Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Crime Fiction Fashions and Trends

As any crime fiction fan can tell you, there are a lot of different kinds of crime fiction. That’s part of the appeal of the genre, really; there’s something out there for just about everyone’s taste. The genre’s flexible, too, and has undergone a lot of change – you could really say evolution – through the years. That’s arguably one of the reasons crime fiction’s been around for as long as it has. But even with the variety and flexibility there is in crime fiction, you could argue that there have also been trends or fashions (some even say fads) in the genre. Sometimes, we see these trends because a book in one particular sub-genre sells well, and other publishers and authors want to take advantage of that book’s popularity. Other times, it’s because people’s tastes change, and they want books that reflect those changing tastes. Of course, some crime fiction “styles” never go out of fashion, but it is interesting to see how crime fiction trends come and go.

One trend in crime fiction is the intellectual puzzle mystery. It may be a “locked room” mystery, a cipher/code mystery or some other sort of puzzle, but the key to this kind of mystery is always an intellectual challenge of some sort. There are a lot of examples of this kind of mystery, which seems to have been in vogue during the Sherlock Holmes era of crime fiction and the Golden Age. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes finds out the truth behind the death of Hilton Cubitt and the odd behavior of his wife, Elsie by breaking a code of seemingly meaningless drawings. In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Mirror, which appears in Murder in the Mews, Hercule Poirot discovers how Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore was shot, although he was inside a locked study at the time. Elllery Queen’s first appearance, in 1929’s The Roman Hat Mystery, involves the poisoning death of shady lawyer Monte Field. Once all of the clues have been presented, Queen even turns directly to the reader and issues a challenge to solve the mystery. Dorothy Sayers’ Whose Body? and Have His Carcase are also examples from this trend. In both novels, Lord Peter Wimsey puts together pieces of an intellectual puzzle.

That sort of puzzle went out of fashion, arguably after World War II, when psychoanalysis came into fashion. But that hardly means there are no intellectual puzzlers being written. For instance, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons and The Lost Symbol show that intellectual puzzles can still be popular. There are other examples, too.

Another crime fiction trend is the psychological novel. In this kind of novel, the main interest for the reader is the psychology behind the crime. The psychological crime novel arguably came into fashion during the postwar popularity of psychoanalysis. Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is a classic example of this sort of novel. Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno meet by pure chance when both are passengers on the same cross-country train journey. They fall into conversation and end up confiding in each other. Haines expresses his wish to be rid of his wife, Miriam, so he can re-marry, and Bruno expresses his wish to be rid of his father. Bruno suggests that each commit the other’s murder, so to speak, so each will have an alibi. Haines doesn’t think that Bruno is serious, and brushes him off. To Haines’ dismay, Bruno kills Miriam and then insists that Haines fulfill his part of what Bruno sees as a contract between the two. In this novel, Bruno’s psychopathology is the real interest in this novel.

Since that time, psychological novels have retained their popularity. Writers such as Denise Mina, Val McDermid and Martin Edwards explore the psychology behind crime as well as tell the story of its investigation. Ann Cleeves and Ruth Rendell do the same thing.

Gritty police procedurals have also enjoyed a long period of popularity. Beginning in the late 1960’s with work by writers such as Sjöwall and Wahlöö and later, with writers such as Dell Shannon and Ed McBain, these novels give the reader a realistic view of what police work is like. Two kinds of crime fiction seem to have come from this fashion. One is the police unit procedural. Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series, McBain’s 87th Precinct series and today, Gene Kerrigan’s work, are all examples. In these novels, the police at a particular precinct or station work on a number of crimes together. The novels aren’t just focused on one murder, say, but rather on the group of people who solve a set of crimes.

The other kind of gritty police procedural focuses on one or a few crimes, and often on one or a few police who solve them. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series, Rob Kitchen’s Colm McEvoy novels and Luiz Alfredo García-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa series are examples of this kind of novel.

In the last years, there’ve been several trends in crime fiction. One of them is the psychopathic-killer trend. Arguably started with work like Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, this trend was made incredibly popular by work such as Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. In that novel, FBI trainee Clarice Starling is working to track down a serial killer dubbed “Buffalo Bill” by the police because of the brutal way in which the victims are killed. It turns out that this killer was once a patient of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist who’s now incarcerated in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Starling is sent into the hospital to interview Lecter, because it’s believed Lecter may be able to give the FBI valuable information about this killer. Lecter agrees to help, on the condition that for each piece of information he provides, Starling has to reveal a personal secret.

There’s a long list of novels with the serial killer as a motif. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of them, but a few examples are novels such as Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead and Jeffrey Deaver’s The Broken Window.

Another kind of crime fiction that’s become quite popular in recent years is themed crime fiction. Cooking, sports, antiques, wine, pets and lots of other themes are now featured in novels by Joanne Fluke, Lilian Jackson Braun, Michael Balkind and many other authors.

Currently, Scandinavian crime fiction is enjoying quite a lot of popularity. Although work by writers such as Sjöwall and Wahlöö and Henning Mankell has been around for quite some time, the immense popularity of writers such as Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø has called quite a bit of attention to this group of novels.

There also seem to be a growing group of crime fiction novels that don’t fall easily into a particular category. Agatha Christie, for instance, wrote novels that show several of these trends. Recently, Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series and Megan Abbott’s novels have become popular and well-received even though they don’t really reflect a particular trend.

