Crime Writing: A Political Act?

Crime Writing: A Political Act?

Posted on June 1 by David A. Poulsen in Mystery
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Recently I was the moderator for a panel discussion that was part of Calgary’s participation in the nationwide Arthur Ellis Crime Writing awards simultaneous shortlist announcements. The topic was “Not Your Grandmother’s Whodunit.” Over the course of the discussion the panelists and I examined the changing face of crime writing over the last century. From the pioneers of the form — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic Sherlock Holmes stories, John Buchan’s groundbreaking “man on the run” thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps, and, of course, mystery Grand Dame,  Agatha Christie’s remarkable string of successes — to the rock stars of today’s crime fiction — Rankin, Kellerman, Connelly, Penny, Bowen, Nesbø, and so many more — there has been a shift or, perhaps more accurately, an evolution within the genre and its many sub-genres.

I was raised on Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels, courtesy of my father, a Mason devotee. And though the mysteries and their inevitable courtroom solution were satisfying, readers never saw Mason change. He was brilliant; he represented good; he always won—but he didn’t evolve. The relationships with the other characters in the novels — his secretary, Della Street, fellow detective Paul Drake and even with the hapless DA, Hamilton Burger — were on one level only and virtually the same in every book. The characters themselves had few, if any, personal crises — there was little discussion of the social or political issues of the day.

Fast forward to today and we see crime writers tackling what Ian Rankin terms “…big moral themes under the guise of whodunits.” He goes on to note that “academe and literary circles might not take the form seriously, but…the crime novel can say as much about human nature and the state of the world as any other branch of writerly endeavour.” I agree with Rankin and it is that element of the genre that in large part drew me back to it, first as a reader, then as a writer.

In Dead Air, the second of the Cullen and Cobb mysteries, we see the novel’s central characters somewhat at odds with one another, mainly because of their opposing views of the world. Cullen, the left-leaning progressive, finds it distasteful that the pragmatic, conservative-minded Cobb has agreed to work as a bodyguard for a right-wing media personality. And while Cobb may not share some of the extreme views of his client, particularly as they relate to the requisite intolerance of so many of that stripe, the two investigators are, for a time at least, definitely not on the same page. And we see the evolving and deepening relationship between Cullen and Jill Sawley and her daughter, Kyla. Kyla’s struggles with Crohn’s disease also form part of the unfolding story. And while there is clearly a whodunit aspect to the novel — actually there are two, it is a mystery after all — it is the personal, political, and social elements, along with the layered facets of relationships that mirror real life, which make the Cullen and Cobb novels so much more interesting for me and I hope for readers too. 

David A. Poulsen

Posted by Kendra on October 30, 2014
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David A. Poulsen

David A. Poulsen has been a broadcaster, teacher, football coach, and — most of all — a writer. He is the author of more than twenty-five books, including the first three books in the Cullen and Cobb Mystery series. He lives on a ranch in the Alberta foothills near Calgary.