Thursday, January 18, 2007

Genre Fiction

Snobs hate genre fiction. It's never been clear to me why. The best mysteries and science fiction novels are seldom if ever included in the canon, though some are certainly classics.

For years I had to conceal a taste for mysteries because only Dorothy Sayers and P. D. James were acceptable in my circle. Oh, no, nobody read mysteries, until I met a plucky woman who told me she read nothing but mysteries and showed me a whole room devoted to them.

Then suddenly Agatha Christie was back in vogue with the new BBC Jane Marple series. Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series was also helped along by the BBC.

Interestingly, mysteries are often adapted for TV, but never science fiction or fantasy novels.

Genre people are extreme fans. That makes me not quite a genre person. Some genre enthusiasts read nothing but police procedural mysteries, others nothing but cozies about English villages, the crimes often solved by old ladies, others nothing but P.I. novels, others hard science fiction, and still others fantasy.

Historical mysteries are often excellent. I recently discovered Lauren Haney’s first-rate Lieutenant Bak mysteries, set in ancient Egypt. Haney is a former technical writer, with a plain flawless style. She doesn’t attempt to win the reader too quickly but contrives her plots thoughtfully and analytically . She includes historical details about Queen Hatshepsut and police and the military in ancient Egypt. At first her protagonist seems to have little character, but Lieutenant Bak of the Egyptian Medway police is a quiet, tough, and tenacious character who speaks wittily when he speaks, and who interrogates everyone associated with a crime and keeps going when others have long given up.

In Haney’s A Curse of Silence , Lieutenant Bak investigates the murder of a popular local prince. The murder was committed in the house of an inspector who has been sent by Queen Hatshupset to evaluate the worth of army fortresses and storehouses from the city of Buhen to the southern frontier. The people of Buhen and the provinces are furious, believing the inspector’s men are responsible for the murder and that they will shut down fortresses and cause unemployment. Lieutenant Bak must solve the crime, advise the inspector, and also provide protection for the inspector and his party as they travel through the south.

Haney writes so well that I was a little disturbed to see the series seems to have stopped in 2003. I hope she’s still writing something.

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