Space hasn’t permitted me to mention all of the crime fiction trends and fashions there have been (I know, I know – I haven’t touched on PI novels or spy novels, among others). Some of those fashions have fallen out of vogue; others have more “staying power.” And of course, there are many authors whose work seems to reflect more than one of these trends. If you’re a crime fiction fan, how much does what’s “fashionable” affect your reading? What do you see as the new trends in crime fiction? If you’re a crime fiction author, how does it affect what you write? Do you keep in mind what's "hot" and what's selling when you write?

19 comments:

  1. I'm not much for fashion in my reading or writing, the latter being influenced more by the mood inspired by an idea than anything else.

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  2. John - I know what you mean. My writing is much more influenced by what I want to say about the ideas I have than it is by what's selling, too. I do once in a while read a book that's popular, but not usually for that reason.

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  3. As a reader, it doesn't affect me much--I read what I want to.

    As a *writer*, it affects me a lot! Lately, international mystery writers (especially Swedish) have been really hot. I know there are other trends right now, too...I think cozies are trending up currently, as well.

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  4. Elizabeth - I don't let trends dictate what I read, either. I think you're right, too, that cosy mysteries are trending up. No doubt it's because of how much people just love your Myrtle and Lulu characters : ). I agree that authors need to pay attention to what's selling; I sometimes wish I were better at that, myself. On the one hand, I write the stories I have; on the other, it doesn't hurt to know what people want to buy...

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  5. As a reader I'm not swayed by trends, so I'm not about to break into a rush of reading vampire detective fiction any time soon.

    I've never thought about it as a writer, and now you've planted that seed I don't know that I'm going to be able to sleep at night.

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  6. Vanda - LOL! I don't read about vampire detectives, either! And I wouldn't worry about your writing. Folks, Vanda's Containment is a finalist for the inaugural Ngiao Marsh Aaward for Best Crime Novel . Thanks to Craig at Crime Watch for the details about this prestigious New Zealand award! Let's wish Vanda the best!

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  7. I don't think I read that way but then how would I know? I think that is the thing with a meme or fashion that spreads through a culture - we don't know why we are doing what we're doing. I do like the old original cozies I suppose but mostly I like to know that I'm going to get intelligent writing and an author with a sense of both humour and pathos. Reginald Hill, Elizabeth George, Kate Atkinson for instance. I do enjoy a 'noir' or the elegant mysteries of the forties but not as a steady diet.Jan Morrison

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  8. During the late '80s I loved spy novels and all those Cold War-related mysteries. After the Berlin Wall fell, spy novels just lost their relevance. I doubt if I've read more than 3-4 since then! Nothing wrong with the authors, just a social change that influenced my tastes.

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  9. Jan - You make an interesting point. Sometimes, we read a novel or an author and don't really think about why. It may be because it was popular when we started, or it may be something else. I know what you mean, too, about the appeal of writers with both intelligence and humour/pathos. That's one reason for which I like Reginald Hill, too. I have to say I don't read as much noir as I do other kinds of writing, but that, too, has its appeal.


    Karen - I think relevance has a lot to do with whether a novel or author stays popular or not. I've read some novels and series, for instance, with a strong, almost militaristic feminist undertone. That was relevant thirty-five and even thirty years ago. Now, the plots of those novels are OK, but that militarism makes them seem very outdated.

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  10. I read what I think I am going to like- and that is rarely dictated by trends. The only constants for me in a book I go back to are good character development, and a story that makes sense.

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  11. Rayna - I agree completely. The most important elements in a story, whether or not it happens to be a type that's in fashion - is a solid story and strong characters. As you say, good plots and characters aren't a matter of trends.

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  12. Well, I love writing and reading intellectual mysteries and thrillers. Especially something with codes and ciphers. I want something that makes me think, teaches me something. I am also a fan of the psychological novel. I find them fascinating as well. I will read almost any novel but I find they have to really challenge me in some way.

    CD

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  13. Clarissa - I know what you mean. I also like novels that challenge one intellectually and that give the reader "food for thought." That's the sort of book that stays in one's mind and can be read many times.

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  14. Margot, I forgive you your poetic license in naming The Da Vinci Code as an intellectual puzzle. ;o)
    I struggled through this book wondering what new twist he was going to put on The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Baigent and Leigh, which I had read years before, and was stunned when there was nothing new.

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  15. Norman - LOL! I was actually referring just to the ciphers and codes in that novel... ; ). And isn't it, er, interesting (dismaying?) when one finds that a novel recycles an idea? As you say, there's nothing wrong with a premise being re-used; many of them are. But without any innovations and new twists, a book falls flat.

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  16. I don't read much with trends, but I do enjoy cozy murder mysteries and they seem to be doing well. The cozy mysteries have such a vast array of trends (hobbies, cooking, pets, etc.) and that makes them enjoyable to me.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  17. Mason - I don't think you're alone. Sometimes, we enjoy a type of book that happens to be popular, as cosy mysteries are, but not because that style is popular. Of course, as you say, there is a wide variety of cosy mysteries to choose from, so it's not a surprise that you find them enjoyable. And maybe that variety comes from the fact that they're popular, so more are being written. Still, quite a lot of people prefer one or another kind of mystery even if that type isn't popular.

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  18. The books I end up finishing are always about a good character. He can be the murderer, victim or a third party. But he/she has to have a voice I will follow.

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  19. Patti - There's no doubt that a story falls flat without good characters, whether or not that story is "in fashion." The books that we remember long after the style isn't "trendy" anymore are books with interesting plots and well-drawn characters.

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