Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 October 2020
Among the numerous accolades and awards garnered by viet thanh nguyen's debut novel, the sympathizer (2015), the one receiving the least attention from academic critics will probably be the Edgar Award, bestowed by the Mystery Writers of America. After all, The Sympathizer boasts aesthetic achievements that far exceed the generic confines of a conventional mystery novel. Also, even in the age of cultural studies, when the divide between the popular and the elite is supposed to have all but disappeared, literary scholars, if they are honest with themselves, still hang on to the notion that there is a qualitative difference, or a hierarchy, separating literary fiction from crime fiction, the highbrow from the lowbrow. It may be true that we no longer live at a time when an eminent critic like Edmund Wilson would attack mystery novels by asserting, as he did in 1945, partly in response to Agatha Christie's popular mystery novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, that “with so many fine books to read …; there is no need to bore ourselves with this rubbish” (qtd. in Bradford 117). And there is more than half a century separating us from the era when Ross Macdonald, one of the most accomplished practitioners of the mystery genre as well as a trained literary scholar, lamented in his 1954 lecture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he had received a doctoral degree in English, that “[t]hough it is one of the dominant literary forms of our age, the mystery has received very little study” (11). Even after Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida enshrined Edgar Allan Poe's detective short story “The Purloined Letter” as a darling of poststructuralist analysis, most literary scholars worth their salt would continue to regard crime fiction as a subpar genre, something that, as Macdonald said, is reserved for their leisure hours, akin to crossword puzzles in a newspaper (11). Or, as Wilson put it, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?” (qtd. in Bradford 117).