's one of the reasons I can't tolerate much of the literary fiction that I had to study in college!


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