|"Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent enjoyment than any other single subject." |
Dorothy L. Sayers wrote that sentence in 1934. Things haven't changed. Among all the forms of death murder is the one with the widest appeal. Murder is usually the defining event in crime fiction the motor that drives the story. It fascinates in fiction as well as in fact and on television and at the cinema as well as in books. TV audience figures and public lending rights data tell the same tale. That crime fiction is one of the best-established forms of entertainment. And that its appeal is unusually broad-based and long-lived.
At first sight it seems not merely strange but almost shameful that the human race has such a taste for sudden death. Isn't there enough of it in real life? Is our penchant for it a symptom that we are hungry for sensation, that we have an unlovely appetite for vicarious violence? Is crime fiction bad for the moral health of its readers or viewers? Why on earth do so many of us like it?
To answer that question we first of all have to find a working definition of what crime fiction is: and this in itself is a mystery which would have baffled Holmes or Poirot. These days the classic whodunnit is only one variant among many. The pure detective story was in many respects an aberration: the modern crime novel. like its nineteenth century predecessor is much closer to mainstream fiction in its concerns and techniques than is often realised.
Most of crime fiction whether on the page or on the screen centres on murder and has a strong narrative. This is nothing new. Crime in one shape or another is one of the basic plot devices of Western literature. Julian Svmons called the Little Red Riding Hood story an interesting case of disguise and attempted murder. Murder, suspense and sudden reversals can be found in the works of The Odyssey and Hamlet as well as in The Big Sleep and Cracker.
H.R.F. Keating has produced a catch-all definition of the genre. "… fiction written primarily for its entertainment value which has as its subject some form of crime." He goes on to say that "'crime writing is fiction that puts the reader first,riot its writer." Useful though this definition is. It shouldn't be taken too seriously. Dickens and Trollope, for example, often used crimes to underpin their plots: and both of them were commercial authors who understood the paramount importance of entertaining their readers. All one can with any certainty is that the label "crime fiction" is an elastic convenience for those who use it, not an exact term.
The genre's elasticity is perhaps one reason for its wide and enduring appeal. Like the Church of England. Crime fiction means different things to different people at different times. We have the howdunnit and the whydunnit as well as the whodunnit. We can snuggle up with a cosy or exercise our mental digestive system with something hard-boiled. There are novels where the hero is the criminal not the detective. There are crime novels set in Roman times and crime novels set in the future. Some are designed to shock and others designed to make us laugh. Some investigate the psychopathology or sociology of crime while others act as dramatisations of the ethical or political views of their creators.
Not only is crime fiction a portmanteau genre, it is also attracting more and more serious writers - people who fifty years ago might well have written mainstream fiction. It is possible that many readers have become disillusioned with the intellectual excesses of the modern literary novel and have turned with a sigh of relief to crime. P.D.James suggests that a good crime novel combines "the old traditions of an exciting story and the satisfying exercise of rational deduction with the psychological subtleties and moral ambiguities of a good novel." It's worth adding that in crime fiction the main characters are usually under great stress. They are placed in situations where they are forced to shed their protective layers of habit and conformity and reveal their naked natures - to other characters. to us, and perhaps to themselves. They are in conflict, often violent with other characters. They suck the reader and the viewer into their fictional lives and force us to care what happens to them. The very best writers of crime fiction make us wonder about ourselves as well as about their characters. Is it any wonder that crime fiction sells?
This goes some way towards explaining part of the genre's appeal. But only part. H.R.F. Keating's remark, that crime fiction "puts its reader first", suggests another piece of the jigsaw. Crime novels are designed to entertain. They are the products of popular culture. As such, they must make a profit, for no one will subsidise them. Crime fiction may have literary aspirations, but its emphasis on entertainment ensures that these do not intimidate potential readers. Crime fiction is literature in its shirtsleeves, stripped of pretensions: and none the worse for that.
Crime fiction, then, is accessible. It has also been suggested that its appeal has a psychological dimension. C.Day Lewis thought the detective story was a twentieth-century folk tale. Nick Elliot, once the head of drama series at the BBC, believes "Crime fiction satisfies in us a secret yearning for justice, the unappeasable appetite for a fair world, which begins in childhood and never leaves us. It satisfies our need for conclusions, both moral and narrative."
Before the war, both the detective story and the thriller reassured the middle classes that all would be well: that in nothing to fear from criminals and lower orders. To some extent, even now much crime fiction functions as a literary comfort blanket. It helps us to come to terms with the increasing violence of the modern world.
The best crime novels do both more and less than this: they do not suggest a remedy for crime or reassure us that all in the end will be well; but they can help us to understand our violent society, and they also allow us to hope that evil will not go unpunished.
Most - though not all - crime novels crime novels share a common structure. First there is the crime, usually a murder; then there is the investigation; and finally the resolution or judgement, often in the shape of the criminal's arrest or death. This tight structure is another reason for the genre's appeal. To object that the structure is artificial is to miss the point: Racine's tragedies observe the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action; Shakespeare voluntarily confined himself to the fourteen lines of the sonnet form: Jane Austen wrote what are, in formal terms, romantic novels of courtship, where marriage offers the ultimate resolution. Most art plays tribute to the fact that the human race hungers for form, if only as a method of providing a temporary container for fiction providesnot only the dangerous chaos but something to put it in.
It is commonly said - by the late Julian Symons and H.R.F. Keating among others - that crime fiction can never be great literature because it is so sensational. It is a view worth taking seriously partly because Symons and Keating are first-rate crime novelists and partly because it is admirably unpretentious. But does this mean that those of us who like crime are condemned irrevocably to be purveyors and consumers of second-rate pulp? Are we the sort of people who prefer Sparkling Pomagne to Veuve Clicquot?
Of course not. Much "great literature" is outrageously sensational. There is no intrinsic reason why crime fiction should not aspire to be great (whatever it is still a crime novel if it succeeds is another question). What counts, as ever is not your effects but how you achieve them. We can safely reassure ourselves that the strange appeal of crime fiction is not limited to those of second-class cultural intelligence.
It seems likely that the crime novel is merely the latest vehicle for themes that have been fascinating people for thousands of years. It fascinates so many people partly because it entertains partly because it offers the rewards of any good quality fiction, and partly because it deals with some of the uglier aspects of human nature.
Murder is the ultimate crime and we're naturally fascinated by the strong human emotions that bring it about. It's also worth remembering that the twentieth century has been the most violent on record: does this have something to do with the current popularity of the crime novel?
Finally perhaps the human race is obsessed with death. Remember the enormous crowds that used to gather at public executions. Death is something that will happen to us all. The murder mystery gives us a way of exploring a few of the implications - and of enjoying ourselves while we do it.