Criminal Classics – James Craig

James Craig is a London-based journalist and author of the enormously successful Inspector John Carlyle series.  The third installment is out later this year, but until then you can catch up with Never Apologise, Never Explain.

Here’s James on Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho…



As someone who set out to be pigeonholed as a purveyor of genre fiction, I don’t see how anyone could see American Psycho – published in 1991as anything other than a crime novel.

It’s about a serial killer, for God’s sake, with more graphic, stomach turning violence and sex than the whole of the Millennium trilogy put together. And the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is one of the nastiest baddies you’re ever going to meet.

And yet – Bateman is not just a criminal. Rather, if you read the cuttings of the time he is the very personification of a debased 1980s “yuppie” culture. A crazy banker on the rampage: rather topical, if you think about it.

Brett Easton Ellis – in his mid-20s when the book was published – was a hot young writer who certainly knew how to generate ink and sell books.  The “satirical psychological thriller” was ditched by its original publisher for “aesthetic” reasons and, at the time, sales were restricted in several counties.

According to the NY Times, it was “the biggest literary brouhaha since Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses.””

Even 20 years ago, it is hard to imagine a “crime novel” causing such angst, not least as it would have passed unobserved under the noses of the chattering classes.

It is interesting to note, that at the same time as American Psycho was causing a sensation (or a storm in a teacup, depending on your point of view), Lawrence Block was publishing A Dance at the Slaughterhouse. Also set in New York, A Dance at the Slaughterhouse is a great crime novel – commonly regarded as one of the best novels in Block’s truly magnificent Matthew Scudder series.  A Dance at the Slaughterhouse won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for novel in 1992. But I would be amazed if it got anything approaching 1% of the media attention afforded to American Psycho.

Both books still stand the test of time.  If Block had been younger and talked more about “satire”, if A Dance at the Slaughterhouse had been packaged differently, if it wasn’t part of a series maybe it would have been deemed “literary” too. Personally, I’m glad that it isn’t. Matthew Scudder can still teach me things. He is a character that I want to go back to in a way that Patrick Bateman isn’t.

Ellis, of course, is still mining a rich seam – The Canyons (“five twenty-somethings’ quest for power, love, sex and success in 2012 Hollywood”) is set to be made into a film by Paul Schrader. But it would surely be impossible for anything to create another furore on the same scale as American Psycho. Back in 1991, he gave a rueful interview to the NY Times: “I guess you walk a very thin line when you try to write about a serial killer in a very satirical way.”

Maybe that’s the difference between crime and literary fiction – some carefully chosen buzzwords, a lot of spin and a very thin line.


– James Craig


The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

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