Crime Fiction, Crime Fiction Tropes, and the Representation of Second World War-Era Atrocities

Project: Research

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Twentieth-century history is defined by what Zbigniew Brzezinski terms ‘megadeaths’, or its ‘record of mass murder on a scale beyond human capacity to fully comprehend’ (7), which left an estimated 187 million people dead as a result of politically motivated violence (Levene 305). The Second World War lies at the centre of this human catastrophe, with atrocities like the Holocaust, mass bombing campaigns directed against civilian targets, and the use of atomic weapons leading to 40 to 50 million civilian deaths (Jewell et al. 387).Developing an ethically and aesthetically adequate response to this reality has been a central project of post Second World War literature. Theodore Adorno claimed that ‘to write poetry  after Auschwitz is barbaric’ (‘Cultural’ 34), while Claude Lanzmann insisted that ‘fiction is a transgression’ in the face of mass murder (qtd. in Norris 100). Nonetheless atrocity fiction— or writing that deploys the resources of imaginative literature to comprehend incomprehensible violence—has become a major field of international literary production and an important focus of literary study. However, despite the critical attention paid to forms of ‘witness literature’ (Engdahl 5) and high-culture atrocity fiction, genre fiction’s engagement with historical atrocities has been largely neglected. This is particularly true of crime fiction, despite the fact that the genre has offered a sustained fictional engagement with historical atrocity, and that its generic patterns have been used by more traditional literary fiction to explore Second World War atrocity.This project will address this gap by exploring international works of twentieth and twentyfirst century crime fiction that engage with twentieth-century atrocities. It will focus on Second World War-era events, including the Holocaust––in many ways the paradigmatic historical atrocity––but also other comparatively neglected aspects of this era’s history. It will study the use of tropes of crime and detection in the representation of historical atrocities in both explicit crime fiction and in literary fiction that uses some of its signature techniques, asking why they have become a favoured method of fictional engagement with historical atrocities. It will both explore the problematics of this fictional encounter with real-worldsuffering, and delineate crime fiction’s formal and thematic contributions to the broader project of atrocity fiction. In addition, it will explore how these works circulate in a globalliterary marketplace.The project will involve the production of multiple articles and a monograph, thus contributing to a developing view of the complexities of fictional representations of historical atrocity, and contributing to the vital work of communal memory.


Project number9043452
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/10/22 → …