IMHO, one of the best panels at last week’s Left Coast Crime (LCC) 2014 conference was “The Heart and Soul of Murder.” Moderated by Jacqueline Winspear, panelists included Ann Cleeves, Deborah Crombie, and Louise Penney. Yesterday at a planning session for Auburn’s Gold Country Book Festival, I learned that Louise is the all-time favorite author of Placer Auburn’s Head Librarian Terri Pilate. Terri recommended the Canadian’s books to the committee and advised starting at book one: Still Life. I’ve somehow missed out on reading the much-admired International Guest of Honor Louise Penny, and am now about 25 pages into Still Life, enjoying her anything but still characters.

I digress. More on Penny, below.

Because I teach literary “literature” in college, yet write genre fiction, I was attracted by the title of this panel: “The Heart & Soul of Murder: Mysteries with a Meaning.” How meaningful can crime novels be? As Arthur Krystal expounded in The New Yorker, October 2012: “literary fiction is superior to genre fiction.”

In unintended response, this LCC 2014 panel of crime writers explored the heart and soul of characters, reflecting on the depth and breadth of the human condition. They noted they write in solitary confinement and go deep with their characters, people dealing with loss, finding and trying to prevent the occasion of dead bodies. These writers described how their characters show their grief and their avoidance of it, their yearnings and their shame of their neediness. Sounds pretty bottom line heart and soul, indeed, imho.

Krystal tells us he means that “genre” novels “stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes…. for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us.” Yet the LCC panelists discussed probing into the heart of characters, to break through, to lay out the human connections and emotions to what happens. They work to take out the self indulgent and leave in the universal.

Krystal elaborates his critique of genre fiction: “One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences … and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception. Writers who want to understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know are not going to write horror tales or police procedurals.” But the LCC panelists frankly expressed the complex inner worlds of their characters and advised: “Astonish the reader, make the reader annotate. Make the reader know she’s not alone in this feeling, understanding of the emotional mess flowing around. Characters can become like our tribe, where everyone knows your name.”

I’m still not sure of the comparative value of various categories of writing–some now consider literary itself to be a “genre” of its own. But I am certain that the writer’s inner toil to create the best work possible at the time is of priceless value.

A Penny for my thoughts: Louise Penny was warm, dynamic, and delightful whether being interviewed as LCC 2014’s International Guest of Honor or interviewing the enchanting US Guest of Honor, Cara Black. However, while waiting for an elevator, I observed Penny when she could not have known she was “on stage.” She was leaning down attentively listening to a man in a wheelchair, who was flanked by two elderly women. The grace with which the best-selling author interacted with these three frail individuals touched my heart and said more than had anything else I learned about her and crime writers over those five marvelous days in Monterey.

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