Cover image of Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None

The one thing most certain to destroy a work of genre fiction is for the author to try to "transcend the genre."

You’ve heard of this many times, I’m sure, from the opposing point of view, as critics praise some author for transcending the genre in which they’re working and thereby producing "a real novel."

That is hogwash.

The result of such endeavors is typically a poor example of both genre fiction and mainstream fiction. I won’t name names here, but much of what has received the most critical praise in the mystery field qualifies strongly for this dubious distinction.

Read a few of the most recent Edgar Award winners if you want to be fully versed in the infamous results of authors thinking themselves superior to their audiences.

On this point Helen Szamuely has written a good book review for the website of the Social Affairs Unit in Great Britain. Noting the drab results produced by many writers trying to write "real novels" in the mystery genre, Szamuely writes:

I blame the critics, starting with Julian Symons and his seminal Bloody Murder. As the author of a number of extremely interesting detective novels himself Symons ought to have known better. But he and his many successors have been advocating the theory that the best detective story writers ought to go beyond the genre and write "real" novels. Symons, for example, who always prefers thrillers to detective stories, despite his own achievements, repeatedly shakes his head over someone like Ngaio Marsh failing to transcend the genre.

Transcending the genre is all very well but a good detective story is considerably more difficult to write than a sloppily constructed and written "real" novel. In fact, all that happens is that we get a romance with a little detection thrown in instead of a detective story, not a work of literature.

Szamuely is absolutely right to point to Symons and his Bloody Murder as a great offender in this matter. Symons and the American critic Otto Penzler have probably most powerfully and influentially represented the idea that the best kind of mystery novel is not a mystery at all and really not much of a novel, either .

Their intentions were and are good, I am sure, but their ideas are simply wrong. 

Symons, Penzler, and their vast host of slavish followers praise what they call crime stories, which are narratives in which a crime is (perhaps) committed and the minds of the various characters are analyzed from a psychological point of view.

Hence, they are often not really narratives at all and hence not really novels at all.

The opposing point of view is that a novel is first and foremost a story, and that a mystery novel is first and foremost a story with a criminal mystery at the center.

This point should seem obvious to those uninitiated in the occult practices of modern literary criticism. It is obvious because it is true. As George Orwell noted, there are some things that are so silly that only an intellectual could believe them.

The notion that a novel without a real story at the center is the best kind of novel is precisely the kind of idiotic notion only an intellectual could believe.

For more on what a real mystery novel is like, read this.