Lots More to Read About Lolitas and Suburban Lust*

As this is posted, it’s the 64th anniversary of the US publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. You might not think of it as a crime novel at first, but there is an important murder in it. In fact, the narrator, known as Humbert Humbert, writes the story from prison. What most people remember about Lolita is its controversial plot of Humbert Humbert’s relationship with his landlady’s daughter, Delores (also called Lola). For some people, the novel is still quite controversial.

It’s by no means the only controversial crime novel out there, though. There’ve been several crime novels that have sparked debate. Sometimes, it’s because of content; other times it’s because of themes or characters. There are other reasons, too. And it’s interesting to consider the things that have caused controversy in some novels.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbot. He’s not there long before there’s a murder; retired magnate Roger Ackroyd has been stabbed in his study. Poirot gets involved in the investigation because Ackroyd’s niece Flora believes the police have arrested the wrong man for the crime: her fiancé and Ackroyd’s stepson Ralph Paton. Here, the controversy was caused by the dénouement of the story. Christie provides important clues as the story goes on, but many people still felt that she wasn’t ‘playing fair.’ Today, it’s often considered a brilliant example of a crime novel, but that wasn’t always the case.

Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels feature Chan, a Chinese-American police detective based in Honolulu. This series has generated its share of controversy because of the way Der Biggers wrote Chan’s character. In many ways, it’s argued, Chan is almost a caricature of a Chinese person. In his manner, speech patterns, and so on, Chan fills all of the stereotypes of what people think Chinese people are ‘supposed to’ be like. Interestingly, Der Biggers didn’t see it that way. Granted, he was a writer of his time, and not Chinese. But he created Charlie Chan to actually go against the stereotype of the inscrutable and untrustworthy ‘Fu Manchu’ sort of Chinese character. Not everyone agrees, and that character has caused a lot of debate over the years.

Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me features Lou Ford, deputy sheriff based in Central City, Texas. He’s considered to be nice and inoffensive, if a bit dull. What people don’t know, though, is that Ford is affected by what he calls ‘the sickness.’ And it plays an important role in the events of the book: a murder and a severe beating. The book was considered controversial because of the violence in it, and because of its depiction of psychosis. It didn’t help matters that one of the main characters is a prostitute. Still, the book is considered a classic example of the noir novel, and it’s had a strong impact on more recent noir fiction.

Not everyone thinks of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as a crime novel. But it arguably is one, as Alabama attorney Atticus Finch gets set to defend Tom Robinson against a charge of raping Mayella Ewell. It’s an explosive case, made even more so because Robinson is Black, and his alleged victim is white. In fact, there are plenty of people in the novel who are only too ready to lynch Robinson instead of bothering with a trial. Many people have considered the book’s discussions of racism, class differences and social issues very controversial – so controversial in fact that the book’s been banned in more than one school and library. But it’s arguably a classic coming-of-age story with an important discussion of racism and tolerance, to say nothing of its vivid depiction of life in rural Alabama at the time of the novel. And the issues it discusses are authentic. 

There’s also J.K. Rowling (as Robert Galbraith)’s Troubled Blood, the fifth in her Coroman Strike series. In it, Strike takes on a cold case. It seems that Margot Bamborough went missing in 1974. No trace of her was found – not even a body. Now, her daughter wants to know what happened. Strike’s never done a cold case before, but he and Robin Ellacott take the case. The two begin to pursue various possibilities, one of which leads them to a psychopathic serial killer who dresses in women’s clothes. And that’s been a source of real controversy, especially considering the debate stirred up around some of Rowling’s public comments. Whatever you may feel about that issue, the novel stirs the whole discussion up.

And that’s the thing about some controversial books. They stir up debate, they make people think about characters, issues, and larger questions. And sometimes they can be divisive. Which controversial crime novels have stayed in your mind?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s No Man’s Land.


12 thoughts on “Lots More to Read About Lolitas and Suburban Lust*

  1. Some very controversial works there, Margot. The Christie is quite brilliant to my mind and though I can understand how it broke the mould at the time, it certainly is recognised nowadays as groundbreaking. As for JKR, I struggle to engage with her work as I personally feel she does court controversy a bit…

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    1. You’re not the only one who feels that way about JKR and her work, KBR. I do wonder how much of that controversy might happen anyway, and how much she courts. It’s an interesting question… At any rate, I agree with you about the Christie. It really does have a stroke of brilliance in it, doesn’t it? Perhaps at the time it wasn’t seen as ‘what’s done,’ but it was a landmark book, no doubt about it!

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  2. Some very controversial ones there! I don’t know what ones have caused controversies, but I can think of one or two that I could imagine having done so. I could see Grisham’s A Time to Kill dividing opinion at the time, and I felt that Dwayne Alexander Smith’s Forty Acres had all the elements to make it controversial, though I don’t know if it’s been read widely enough to have got people talking about it. And In Cold Blood – controversial over whether it’s fact or fiction. and if it’s fact, how much has Capote distorted the truth?

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    1. Oh, you’ve chosen some really good examples of controversial novels, FictionFan. I did hear that In Cold Blood stirred up controversy exactly for the reason you say : just how much truth is there, really, in the book? And how much does there have to be, since it was billed as a novel. A Time to Kill did, I believe, generate some debate, but not as much, despite its content. It’s just such an excellent story that perhaps people let it be just that. As for Forty Acres, I haven’t read about a lot of controversy around that one, but honestly, you might be right that it’s because it’s not been as widely read. I think it might otherwise.

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  3. I think the only controversial books of the last couple of years have been ones when the author has taken some flak for cultural appropriation. eg American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

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    1. Oh, that’s a topic in itself, Col! There’ve been a few cases of authors being accused of cultural appropriation, and it does raise people’s hackles. And thanks for mentioning American Dirt. That’s a good example.

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      1. I’m not sure where I stand on this TBH. Taken to the nth degree male authors wouldn’t write female characters, black authors wouldn’t have white characters, Canadians couldn’t write about Americans, straight authors and gay characters etc etc.

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      2. It is a tough one, Col. As you say, it would really limit a lot of writers. I don’t usually go on about my own writing, but one of my main characters is male, which I’m not. The other one is gay, which I’m not. So where would that leave me? It’s an interesting dilemma, though, because I can see some people’s point about some of those situations. I don’t have the answer, b ut it’s certainly an issue!

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  4. I read The Killer Inside Me last year and was very impressed, such a brilliant depiction of someone completely without conscience. It’s chilling because these people are out there. Lolita is a book I haven’t read but plan to. I know it’s not for everyone but I feel it’s good to have some idea of what the controversy is all about. Have you read Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, Margot? It’s a story about a young black teenager accused of a murder in rural Mississippi. I thought it was absolutely superb. And one of John Connolly’s ‘Charlie Parker’ books has a similar theme, The White Road. I know this series, being supernatural crime/thriller, is not for everyone but I love its weirdness and I learn something from every book.

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    1. I’m glad, Cath, that you got the chance to read The Killer Inside Me. It is chilling to think that there really are completely conscienceless people out there like that. Thompson didn’t sugarcoat anything. And thanks for mentioning Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. It’s got some stark discussion of racism, and I can see how it might stir up controversy. You’ve reminded me, too, that I ought to put that book in the spotlight at some point! I need to read more of Connolly’s work, and I’ll be interested in what you think of Lolita when you get there.

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