Crime Fiction with Social Context

Published 12.10.2014 by Neal Griffin

I recently attended Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach, CA and sat in on a panel of writers discussing the idea of writing crime novels with social context. Seemed like heady stuff, so no surprise a school teacher showed up to hold class.

Cover of the book Crooked Numbers by Tim OMaraTim O’Mara was there to sit on the panel but ended up owning it. Tim, a real life NYC school teacher for the past couple of decades, is the author of Sacrifice Fly and Crooked Numbers. Both books feature Raymond Donne, a Brooklyn public school teacher who had once been an NYPD cop until an on duty injury forced him into a career change. In both books Raymond does his best to be a teacher but old habits die hard, and along the way his travels give the reader plenty to think about regarding the life and times of growing up in an urban school system.

In Crooked Numbers, O’Mara made the point that in some parts of NYC “… a white kid wears a hoodie, he looks like a track star. But when a black kid wears one, he fits a profile.” There are no shortage of headlines from around the country that would extend that insight beyond New York City.

Cover of the book The Way Home by George PelecanosA crime writer who has done particularly well in the area of writing with social context is the man behind “The Wire” George Pelecanos.

Kirkus Reviews said of Pelecanos’ The Way Home, “A crime novel, yes, but the talented Pelecanos shoves it out of its comfort zone. “

Yeah. Shoves. That’s the right word when it comes to Pelecanos. He does a lot of shoving, but in a good way. Shoving readers out of the comfort zone of a summer beach read and into a realm that forces them to question long held assumptions about crime, cops, crooks, and the system that defines the roles of all the players.

Cover of the book Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter MosleySince the debut of Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins in 1990, Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley has defied any genre assignment, but at its heart much of his work is crime fiction. Twenty-four years later, and after more than a few close calls, Easy is alive and well in Los Angeles, in essence chasing bad guys and solving mysteries.   Rose Gold, released in September, 2014, is the thirteenth Easy Rawlins mystery. As far as Mosley’s mastery of writing with social context, the Associate Press said it very well. “Only Mosley has employed detective fiction as a vehicle for a thoughtful, textured examination of race relations in the United States. Only Mosley puts white readers, if just for a few hundred pages at a time, in a black man’s shoes.”

Writing crime fiction meant merely to entertain is fine. When done well it can be a wonderful escape. But writing in a way that makes the reader take pause is the challenge. Crime fiction can do that; and, it should.