In traditional crime stories, sharp detectives (usually police officers and almost always white men) piece together trails of evidence to avenge grisly killings (typically of young white women) and achieve justice. They offer neat visions of how crimes are carried out and solved, casting people as either heroes, villains, or victims. They’re also deeply misleading.
In recent years, many writers have begun to take aim at these flawed tropes. They critique the genre, and in doing so help create a new—and better—way of writing about crime. For authors of the “cozy mysteries” subgenre, this reckoning has meant acknowledging reality in books predicated on willful ignorance. Conventional cozies lean into clue-finding and downplay gore, but new writers such as Mia P. Manansala are disrupting that fantasy with story lines about police misconduct and racism. Less cozy novels, such as Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead, destabilize our most fundamental assumptions about what constitutes a crime. Although Harlem Shuffle seems to have a straightforward heist plot, it is also firmly grounded in history, reminding readers that free Black existence was once illegal, and highlighting the corruption of capitalism. After establishing this systemic context, Whitehead separates the notions of criminality and villainy, and deconstructs the simplistic moral framework of traditional police tales. Pola Oloixarac, the author of Mona, similarly complicates the roles that crime-novel characters are allowed to fill, writing about a woman who was herself raped, and who is also pursuing an amateur investigation of a different crime. In blending two genres—each with its own flaws (crime fiction tends to sensationalize and literary fiction is filled with passive women)—Oloixarac was able to write sensitively and without denying her character agency.
Ottessa Moshfegh takes a different approach in Death in Her Hands, which follows a woman’s obsessive quest to solve a murder that likely never even happened. The protagonist attempts to use this investigation as a way to find agency—and instead loses her sanity. Thus Moshfegh turns a mirror back on the readers, exposing the limits of any crime story.
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