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.