Criminal classics

Last month I wrote a piece for Crime Fiction Lover trying to sell some of my favourite crime-centred literary classics to the site’s hardcore genre fans.  Once the comments started coming in it became clear that the genre vs literary debate wasn’t quite as polarised as I thought, with many readers, and writers, dropping by to offer their own recommendations.  And point out the ones I was insane to overlook.

So throughout march Loitering With Intent will be featuring a series of guest posts from writers, bloggers and reviewers, who’ll be suggesting a literary classic with its feet in blood.

First up is Garrick Webster, journalist, critic and co-founder of Crime Fiction Lover, with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

“I love that book!” one of my colleagues exclaimed this morning, seeing it on my desk.

Out the window went any pretence that we’d be knuckling down and getting on with work. It’s a far better thing to avidly discuss Donna Tartt’s incredible writing, first unveiled in The Secret History. The opening sentence informs you that Bunny Corcoran is dead and from there on in her perceptive prose sinks its hooks deep into the pit of your stomach and tugs you along. How did he die? And why?

‘Literary’ can be a dirty word when you’re talking to proponents of genre fiction. Why put on a poetic or literary pretence when story should be what drives a book? Well, Tartt proves beyond doubt that a densely layered text needn’t detract from the intensity of the plot. She’s used it to enhance it.

The main character is Richard, a young Californian desperate to fit in at an exclusive Vermont college. His fellow classics students guardedly allow him into their circle, which turns out to be more like a secret society.  Studying Greek literature they plunge into the darker depths of ancient culture. Rituals evoking an imagined past only heighten their old money, patrician attitudes.

The tragedy of Bunny isn’t actually that remarkable. It’s the cover-up that brings all the tension. Every line is enveloped in suggestion and mystery. Thanks to all the nuances in the characters – the way they smoke, drink,
love and kill – the reader becomes evermore a part of their clique. While equally unsettled by it. Will they regret their deeds? Will they have to pay for them?

Beautiful, clever and ominous this is ultimately quite a sad book. The literary approach is integral to The Secret History, and yet it’s one of the best crime stories ever written.

- Garrick Webster

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