My previous two posts have discussed the complex plot of Another James. This post in the form of a letter to the author, Michael Helm, contains my thoughts upon the book.
As part of my annual reading and reviewing I have been reading the shortlist for the 2017 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Fiction Novel. The second book I read from the shortlist was your book, After James.
The last two posts on my blog, Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan, deal with the plot of the book. My third post will be this letter. If you are able to reply and agree to the posting of your reply I will put it up on the blog.
I consider After James a finely written work of literary fiction. My challenge in reading the book was that I was expecting to read a work of criminal fiction since it was on the shortlist.
My expectations interfered with my reading of the book. I kept expecting it to be crime fiction I recognized and my expectations were never realized. Whether expectations should have affected my reading is a reflection for a future post.
I see After James as exploring the mystery of “mystical consciousness” - a phrase in the book I found apt. The first part of the book explored in depth a drug induced state of such consciousness. Much of the second part was focused on mystical consciousness in poetry. The third part delved into the past for an apocalyptic vision of the future.
Unfortunately, I was looking for a crime or crimes and their resolution rather than a philosophical and literary exploration of the mysteries of mind and consciousness. Literary fiction with mystery elements does not fit my conception of crime fiction.
The Crime Writers of Canada set out the following with regard to criteria for the Arthur Ellis Awards:
The Arthur Ellis Awards are for CRIME WRITING, and are not restricted to mystery writing. Crime-writing encompasses far more than the traditional whodunit. The crime genre includes crime, detective, espionage, mystery, suspense, and thriller writing, as well as fictional or factual accounts of criminal doings and crime-themed literary works.
It is hard for me to see why After James was submitted for the Crime Fiction Novel Award. I am not saying crime fiction should be circumscribed by rules such those put forward by Monsignor Knox in the 1930’s. I am in favour of the definition of crime fiction being flexible but I find it a stretch to see Another James as crime fiction.
Beyond the exploration of mystical consciousness there are factual mysteries being “investigated” in each section of After James but they are the settings for penetrating the human mind. Am I being too literal in expecting the plot of a book being considered for Best Crime Novel to have a crime or crimes at the heart of the book?
If having a series of unsolved mysteries was to reflect the ambiguity in real life of resolving crime it was too obscure a theme for me. I waited in vain to see a recognizable plot of crime fiction in After James. Looking back on the shortlists I have read in recent years I never had difficulty in seeing them as crime fiction.
In the introduction to an interview with you on CBC radio the host, Shelagh Rogers, echoed several reviewers in saying the book has elements of the mystery, gothic horror and apocolpytic genres.
You told her that you sort of like reading detective novels. You continued that you love reading the first half of detective novels but usually get bored at that point.
I want to ask you directly whether you consider After James a work of crime fiction. If you do I would appreciate your thoughts on what makes the book crime fiction.
For most purposes I do not think designating a book as being a part of a genre significant but when Awards are being given I think it is important that the book be a part of the genre for which the Award is being given.
Before closing I did not realize, until doing some research on your life, that we share growing up in rural Saskatchewan and holding a degree from the University of Saskatchewan.
Thank you for considering my letter.
As I put up this post I do not have a reply from Michael. Should he reply and agree to the response being posted I will put it up in a later post.
****Helm, Michael - (2017) - Another James and Continuing on Another James