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.

This entry was posted on Monday, May 12th, 2014 at 4:48 pm and is filed under General, Rant. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


7 Responses to “thoughts on tony parsons and ‘heart’ in crime fiction”

  1. Sophie Hannah Says:

    I wonder if part of the problem is that people perceive what is and isn’t in some crime novels so differently? Eg, I personally believe – well, I’d actually say that I *know* – that Agatha Christie’s novels are full of warmth, humour, psychological insight, and character depth. However, because of her very crisp, no-nonsense way of writing, her showy cleverness, and the fact that plot takes centre stage in her work, many writer friends of mine believe her writing is wooden and contains pretty much nothing but plot. To those people I often say, ‘It’s all there, it’s just not the top note (to use a perfume metaphor!) It’s the base-note, or a side-note, but it’s there. So, heart in crime fiction… I’m the wrong person to comment because I’m less interested in heart and more in a strange combination of psyche-plus-skeleton (psyches of main characters, skeleton of plot). But, in so far as I do enjoy a bit of heart, I like it to be quite subtle and concealed by lashings of defensive irony. Tough, hidden-beneath-many-vices-and-unhelpful-complexes heart. Not so much on-sleeve heart. So, I wonder whether this is really an issue of how heart is portrayed, rather than whether it’s there or not. Some people would find tons of heart in, for example, Curb Your Enthusiasm, while others would say it was misanthropic. Again, to return to Agatha, I’d say she has oodles of heart in her work, but it’s just not on anyone’s sleeve. Lots of people disagree, many of whom fall into my ‘wrong but lovely’ category.

    Also, I’m just guessing, but I’d bet that the contention ‘There is plenty of heart in crime fiction’ would instantly be met with, ‘Oh, of course. All I meant was that I’ve read quite a few crime novels in which there isn’t.’ I think this is true of all tendencies. Eg, many people have observed that there’s a tendency towards too much gratuitous violence in crime fiction these days, but I’m sure those same people would agree that there are vast numbers of crime novels in which there isn’t gratuitous violence. ‘Tendency’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘dominant mode’. I took the ‘tend to’ comment as meaning no more than ‘I’ve read a few in which….’ And I’m sure most writers would have had that same experience themselves regarding other aspects of crime fiction. Someone might read three thrillers with ridiculously outlandish plot twists at the end and think, ‘There’s a tendency for crime to contain daft twists – I don’t want to do that in my novel.’ Doesn’t necessarily mean that same person hasn’t also read four thrillers in which there are subtle and plausible twists, or no twists at all.

    We all know that some people see crime fiction differently from the way we see it, and we’d all agree that that’s okay. Even not thinking Agatha is wonderful is okay (though it has taken me years of therapy to be able to admit this). Did Isabel Allende mean to say that all crime fiction was hopeless, or was she perhaps speaking without thinking too much, based on a few books she’d read and many that she hadn’t? Is boycotting her novel the sanest and most positive response to her remarks? My strong hunch is: probably not. I think a genre with as much heart as crime fiction, and as strong as crime fiction, can afford to be generous spirited!

  2. stevemosby Says:

    Sophie – thanks for the comment!

    I disagree (a little). It seems to me that there are a couple of definitions of ‘tends to’ that could apply here. In the first, it makes little sense for it not to mean “dominant mode”. It’s surely the equivalent of “more often than not” or “the usual state of affairs”. For example: “Is the bus always late?”; “Yes, it tends to be.” If it weren’t dominant, you would give the opposite answer. The second meaning would be in the sense of ‘a movement in that direction’, which I think justifies the statement “crime fiction tends to be more gratuitously violent these days” because all it implies is an increased amount of it. I don’t think you can justify “crime fiction tends to lack emotional power” under either of those definitions.

    That said, I agree it’s likely the phrasing was flippant and off-the-cuff: a mistake. Either that, or we can simply conclude that Parsons must have either been enormously unlucky with his buses so far, or else caught so few that his opinion on their timetables tends to irrelevance.

    The boycotting thing is interesting. I don’t think Allende’s book was on many people’s radar before her comments, so the default state for most people would have been ‘not going to buy it because not heard of it’. And what happened was that they did hear about it, but what they heard didn’t give them sufficient motivation to buy it. Quite the opposite. But I don’t think I’d call that a boycott so much as a few thousand personal decisions. We can’t buy everything, so we inevitably use some criteria to narrow it down. Is it fair that an author’s politics or statements get taken into account? I think so. It wouldn’t necessarily sway me personally, but you could even make the argument that you should take it into account.

  3. Sophie Hannah Says:

    Yes, I can’t deny you’re right about the meaning of trends – but one might still say, for example, ‘The trend is towards more gratuitous violence, though there is still plenty of lovely escapist non-violent crime fiction.’ And in this case, there’s a strong chance that the assertion, ‘Hey – there’s loads of crime fiction with heart!’ would be met with ‘Oh, sure, I agree.’ Or perhaps, ‘Oh, is there? Good! I’ve not read extensively in the genre, so perhaps what I’ve read is non-representative.’ Maybe it’s also a case of perception/legend being more influential than actual reality, in other words: crime is a genre perceived as plot- and mystery-driven rather than genre mainly designed to warm heart-cockles! So maybe it’s just, as you say, an off-the-cuff trotting out of that misconception? Certainly many psych thrillers are all about the emotional lives of the protagonists, and many police procedurals too.

    Re Allende – ‘boycott’ was the wrong word, sorry. But I just meant that people got very cross about Allende’s comments, and I’m pretty sure if they chatted to her about it, it could all be sorted out in a nice, friendly way. Of course anyone can decide not to read any book for any reason – that’s totally fine, and unavoidable, as you say. But I think people can also choose not to make someone’s dismissiveness, or perceived dismissiveness, of their genre or work THE defining issue. I just worry that once offence is taken, the harm/potential harm can be greatly magnified.

  4. stevemosby Says:

    “I just worry that once offence is taken, the harm/potential harm can be greatly magnified.”

    Yes, this is an unfortunate consequence of the internet. Re Allende, it seems perfectly reasonable to read her comments, tut, and say or type “What a stupid statement. What an idiot. I’m not going to bother checking her work out!”. Which is fine, and totally proportionate. But then you have 20,000 people doing the same, and each of their individual responses is also fine and proportionate, and probably takes about ten seconds out of their day. But receiving 20,000 comments is going to feel vastly disproportionate. “I don’t deserve all this hate!” And of course, this being the internet, some of the responses are going to be more like this.

  5. Sophie Hannah Says:

    Yes, there’s the Fuckwad thing, and also the multiplied-by-20,000 thing. Perhaps a good rule of thumb, before tweeting, is: ‘Would I still be happy I’d said this if 19,999 other people all said it too?’!

  6. stevemosby Says:

    Ha! That sounds too self-limiting to me. Perhaps a better rule of thumb before tweeting is: “Would I be happy if this causes 20,000 people to reply to me?”

    I don’t think there’s a solution, to be honest; it’s just intrinsic to online discourse. But evolution will occur. In a few generations, the only people who say anything online will have developed skin like corrugated iron and genuinely not give a shit.

  7. Henry Sutton Says:

    James M. Cain said he wrote love stories, not crime stories. I’ve always thought the best crime thrillers are love stories – driven by passion, desire, jealously, betrayal, greed.

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