I’m not talking about the latest crime statistics here. I’m talking the writing genre that is crime fiction. Whether it’s ‘Nordic Noir’ or home-grown crime thrillers, there has been a definite surge in both interest and output over the last decade. There have been awards for crime writing for many years -The Golden Dagger is the biggest in the world- and now there are crime writing festivals a-plenty, from the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival to Bloody Scotland.
In my home country (Scotland) there seems to be a plethora of dark writers, from established international authors like Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Val MacDiarmid, Denise Mina, Alex Gray and Ann Cleeves, to perhaps less well known writers like Alan Guthrie, and Peter May, and newer writers like Helen Forbes and LG Thomson.
The UK has a fine tradition of psychological thrillers – not necessarily ’crime’ or ‘murder’ (think Hitchcock here) and a rich seam of ‘Who Dunnits’ and detective fiction. The ‘Golden Age’ was always considered to be the 1890’s to the mid 1900’s with the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Michael Innes topping the popularity stakes. They weren’t so much about literary style and rounded character but much more about the ‘whodunnit’ formula which allowed readers to guess who the murderer might be, with a little deliberate misleading, though rarely with too many surprises.
I read Agatha Christie in my youth, and bored easily of the formulaic approach. It left me with a bad taste about crime writing in general, although I don’t deny that it was often clever and compelling, and very, very, popular. However, as a result I’ve tended to avoid the genre, until now.
My partner is an avid crime writing reader and has catholic tastes. I’ve never much been persuaded by his gory descriptions (Stuart MacBride and Tony Parsons spring to mind) although when I ran out of reading matter one wet afternoon, I was tempted to a few Ian Rankin books, and was pleasantly surprised. Although I got annoyed with Rebus after a while, it opened my mind to the fact that crime writers can handle plot development and character with the best of them.
We both support and attend a local literary salon which invites along publishers, agents and writers. A surprising number of the authors we’ve had to speak are crime writers: the ubiquitous Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Alan Guthrie, Lin Anderson, Doug Johnstone and LG Thomson to name a few. Their insight into writing both plot and character have been enlightening. When one of our own members – Helen Forbes- produced a first novel in the genre, I bought it in the spirit of supporting a fellow member, and ended up enjoying the book enormously.
I’ve been impressed with excerpts from Denise’s books, and thoroughly enjoyed the readings from LG Thomson at the launch of Emergent’s XpoNorth festival in 2015. These are writers who write gritty interesting characters and multi-faceted plots. Crime may be the genre of choice, but there are good stories here for the telling. It’s changed my perspective, and reading choices.
I don’t tend to like graphic bloody films, and in some ways books can be as bad if you have a visual imagination, so I’ll still avoid those especially gruesome tomes and stick to something with a little more intrigue and a little less blood.
Edmund Wilson suggested that “reading detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking” and perhaps he is right. Auden described himself as an ‘addict’ of the genre, and I have friends who can’t get enough of their ‘fix’ and read crime fiction voraciously and exclusively. There is certainly a popular and wide appeal and this sort of fiction is no longer separated into dark corners of bookshops but competes on its own terms taking up more inches of shelf space than some supposedly worthier tomes.
John Sutherland (former chairman of the judging panel for one of the foremost literary prizes) had the view that submitting a crime novel for the Booker Prize would be: “like putting a donkey into the Grand National” This may still be the view held by ‘literary’ types, but is a kind of literary snobbery that puts people off reading, rather than encouraging them. And with around 1 in 3 new novels being crime fiction, not too many people will be giving too much gravitas to these views.
I doubt if the current assent of the crime novel will breed a race of psychopathic writers, or a nation of murderers. My hope is it will continue to produce a nation of readers, and that we will continue to get good quality new crime writers telling stories of the complexity of human nature, and questioning how we judge people.
L G Thomson’s website: https://www.thrillerswithattitude.co.uk/
Helen Forbes Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Helen-Forbes-Author-457783327732599
Bloody Scotland Website: https://www.bloodyscotland.com/authors/