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3:AM in Lockdown 62: Adam Scovell

The Pleasure of Crime
By Adam Scovell.

In a time when every opportunity to escape the horror of our current situation is grabbed with relish, I found it surprising on recent reflection that my chief remedy for coping with the barrage of frustrations and worries over the Coronavirus and its handling were stories of murder. Not actual murder of course but the pleasures of crime fiction. A genre dismissed and treated with condescension by the unimaginative with such regularity that you could almost set your watch by it, crime fiction for me has acted as a sparkling tonic to the endless cycle of news, celebrity breakdowns and plethora of advice on what to read during lockdown, if the possibility of reading hasn’t been totally swamped by nervous distraction that is.

I find crime fiction to be consistent in reflecting a world view that other forms generally shy away from. Since the lockdown, I’ve found much solace in their darker vision of cities and societies as opposed to other, more optimistic fictional perspectives. Crime writers historically have always known the world to be slippery and aren’t interested in listing the flowers in the garden of their bought-and-paid-for semi-detached or any of the other strange writerly tropes currently cropping up during lockdown, especially in short form articles online. They instead trade in deception and death which is perhaps why I’m finding their work even more potent than usual at the moment.

With the general election last year, I had already fallen into the habit. I was preserving my own despair like a specimen in Victorian formaldehyde through reading Raymond Chandler’s still brutal Marlowe series of novels, The Long Goodbye especially. Filled with deceit, betrayal and violence, they mirrored the news cycle then with ease, at least in tone. Chandler’s world in some ways commented upon ours, even if the cars and suits were undoubtedly nicer in his.

I kept up the habit, moving onto an array of dingy, brilliant tales of criminality, from Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home to Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, along with Derek Raymond’s The Devil’s Home on Leave and Georges Simenon’s The Engagement. All provided something I struggle to name as anything other than optimism; a bizarre contradiction considering their regularly grim content but there we go. Why did I find optimism in a story of a man found in five Waitrose bags in a warehouse in Rotherhithe or the story of a Parisian whose licentiousness was used as an excuse to literally bully him to death?

Since being stuck indoors, others have come to comfort me with their visceral realities and violent worlds. Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place took my breath away with its rancid portrayal of Los Angeles, as did the play on spiv language in Derek Raymond’s The Crust on Their Uppers and the sheer cinematic dynamism of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman. Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead had me fooled with its raw detail right until its later chapters, often leaving me with the feeling of having dirt under my fingernails, while I’ve spent many an evening wandering through the shadowy side of Paris with Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma for company in Mayhem in the Marais and The Tell-Tale Body on the Plaine Monceau.

Contradictions are rife in taking such pleasure in these novels. I find optimism in their pessimism, I find beauty in their ugliness and I find distraction in their concentration of detail. In other words, I find everything I’m told I’ll discover in the chirpy fiction recommendations regularly suggested in articles as an antidote to our predicament; written with what seems to me to be a simplistic assumption that the only remedy for a sick world is to escape into work that writes out that sickness on some basic level. In reality, no one size fits all of our comforts so I don’t dismiss those recommendations nor play down their effectiveness for those who do gain something from lighter reading in such unusual times. Instead I simply question the broad-stroke approach taken by so many outlets to suggestions of possible relief from our day-to-day situation.

I still have much to read and enjoy, and I am lucky, both in having such books and having the privilege to not be in a position working on the front line. With my father working in the hospital laboratory where the first patients were taken back in February, my partner training to be a doctor in France, my flatmate working on the mental health frontline, and my mother surveying buildings to defog for Cornavirius, it’s a privilege that I feel acutely on a daily basis. Derek Raymond’s I Was Dora Suarez is still sitting in my to-read pile, as is Georges Simenon’s The Snow Was Dirty, Ruth Rendell’s Vanity Dies Hard, Ted Lewis’ Billy Rags and numerous others. But it is still a privilege to dive into the inky abyss of this wonderful genre, one refreshingly more grounded in a reality that is flawed; one just like our own.

@AdamScovell

First posted: Friday, May 15th, 2020.

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