Worthy Backstory

The mystery of Ava Lee’s Uncle Chow

This is a review of a mystery novel. That’s right, a mystery novel reviewed in the pages of the Literary Review of Canada — even though mixing the words “literary” and “mystery” in the same sentence breaks with a widely held view that genre fiction is artistic slumming and not worthy of serious consideration.

The critic Edmund Wilson claimed he had outgrown mysteries by the age of twelve. The poet W. H. Auden said whodunits “have nothing to do with works of art.” And Dashiell Hammett, described by the New York Times as “the dean of the hard-­boiled school of detective fiction,” once claimed, with a subversive note of pride, to have been “as bad an influence on American literature” as anyone he could think of.

Still, it’s hard to argue with success. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series has sold in the millions. Walter Mosley, Dennis Lehane, Sue Grafton, and Louise Penny all have...