Posted by stevemosby on May 12th, 2014
Tony Parsons has written a crime novel, The Murder Bag. It came out last week, and while on the publicity trail, he gave an interview to Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian. It caught people’s attention, at first due to that inflammatory last line about him voting UKIP – dropped in there so delightfully casually that you can almost imagine Aitkenhead walking away afterwards whistling innocently – and then more recently for his remarks about crime fiction:
“The thing is, he explains, he wanted to write a thriller “with a heart”. He loves crime fiction, “but what it tends to lack is the emotional power of a book like Man and Boy”.”
Now, as Alison Flood points out, both writers and readers of crime fiction don’t like to see their genre denigrated, and a degree of outrage has followed. Some of it has been very abusive. As Jake Kerridge pointed out on twitter, it’s interesting that similar opprobrium wasn’t heaped on John Gordon-Sinclair when he said much the same thing – but then, as a personality, Parsons is arguably better-known than Gordon-Sinclair, certainly more divisive and comes to the party with considerably more baggage. The UKIP stuff also ‘helped’, because it both gained the interview a large audience and perhaps predisposed many people to a negative reaction.
In general, though, most of the criticism has expressed incredulity, often with an accompanying sigh (because both writers and readers of crime fiction have been here many, many times before). This response is best summed up by Stella Duffy’s tweet: “Please someone send Tony Parsons some Brit crime writing from past 30 years so he can stop STUPIDLY saying ‘thrillers lack heart’”. The wonderful hashtag #tonyparsonscouldread followed swiftly, with various tweeters suggesting authors that, as it says on the tin, Parsons could read.
I’m not going to cite examples of my own in order to make the counter-argument that crime thrillers really are full of heart for three reasons. The first reason is that hashtag. There are already lots of excellent examples there, and others are arriving beneath Alison Flood’s article as I type. The second reason is that it would actually be far more useful to start with if Parsons provided examples of crime novels without heart and emotional power in order to back up his initial claim. We could then debate whether he is correct…
Oh, but wait. That’s actually ridiculous, isn’t it? Because if it turns out that a novel I personally find full of heart and emotional power (oh, go on, then: let’s say Green River Rising, by Tim Willocks) leaves Tony Parsons cold then we’re no closer to resolving the issue, are we? Of course not. And there’s a very simple reason for that. “Heart”. “Emotional power”. These are terms that describe subjective responses to a work (albeit perhaps acquiring a degree of permanence through a gathering intersubjective consensus). Look closer at Parsons’s comments, and you realise they actually say nothing at all even about the crime thrillers he’s read, never mind the genre as a whole. All his comments point to is his own emotional reaction to those works, which in turn suggests the things that move him or don’t.
An example. The comments were made in reference to the similarity between The Murder Bag and his earlier books. Parsons’s detective, Max Wolfe, is a single father raising his daughter after his wife walked out. Their relationship provides the heart of the novel – or more accurately, it provides the heart of its main character. It’s fairly obvious (and understandable) that this subject matter has weight for Tony Parsons. For me, not so much. I liked The Murder Bag, as it happens, but I can’t say I found more heart or emotional power there than in many of the other crime novels I’ve read. That scenario gives a degree of additional depth and motivation (to an extent) to the character, but it didn’t, for me, make Wolfe more alive than other fictional detectives with, for me, equally rich and resonant backgrounds. In fact, knowing what I know of Parsons, the single-parent and boxing elements felt a little heavy-handed, a little forced and try-hard. The problem was that I saw the author peering out from between the lines. Other people may disagree, of course. And as I said, I liked the book well enough. But let’s not pretend it’s reinventing the wheel, because it isn’t.
Anyway. The third reason is that – and let’s be honest and generous here – many things are said in the heat of a verbal interview. Your mouth runs, sentences babble out. There’s not the same precision that you get while writing; it’s impossible to consider every nuance of your words, and so things can easily come across entirely differently from how you intended. What I imagine happened is that Parsons, a savvy media-operator, had anticipated being asked what he was bringing to the genre and had come up with the obvious response that his earlier work was emotional, so he was bringing that. The rest just tumbles out if you’re not careful. Even a sentence or two later, you can find you’ve accidentally talked yourself into a pile of bullshit. We’ve all said stupid stuff in interviews we didn’t necessarily mean quite like that, and my guess right now is that this is one of those instances.
Regardless, as much as the comments still rankled – that sigh, yes; in my case more in sorrow than in anger – I still find a small part of me admiring Tony Parsons. Because he has a new novel out! And, hey, we all know about it now, don’t we? Job done.
In a similar spirit, I will mention that Tony Parsons is appearing at this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. And I will repeat my contribution to #tonyparsonscouldread by saying: all of these brilliant people.
Edit to add. Tweets like this…
…probably don’t help matters. Because that’s a monumentally stupid question, and I don’t believe he’s stupid.