Every month, it seems, I hear about a literary fiction writer or another making some kind of sweeping judgment on crime fiction, and why it’s inferior to whatever it is that they happen to be writing. It always shocks me, this attitude, because fiction is fiction, and anything can be good as long as the writer knows what they’re doing.
Like so many avid readers out there, I like crime fiction. For many reasons, but primarily because I think some of the most exciting work today is done in this space. No other kind of fiction examines social and environmental justice issues in the same way. It may be my background in political science, or just the way I’m made up, but I’m very much drawn to crime novels that examine a particular social issue and try to serve justice in some kind of way—or at least attempt to deepen the reader’s understanding of that issue.
Here are some of my favorite crime novels concerning social justice.
Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha
This novel got a lot of buzz last year, and rightfully so. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Your House Will Pay follows two families, one Korean American and one African American, after a young woman is killed during the LA riots in the nineties. It switches brilliantly from past to present events and looks at how her murder impacts the families involved in present-day Los Angeles.
Little Drummer Girl, by John le Carré
From the master of spy thrillers comes this intricately plotted novel set in the eighties. The message, and the heart, in this book has stayed with me for a long time. A British actress is recruited as an Israeli spy and, during her mission, begins to sympathize with the Palestinian cause. This book is full of complications and contradictions, and really looks at the plight of the Palestinian people in an impactful way.
Heaven, My Home, by Attica Locke
I’m a huge fan of Attica Locke’s, and of her Darren Matthews character in particular. Heaven, My Home leads Matthews on a search for a child who’s gone missing in a small town in Texas. Here, antebellum sympathies abound, and the current political landscape in which the novel is set makes this a heartfelt read on race relations in the south.
A Dangerous Crossing, by Ausma Zehanat Khan
It’s no secret I love Ausma Zehanat Khan’s work. She has a background in human rights law, and you can tell justice is very much on her mind in all her Khattak and Getty novels. Each installment paints a nuanced picture of the kind of pressing social issues affecting our world today. A Dangerous Crossing is my favorite because it is an empathetic portrait of Europe’s migrant crisis, and it also looks at the Canadian perspective on this issue as well.
The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
In Larsson’s first book in the Millennium series, he not only introduces us to the iconic Lisbeth Salandar, but he also tears aside the curtain to show us what violence against women in Sweden looks like. The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo also touches on themes of immigration, ethnicity and class.
The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami
Okay, I snuck this one in because I love it. The Other Americans is not strictly a crime novel, but it is something of a murder-mystery concerning the hit-and-run killing of a Moroccan immigrant—specifically looking at how his death affects his family and community. This book is a moving meditation on xenophobia, the American Dream, and how we treat the ‘other’ in our respective societies.