Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Durability of Crime Fiction and Why It's Bigger Than Ever

One out of every three books sold in the UK is a crime novel.
     I just discovered that today and, as a crime novelist myself, that fact both heartened and startled me. And while I'm sure the ratio of crime novels bought by the US reading public is somewhat more modest, it's undeniable that crime/detective fiction is big in virtually in every nation on earth. This is especially true in post Stieg Larsson Scandinavia (particularly Iceland). And as our brothers and sisters across the pond have historically loved to get up to the elbows in a good gory murder, the trend of mystery novels being the biggest-selling genre isn't going to reverse anytime soon.
     But why do humans love mystery novels while other genres, once big (such as westerns), fade away? Purists would say the answer begins in 1868 when Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone was first published in Charles Dickens' magazine. It predates Arthur Conan-Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story, by nearly two decades as the first detective novel. And from that point on, it seems, we just can't get enough of quality mystery fiction.
     It's a popular enough genre so that it comfortably supports much diversity. There are two basic categories in detective fiction: Cozies, which are typically appealing to female authors and readers, and hard-boiled, which is primarily written and read by men. There's the reliable narrator such as Dr. Watson and the unreliable narrator, which has made a huge comeback with UK author Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train.
     And there are several conventions governing the genre that cannot be broken or altered for its own sake. In mystery fiction, this has provided a great challenge for its latter-day practitioners because however wide the framework may be at the beginning, time narrows that framework. Yet mystery novelists succeed and even thrive while working within that framework. Among the conventions that endure from the time of Collins and Doyle:
     As with all fiction, the protagonist or detective must have a significant flaw: Sherlock Holmes was addicted to cocaine, for instance, while Agatha Christie's Poirot was saddled with overweening pride and egotism not to mention being obsessive compulsive about trivial things (such as his hard boiled eggs needing to be of identical height).
     The novel must begin with a seemingly simple or straightforward crime that leads to a larger one or a conspiracy. A red herring or several deliberately misleads the reader as a pitcher tries to foil the batter with all sorts of deception. And, of course, there's the craving for a satisfactory denouement we're all conditioned from early childhood on to expect. And what better genre to satisfy that craving than a good mystery novel? As Bob Gunton told Ryan Gosling in Fracture, "(E)very now and then you get to put a fucking stake in a bad guy's heart."
     As with all genres, the protagonist must be risking something, whether it be their life, job, PI license, credibility or what have you. The villain must appear to be invincible in the interests of conflict while not being so. But the bad guy's Achilles Heel just isn't revealed until later while the protagonist's vulnerability must be established from the start.
     Yet despite several immovable conventions, mystery fiction also has to change with the times. For over a century, virtually every fictional detective was a white male created by a white male while women were always portrayed as victims or femme fatales. Now, it seems as if two out of every three bestselling mystery novelists are females featuring female detectives. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Inspector Maigret have made way for Kinsey Milhone, Kay Scarpetta and V.I. Warshawski.
     With the reversal in gender roles comes the jettisoning of several other conventions, such as the reliable narrator, the sidekick who chronicles the exploits of the detective and even the point of view (many today are written in first person). The only significant way in which crime fiction has not kept pace with the times is in how it represents minorities, which is virtually never. An African American crime novelist and I were discussing this on Facebook months ago and she suggested that the reason why more African Americans and other people of color don't write or read the genre is because these very same people feel they're underrepresented. Then again, so were they in romance fiction until Terry McMillian wrote, Waiting to Exhale. So I confidently hope this, too, shall change.
     Mystery fiction appeals to virtually every class of people in the industrialized world for different reasons. As with all genres, it tells time and again the oft-told tale of the human condition and, perhaps more effectively than any other genre, it is that we are gravely flawed as a species. It often calms our anxiety that the bad guys get away with it by showing, no matter the odds, there will always be someone who will care enough to right the often unbalanced scales of justice and put that stake through the bad guy's heart.


At July 2, 2017 at 9:45 PM, Blogger D. said...

BarbaraNeely! And I believe Sandra Brown, but I can't find the book.

They're out there.


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