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|
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.