The Case for Crime Fiction

You are reading a detective story. You have spent hours following the plot of a murder case, carefully solving the hints and clues that will point towards the killer until, when you have finally endured enough investigation, the answer is revealed – it was Professor Plum with a lead pipe in the dining room.

Of course, that was how crime fiction used to work, but the days of country house whodunits are mostly over and have left the gritty narrative of modern crime fiction in their place. With sales of over £90m a year in the UK alone, it has become one of the best-selling genres of book throughout the country, prompting numerous film and television adaptations, and leaving devoted admirers such as myself eager for more.  So why is it that even with such rising popularity and a loyal fan base, I still feel the need to refer to crime fiction as my ‘guilty pleasure’?

To begin with, this is due to accusations of crime fiction being non-literary; as a mainstream genre it has sometimes struggled to convince readers of its ‘scholarly’ merit or depth of narrative. Yet this has never been a problem for Ian Rankin, one of the UK’s best-selling crime writers. His latest book Saints of the Shadow Bible released late last year is a perfect example of crime fiction’s ability to blend an engaging plot with wider social issues. The novel continues his popular series of Detective Rebus novels, and deals with the aftermath of a suspicious car crash whilst simultaneously examining the history and importance of the police force. It is alluring plots such as these that maintain crime fiction’s significance through their ability to weave multiple strands and characters together.

Another feature that the genre is celebrated for is the credible settings created by the author, whether that’s the dark underbelly of Rankin’s Edinburgh or the dreary Yorkshire of Peter Robinson’s novels. Robinson’s most recent book Children of the Revolution, deals with the death of a humiliated lecturer and the series of revelations that follow. As usual, however, despite the interesting plot, it is Robinson’s protagonist Alan Banks that remains the most captivating part of the novel. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of crime fiction has always been the detectives themselves, as we marvel at their skill to solve complex puzzles and delve into the realm of their private lives which, as the plot gradually progresses, become just as problematic as the mysteries they are trying to answer.

Any doubt as to the endurance of crime fiction was quickly assuaged recently with the emergence of Scandinavian fiction. Although it has been criticised for its depiction of graphic and bloody violence, many have contested that the novels reflect the brutal nature of actual crime. Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole thrillers fit into this category, and are now some of the most popular books to have been translated. His last novel Police concerns itself with a range of rather dark and disturbing topics which other genres very rarely touch upon. Arguably that is what we have come to expect from Scandinavian writing since Stieg Larsson’s classic The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where the character Lisbeth Salander actually kidnaps and tattoos a man in order to seek her revenge – something Miss Marple could only ever dream of.

In a way, the reason it continues to attract readers is because they know exactly what they’re buying; each story still comes down to the same basic formula: crime, investigation, resolution. As closed as this paradigm might appear, writers have managed to create countless variations over the years, and with a good crime book I still run the risk of not going to bed until the final page has been turned. When writing his own defence of crime fiction, W. H. Auden said “the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.” I think it’s time we acknowledged this addiction and stopped shunning crime fiction as trash novels or non-literary.  They’re thought provoking, intelligent, and most of all entertaining. So I urge you to pick up a book, feel the satisfaction when loose ends get tied, and maybe you’ll get addicted too.

PHOTO/Laura Whitehouse