European crime fiction in the crosshair

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A brief, tedious and humourless catalogue
of criteria for a ideal and morally
acceptable review of crime novels

Thomas Wörtche
Translation : Anna Reissert


Reviewing a crime novel puts it in its correct place, historically, systematically and in terms of its relative quality.

The reviewer of a novel should seriously engage with his subject; with passion, commitment, and with reasons. But that is not enough. The writer of a review must be a master of his metier. He should have command of one or two languages, and firstly of his mother tongue.

He must be familiar with all the important contexts of the work, or failing that, he must know where to locate them. He must have a clear understanding of crime literature, general literature and other relevant areas of knowledge. He must be acquainted with genre literature in all its different forms within a wide range of media.
He must be able to establish his own catalogue of criteria. He must have standards.
He needs to understand that this is all in constant flux: a ceaselessly evolving system without any fixed certainties. In a word, transcendentally rootless.
He must avoid dogma, but equally shun boundless relativism. He must use his knowledge and apply it to the novel he is reviewing.

He must understand reality. Crime literature only exists in part as literature. The other part derives from the world in which it is set. The reviewer needs to be familiar with this world, practically and from his own experience. What there is, and what there is is not; what can happen, and what is not guaranteed in short, he needs total awareness.

Crime literature deals with crime, lawbreaking and violence. The reviewer needs to be familiar with these fields. He needs to become fully informed, and that involves some work. Otherwise he may believe any rubbish that he is told, or dismiss reality as rubbish. At worst he may snort with indignation over real facts, when they are portrayed as sensational or scandalous news.

Crime literature deals with violence as a form of interaction between humans. It makes sense, therefore, to have an understanding of human nature. This again has to do with one's experience of life, and a reviewer of crime novels should have experienced more of it than most people. That is also a question of age.

An overwhelming love of irony, an abhorrence of laughter and a lack of understanding of the universal forms of humour do not create a terribly good critic of crime novels.

Because of the themes of crime novels, all of which without exception have political implications, reviewers can, should, and indeed must examine their ethic, moral, ideological and political foundations. And I mean foundations not just superficial assertions, statements, or so-called declarations of intent. No matter what the trend of thought is at the time, morality is one criterium of crime literature. It may of course be complex, because there are endless steps to negotiate - but there is no way around.

How a crime novel deals with realities is a measure of its quality, just like its mise en scene . They are linked together. If not, there is a problem with the novel, or with the review, because it cannot reconcile them.

A good review will never follow the dictates of the publisher or those of any other third party. If a book is innovative, exciting, important, thrilling, entertaining, charming, devilish or whatever else; the reviewer must bring this out, giving reasons. What other sources say about it public authorities, the Pope, the Frankfurter Rundschau (left-liberal daily newspaper), advance publicity or crime fiction junkies, is unimportant.

The reviewer has to be able to identify real quality as well as pretentious nonsense. It is important to think logically. creatively, analytically and clear-mindedly. Independent thought is vital.

A review is not a recommendation to buy. A review is a debate with the text. It reaches a reasoned judgment, which is open to discussion.

Even a recommendation to purchase a novel must give its reasons. Gushing praise may be acceptable, but it must be justified.

Any review that spends most of its time re-telling the novel should not be published. And any review that, after recounting the whole plot, ends with a judgment on the grounds of personal taste should be banned straight away.

Reviewers must not try too hard to win the sympathy of the reading public. Those who write honest reviews can become very unpopular. That is absolutely fine. Critics are not everybody's darling.

All this is not only true for crime novels, but it is especially the case with them, because crime novels are Janus-faced one face looks towards artistic creativity and the other towards reality. This is the distinctive characteristic of crime novels, and what makes them special. A crime novel review that ignores this fact is worthless.

One should be able to enjoy reading the review of a crime novel, if it is well done. It should be wittily written, and show warmth, enthusiasm, commitment, a sense of urgency and understanding; or alternatively, demonstrate anger, loathing and horror.

This whole catalogue is trivial, obvious, arrogant, vain, self-justifying, tautologous, pretentious, gossipy, exaggerated, pompous, dispensable, lacking in practical relevance, top-heavy and abstract, almost as if it was a review.

© 05/2007 Thomas Wörtche

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