I sent off an email to Chris' publisher, Angry Robot Books, and they kindly sent me a review copy of his debut, Dead Harvest. I was tickled by the cover, which appears for all the world to be a well-read golden-age pulp paperback complete with scratches, smudges and the marks of many fingerprints. I was even more impressed by what was inside.
Sam Thornton collects souls. The souls of the damned, to be precise. Once taken himself, he’s now doomed to ferry souls to hell for all eternity, in service of a debt he can never repay. But when he’s dispatched to retrieve the soul of a girl he believes is innocent of the horrific crime for which she’s been damned, Sam does something no Collector has ever done before: he refuses.It was a hell of a read. The only problem was: what was it? Pulp fiction? Paranormal? Noir detective? Horror? Paradise Lost fanfiction? (Seriously, that would be awesome.) I couldn't tell. And clearly, I'm not the only one.
First off, thanks to Julia and the rest of the Jungle Reds for letting me tarnish their otherwise stellar blog. ’Tis truly an honor, particularly for a lowly debut novelist such as I.
One thing I’m discovering now that I’ve got a book out is that folks (be they fellow writers, reviewers, or random family members) seem more curious what sort of books I write than what my book is actually about. And given that DEAD HARVEST is the first in a series that recasts the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp, I don’t always know what to tell them. Do I say that I write urban fantasy? Fantastical noir? Gonzo crime-fic? Cross-genre horror-tinged fantasy-pulp? Science fiction, since despite the fact there’s not a hint of science in my book, that’s where it always winds up shelved?
As far as I’m concerned, I write mysteries. Mysteries are the sole through-line in my work, the thread that ties together everything I’ve ever written. Whether fantastical, horrific, science-fictional, or quiet and literary, my stories are all just mysteries at heart.
Fact is, when I first started writing toward publication, I hadn’t the faintest notion of the morass of subgenres into which I was ignorantly wading; I just wrote what I wrote. It was only when I started submitting my stories that I realized how fractured along genre lines the publishing industry truly was.
The first short I ever published – and quite possibly the best I’ve ever written – appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I was elated. My next few tales were perhaps a little darker, a little nastier, and wound up in grittier online magazines such as Demolition, Beat to a Pulp, and Thuglit. To me, the only difference between those markets was in flavor, not quality, so imagine my surprise when I discovered plenty of folks from the grittier camp held Ellery Queen in disdain. Why, I’ve no idea. Lord knows I don’t shy away from violence and F-bombs when called for (a fact to which I’m certain Julia could attest), but good writing is good writing, and bad writing can’t be saved by striking fashionable literary poses. Ellery Queen, to my mind, falls solidly in the former camp.
I was a kid when I first fell in love with mysteries, and back then, I didn’t delineate along subgenre lines. Whether it was the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, Christie or Poe or Doyle, or even THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, they were all of a piece to me. And to this day, the writers I most admire didn’t chain themselves to reductive ideas about what one should and should not write. Donald Westlake wrote one of the bleakest series of all time in his Parker books, but he also wrote marvelous comic capers featuring career thief John Dortmunder. Lawrence Block writes the hard-bitten tales of unlicensed PI Matthew Scudder, but also light mysteries featuring bookstore-owner-cum-cat-burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. Michael Crichton got his start writing pulp, and went on to dabble in historical-, techno-, medical-, and espionage-thrillers, to name a few.
It seems to me readers and writers both benefit by eschewing a myopic, reductive genre worldview – and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. On Julia’s site, you’ll find a section titled “Are my books cozies?” in which she expounds far more eloquently than I on the topic of the limited utility of subgenres. I was fortunate enough to catch Rosemary’s so-called cozy panel at Bouchercon, in which she described her own work as suburban noir, no doubt earning new readers in the process. And when my wife described Julie Hyzy’s White House Chef novels as cozy/thriller hybrids in a recent (glowing) review, it seemed far closer to the truth than either one of those labels on their own.
My point isn’t that authors should strive to straddle fences and break down boundaries; as advice goes, that’s every bit as silly as telling writers never to. All I’m saying is, it seems to me the best writers read widely and go where their muse takes them, and leave it to the booksellers to sort out where to shelve it. God knows I’d rather read ten great novels outside the narrow slice of real estate I’ve staked out in my own fiction, than ten lousy ones that fall within my wheelhouse.
Which reminds me, there’s this Julia Spencer-Fleming novel on my Kindle I’ve been dying to get to…
Well, dear reader, what do you think about genres, sub-genres, blended genres and bent genres? Are you a purist, or an anything-goes sort? Do you think genre-mixing is the wave of the future? Or not?
Chris F. Holm was born in Syracuse, New York, the grandson of a cop who passed along his passion for crime fiction. His work has appeared in such publications as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner. His first novel, DEAD HARVEST (Angry Robot Books, February 2012), is a supernatural thriller that recasts the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. You can find out more at Chris’ website, friend him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.