Crime Fiction in the City

Lucy Andrew and Catherine Phelps (eds) , Crime Fiction in the City: Capital Crime (European Crime Fictions), University of Wales Press, April 2013

CapitalCrimesCrime Fiction in the City is an outstanding collection of essays.  It very effectively opens with an Edinburgh double act, Ian Rankin’s ‘Edinburgh’ and Gill Plain’s ‘”The map that engenders the territory”? Rethinking Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh’.  Rankin’s vivid, personal account of Edinburgh will delight readers of his Rebus novels, and it makes a fine pairing with the astute, observant, scholarly article by Gill Plain.  Plain’s piece illuminates not only Edinburgh as the city central  to Rankin’s fiction but, more widely, gives sharp insights into the relationship between the city and crime.

The chapter on Cardiff – Catherine Phelps, ‘Corralling Crime in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay’ – is another extremely enjoyable and wide-ranging historical survey of the crime fiction set in this part of the city, in particular of its racial and class dimensions.  It breaks new ground as an analysis of Welsh-set crime fiction, and it is a very good example of how the critic can effectively explore the relationship between a changing urban scene and the fiction set there.

Margaret Atack’s engagingly written ‘Streets and Squares, Quartiers and Arrondissements: Paris Crime Scenes and the Poetics of Contestation in the Novels of Jean-François Vilar’ is one of the best pieces in the collection. She offers acute perceptions and an entertaining discussion of the various aspects of the city’s ‘capital’ status as explored in crime fiction.  Paris is obviously a more thoroughly known crime terrain than some of the other cities included here, but Atack comes up with fresh, revealing angles of vision and offers subtle, fascinating insights into Vilar’s crime fiction.

Maurizio Ascari’s essay is another wonderful addition, taking a selection of novels set in the Vatican that straddle the borders between entertainment and politics. He skilfully and knowledgeably looks at the recent crime novels centring on the Vatican (by Dan Brown and others) within the context of 19th-century anti-clerical urban mysteries.  Scholarly, readable and lively.

Stephen Knight’s ‘A Tale of Three Cities: Megalopolitan Mysteries of the Eighteen-Forties’ is similarly rich and rewarding, a study of the hugely popular, “detection-free” nineteenth-century Mysteries of the Cities that “came in major instances as close as they could to telling a true narrative about the seething pressures of new megalopolitan life”.  It pays close and fruitful attention to Les Mystères de Paris, The Mysteries of London, and Paul Féval’s Les Mystères de Londres, which Knight sees as providing “a third imagined base…not London, a Parisian projection”. A real pleasure to read – and, as with most of the other essays in this collection, a valuable addition to one’s understanding of the relationship between the city and crime fiction.

The collection also includes strong pieces on Dublin and Stockholm:  “Crimes and Contradictions: the Fictional City of Dublin” by Cormac O Cuilleanain and “From National Authority to Urban Underbelly: Negotiations of Power in Stockholm Crime Fiction” by Kerstin Bergman – solid, wide-ranging, informative and well-written.

This is a collection that both enables an appreciation of diversity and provides numerous opportunities for comparative analysis.  As Lucy Andrew and Catherine Phelps say in their excellent introduction, their collection “does not present European crime fiction as a homogenous entity” but offers “a surprisingly wide array of themes and a variety of cultural identities… Each capital city has its own literary and political history and authors choose to engage with this history in a number of different ways. Yet there are connections, too… Despite their differing natures, capital cities share similar concerns as they act as representations of national identity, contain symbols of state authority, law courts and prisons, for instance, and are magnets for cultural tourism. As a result, capital crime fiction comes with its own set of considerations and complexities, considerations that set it apart from urban crime fiction generally, creating a unique genre.”

The collection of essays is available from Amazon:

“Crime Fiction in the City: Capital Crimes expands upon previous studies of the urban space and crime by reflecting on the treatment of the capital city, a repository of authority, national identity and culture, within crime fiction. This wide-ranging collection looks at capital cities across Europe, from the more traditional centres of power Paris, Rome and London to Europe’s most northern capital, Stockholm, and also considers the newly devolved capitals, Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The texts under consideration span the nineteenth-century city mysteries to contemporary populist crime fiction. The collection opens with a reflective essay by Ian Rankin and aims to inaugurate a dialogue between Anglophone and European crime writing; to explore the marginalised works of Irish and Welsh writers alongside established European crime writers and to interrogate the relationship between fact and fiction, creativity and criticism, within the crime genre.”


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