Sunday, January 13, 2013

Christopher Fowler on Modern Crime Fiction (and what can be learned from older detective fiction)

Christopher Fowler
I quite enjoyed this insightful and provocative new article on British crime fiction in the Independent by author Christopher Fowler:

Bought off: how crime fiction lost the plot

The sub-heading explains: "Thriller writing was once a British strength, but publishers are reducing it to a formulaic genre.  Time, maybe, for murder most foul...."

Fowler contends that the crime "genre has backed itself into a dead end," producing endless volumes of gritty, dreary, ostensibly realistic police tales year after year.

"[T]here is a part of England," writes Fowler, "that forever has an alcoholic middle-aged copper with a dead wife, investigating a murdered girl who turns out to be an Eastern European sex worker."

Then there are those criminal genius serial killers, who seem to commit every other slaying in Europe these days.

"We are told readers want veracity," continues Fowler, "but readers will accept that a murderer is stalking London according to the rules of a Victorian tontine, even though they'll ask why your detective doesn't age in real time.

Fowler argues that today's crime writers should look back to the past, when many authors didn't even pretend to be scrupulously "realistic" (or "credible," as P. D. James says) and cheerfully wrote mysteries that "featured absurd, surreal crimes investigated by wonderfully eccentric sleuths."

rich and plummy
Margery Allingham, writes Fowler, lavishly filled her crafty criminal puddings with juicy plums of ingenuity, so that readers got a cerebral delectation (i.e., mind candy) "every few bites."

Today, he complains, "we get doorstops of unrelenting grimness."

Could it be that crime/mystery fiction in the Golden Age's second decade, the 1930s, actually more wholeheartedly embraced both detective fiction and crime novels, rather than stigmatize one branch of the gene, as is often done today?  I think this case can be made (and I attempt to make it in the current survey of the period 1920 to 1960 on which I am working).  The richness and variety of these years is insufficiently appreciated.

And here I disagree with Fowler that "surely nobody found [Agatha Christie's books] realistic."

To be sure, many of Christie's crime capers are too fiendishly clever to be fully credible--there's Baroness James' favored word again--though I am fine with personally.  I like fiendish cleverness in fictional murdering.

Yet I would argue that critics in fact praised the satire in Christie's The Murder at the Vicarage and Three Act Tragedy (of English villages and the theatrical world, respectively), for example, and that many people  acknowledge today that such middle-period Christie novels as The Hollow and Five Little Pigs are more like the psychological crime novels associated with books of today (though more of these were published in the 1930s than people seem to realize, not to mention the 1940s/50s).

But this quibble aside, I really have to commend Fowler for writing this eloquent piece.  The modern narrative of the crime/mystery genre tends to be how everything has gotten better since those rather juvenile days of "mere puzzles."  Fowler challenges this view and forcefully argues that there is much to be learned from the past about this fascinating field of fiction.  I concur with this opinion.


  1. He is always lamenting the dreary books being published year after year. He has been a judge for several crime fiction awards and most of the books he's asked to read he has confessed he can't ever finish. He wrote a post on his blog last year noting if a book begins with a weather report he is certain he is going to be bored. What I most enjoyed in the article is his attack on the ubiquitous use of "gritty realisim" when describing the latest crop of crime books. Very little contemporary crime fiction is truly realistic, more often derivative than anything else. His final sentences are so spot on: "There are so many other crime stories to tell, farcical, tragic, contemporary and strange. It's time readers were allowed to discover them." It's why I rarely venture into contemporary crime fiction anymore. Where is the weirdness and fun? So few new writers are willing to go that route and we as readers suffer.

  2. The big rap on the Golden Age is that it was supposedly this period when all you got were these "absurd" country house mysteries, which isn't true at all, as I think we've both endeavored to show on our blogs. By the 1930s, anyway, there was much more variety than the period is often credited with having.

    And then look how the genre in the 1950s has largely become the history of Highsmith and Thompson and Goodis (all are now part of the Library of America, like Chandler and Hammett--even Ross Macdonald seems to take something of a back seat to these authors in a lot of places). People are even forgetting about Julian Symons, although he more wrote the sort of books that are in accord with the modern crime novel aesthetic. But I suppose he isn't noir enough. And then what about Michael Gilbert, Andrew Garve, Edmund Crispin, Celia Fremlin, Margaret Millar, Ursula Curtiss, for example? At least Crispin has been brought back into print.

    I think Highsmith, Thompson and Goodis are interesting writers all, certainly, but they alone are not representative of the whole era (no three writers would be).

    I think it would be a counter-intuitive notion, this idea that in some ways we get less variety now than we did, but I think Fowler makes a great point about the pressure to write grit. Even Peter Lovesey, a blessed traditionalist on the whole, felt the imperative to kill off his detective's wife, so he could suffer greater trauma, apparently! I like variety, including the gritty books, but I wish the modern era were actually more tolerant of older traditions and stopped adopting such a superior attitude.

    And I do agree about challenging the "realism" notion. Is the Rebus-type of detective with the dysfunctional personal life more, or less, realistic, than the egregiously well-adjusted Inspector French of Freeman Wills Crofts?

  3. In my view there is far more variety in crime fiction than probably at any point in the past, but only once you get beyond the airport shelf-fillers. There are more books being published across more sub-genres - noir, hardboiled, cozy, psychological, historical, comic crime capers, procedurals (and not just police but every variety of law enforcement) etc, and the influx of translated crime has really broadened the canvas (and well beyond Scandanavian police procedurals). I agree that the highly promoted crime novels that end up on the bestseller lists are sometimes limited by range, but that is not a function of writers not writing a wider variety but of publishers' marketing. It is not difficult to find these alternatives with a little effort.

  4. Rob, I admit to my own bias, because one thing I'm trying to do is show how much more variety there was in older crime fiction, even the Golden Age (the 1930s, though not the 1920s).

    But of course it's not any fairer to say that ALL the stuff being written now is "gritty realism" than it is to say that everything written in the Golden Age in Britain was country house mysteries with amateur detectives. Fowler's books alone show there is variety. I want to look at more of such books on this blog.

    I do think in some quarters there's a dismissive attitude toward the more "traditional" mystery and the Golden Age, which supposedly produced virtually only that. Modern writers I think have to face this attitude if they don't write in the prescribed way. I write about the attitude displayed to "mere puzzles" in the introduction to my book MAsters of the Humdrum Mystery.

  5. One of the things I've come to realize is how much rebellion there was in the 1930s already against the traditional detective novel. I'm very impressed with the experimentation that went on in the 1930s, it's much under-documented.

    I write about this in my forthcoming book on Todd's Downing's crime fiction and reviews.

  6. I think in any era there is more variety than is generally acknowledged. There's a dominant discourse or more narrowly focused mainstream, then there is the messy reality of sub-genres and one-offs. I am sure it was the same in the 1930s as you say, and I'm posititve it's very varied today (with a few thousand crime novels published by established presses in any one year, how can it not be?) It's the same with music, art, theatre, etc. Where it becomes an issue re. 1930s crime fiction concerns what is re-issued in the present (the supposed classics, which do tend toward country house and amateur detectives.

  7. "I think in any era there is more variety than is generally acknowledged. There's a dominant discourse or more narrowly focused mainstream, then there is the messy reality of sub-genres and one-offs."

    Nicely put!