In Search of Crime Fiction’s Shadow Cabinet

Too many writers and readers prefer their literature spoon-fed to them, in portions similar to the last, with the same smells and colors, served to them on the same worn dishes, and accompanied by the same polite conversation. It seems to me that reading—reading well, with an appreciation for more than just the basics of narrative, plot, or story—is a heroic act these days, Reading a book that not only entertains but is also deeply felt—deeply realized, created from a highly personal vision, strikes me as a kind of rebellion.

The ultimate effect of the inability to reach beyond a certain set of constraints is to create a Shadow Cabinet—an anti-canon that exists in the minds of those readers who have not been colonized by the all-too-familiar. These are the books that good readers hoard in order to send copies out to new converts. Such books, which have so enhanced our own imaginations, can only be rescued by holding them in our memories and by spreading the word.

–Jeff VanderMeer (2002)

Today I have a guest column up at Mulholland Books.

Remember that movie Dog Fight that came out in the 90’s? Yeah well and after reading all of the columns that have come before I feel like the ugly girl at Mulholland’s dance party. I mean really how can one top Guns to Shape the Future or Dead Mower Dreams and the Weeds of Boo Radley?

My piece is called In Search of Crime Fiction’s Shadow Cabinet: Adventures of a Long Tail Reader

A couple of years ago I remember reading a post by John Connolly called On Experimentation (quoted below) where he took a sober look at the genre and determined that there wasn’t enough experimentation happening, that everyone was resting inside of a comfort zone. His piece reminded me of another one that I had read years before by Jeff VanderMeer called The Shadow Cabinet (quoted above) which looked at some works of science fiction and fantasy that were unrecognized by the reading community at large. I’ve had the words of these two guys dancing around in my head for a couple of years now. I decided to pursue the idea of mystery/crime fiction’s own Shadow Cabinet and see what the results were. It may not exist in quite the same way that it does in SF/F but I think it’s time to acknowledge that the mystery/crime genre has one.

So that’s what I hope to pursue in the column – the idea of the existence of a Shadow Cabinet in the mystery/crime genre. Truthfully, I’m not even sure if this topic is of any interest to others or if I’m even the right guy for it. I tried anyway.

The original column that I had submitted had to be trimmed for space, so I hope to present some of those cut sections here at Spinetingler in the upcoming weeks.

Thanks to the Mulholland crew for inviting me and putting up with my shenanigans.

I suppose I feel that, as crime fiction has become more and more a part of the literary mainstream, its popularity has not been matched by a great deal of experimentation. There is, I think, a reluctance to take chances, whether that takes the form of fusing genres to create new hybrids, or experimenting with form or language, or anything that deviates from the rather traditional narrative structures that seem to be the norm in the genre.

I’m not sure who, if anyone, is to blame for this state of affairs, assuming anyone agrees with me. The writers, perhaps, for not pushing themselves? The readers, for favoring sometimes bland mainstream work over more experimental work at the margins, for wanting to be entertained instead of challenged? The publishers, for seeking variations on familiar themes, for favoring the series over the stand-alone, for, to put it simply, giving readers what they want?

Perhaps I was – and am – playing devil’s advocate to some degree, but there is a part of me that feels crime fiction thrives on a ‘more of the same’ ethos, and that there is a sneaking conservatism at work that is in part a product of the genre’s own ubiquity and success in recent years.

–John Connolly (2006)

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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About Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

3 Replies to “In Search of Crime Fiction’s Shadow Cabinet”

  1. Thanks for the list of books I need to check out, Brian. Us Old School guys need to broaden our horizons.

  2. Don’t be so naive. The market wants “the same only slightly different.” A major best-selling author’s new book is the same as his first one, but he changed it slightly. Result? Big hit! Surprise! That’s what the entire filtering system of publishing is — a search for the Same Only Slightly Different. Want to be different really? Hope you can thrive in Obscurity.