What is crime fiction? Discuss… It’s a question that has been nagging at me for a few years now. I used to think I knew what it looked like and what it read like, but then I realised that many of my favourite books could be described as crime fiction, from James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, through Iain Banks’ Complicity, to Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room & many more. The scales fully fell thanks to two very different novels published in 2015 by Saraband Books which I read, reviewed, and then interviewed the authors. They are Graham Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project and Graeme Lironi’s Oh, Marina Girl, and from then on any prejudice I held (and I admit I did) disappeared.
But the question remained, “What is crime fiction?”. I have reviewed most of Doug Johnstone’s books on these and other pages over the years, including his most recent Breakers, and while crimes occur I have never really considered them “crime”. They are mainly concerned with the dynamics of groups – friends, family, co-workers, bands, university pals – and, to a greater or lesser degree, address social/political and cultural themes. His books are more about why people commit crime than solving the crime itself.
Similar questions can be posed concerning Johnstone’s fellow Orenda Books‘ author Helen Fitzgerald. Her novels, (which include The Donor, The Cry, and The Exit) often deal with deception (self and otherwise) and perception – how we perceive the world, how others perceive us, and, perhaps most damaging of all, how we perceive how others perceive us. Her characters make decisions, for various, and often understandable reasons, which then have devastating consequences. Her novels have been described as “domestic noir”, which is certainly apt, but they are also examinations of human behaviour and what happens when individuals are pushed to their limits and beyond.
Her latest is Worst Case Scenario. Mary Shields is trying to protect her relationship, her son, her reputation, and her sense of right and wrong, but feels she is losing her grip on all of these. A probation worker based in Glasgow, she is obsessed with the case of Liam Macdowall, a man who murdered his wife but who, while in prison, has become a poster boy for a variety of ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ who believe his conviction to be unfair, and who have taken his book CUCK as a primary text. Mary is determined that justice will be done, and is prepared to blur the lines between proper procedure and illegality to achieve her aim. Desperate times are perhaps the worst times for desperate measures, and Worst Case Scenario shows why this is in glorious and often gruesome detail.
One of the reasons that Fitzgerald’s books make such a connection with readers is her characters are utterly believable. They are us, but the situations in which they find themselves are extreme, posing the question, “What would you do?”. It’s a difficult feat to make such characters as sympathetic, or at least as empathetic, as they are, but they are ordinary people pushed to the edge, by work, family, their minds, their bodies – in short, by life. In many of Fitzgerald’s books the protagonist’s situation spirals out of control quickly. That could be any of us if circumstances dictate – we are all only a couple of bad decisions from crashing.
Helen Fitzgerald doesn’t worry about the possibility of causing offence – possibly relishing the opportunity. But it’s not shock for the sake of it – she wants to address aspects of the everyday which people often sideline, and there is an honesty in her writing which is rare. Mary Shields is an unforgettable character who life, and Fitzgerald, throws a hell of a lot at. She is swiftly approaching retirement, is menopausal, is a (barely) functioning alcoholic, obsesses, and sometimes fantasises, about her cases, and her son then starts a relationship with the worst person Mary could imagine.
Despite all of this it is the case of Liam Macdowall which comes to overshadow all other aspects of her life as she begins to use other clients and their cases to get the results she believes to be right, and as a result it all goes spectacularly wrong. It’s farcical (in the true sense of the word) but the humour is so black that it often catches you unaware.
Although the thrills, and literal spills, are plentiful it’s important to stress just how funny Worst Case Scenario is, but, as with the shock value, it is done with purpose. Fitzgerald comments on workplace politics, social and cultural hypocrisy, and the complexities of the modern world and finds them absurd. Her insights are keen and cutting. For instance, she examines the Pavlovian nature of popular protest, the role of the media, and how nothing appears real unless it is caught on camera or seen on screen.
Mary’s behind the scenes insights into red-tape and failings of the acronym obsessed world of the probation system, her not-so-passive relationship with her family and workmates, her use and abuse of supposedly sacred relationships – these are all deadly serious. Fitzgerald’s fiction is an expression of frustration, deciding that you might as well laugh or you’d definitely cry.
It has often been claimed that there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy and few writers blur that line as Helen Fitzgerald does, and never more so than with Worst Case Scenario. Thrilling and hilarious, the reason her fiction works so well is because it is where extremes meet. What is crime fiction? Who cares – as long as the books are as good as Worst Case Scenario then you can categorise them any way you like.