More people are now reading murder mysteries than any other fiction. RUTH DUDLEY EDWARDS says it’s because of our yearning for justice
Published: 12 April 2018
As a crime writer, I’m delighted, but not surprised, that crime fiction has been declared the most popular of all fictional genres.
I’ve been an addict since the late Fifties and though I’m pretty broad in my tastes, it is almost always crime books — many by authors I know — that I’ll load up with for a holiday.
I’m thrilled, rather than envious, to see my friends doing so well.
Because we crime writers — I’ve written a dozen crime novels myself — get so fed up with being patronised by literary types, it’s hard not to feel triumphalist at the news that last year we represented 36 per cent of book sales and for the first time ever we have beaten general and literary fiction (35 per cent).
And we’ve also seen off other runners-up such as romance and sagas (10 per cent) and science fiction and fantasy (6 per cent).
Since the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle gripped the public imagination in the 19th century, people have speculated — often disapprovingly — on why stories of mystery and wrongdoing are so popular.
In the early Thirties, as what became known as the Golden Age between the wars was in full swing, the great Dorothy L. Sayers was a giant of the genre.
‘Death in particular,’ she noted, ‘seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject.’
But at the time there were good reasons for it. Millions of people had died in a terrible war that had caused intense suffering to many British families, and there was an acute consciousness of the unfairness of life along with a hunger for order, stability and justice.
There were dark forces of communism and fascism threatening from the east, and people looked back nostalgically to an often mythical pre-war existence of sunshine, peace and security.
The Golden Age books tended to offer a serene and familiar social setting and then rudely disrupt it with a gun, a knife or a blunt instrument.
Yet you knew that at the end of all the bloody events, suspicions and shocks, the mystery would be solved, the murderer would be unmasked and duly despatched to jail or an early grave. Justice would prevail and order and harmony would be restored.
Perhaps it is the uncertainty of the world we face today that has once again kindled our love of crime fiction.
When faced with news of the terror attacks and bombs of ISIS, the horrors of the war in Syria, the bellicose behaviour of world leaders such as Presidents Putin and Trump — and on a more parochial scale the violent stabbings and shootings on our streets — perhaps our hunger for justice has led us again to these novels.
Of course, many of the books today are more violent, and very often darker, than in the Golden Age.
The so-called Scandi-noir genre — in which Scandinavian authors such as Stieg Larsson (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and Henning Mankell (Wallander) heighten the tension by combining the region’s bleak landscapes, lack of sunlight, dour, small-town policemen and hard liquor with grisly homicides — are very much of the modern age.
But it seems to me the premise remains the same. Crime novels exploit our longing for stability.
They do so by inflicting on us the shock and anarchy of the crime followed by the slow — but unpredictable — restoration of calm as the perpetrator is finally brought to justice.
So bewitched are we in this process that we involuntarily try to help solve the puzzles laid by the best writers as to who the murderer is and how they can be caught.
One of the joys for me as I raided my mother’s well-thumbed library was to find how ruthless and egalitarian the writers were in their choice of villains.
I was brought up in the Republic of Ireland, at the time an intensely conservative and religious country where authority was revered and rarely questioned.
But in the books into which I escaped the murderer was more likely to be a judge, a vicar or a professor than the local thug — and since the rule of law was sacrosanct, high social status did not save anyone from justice.
In fact, the more respectable the characters were, the more suspect they were.
What was more, for I was a feminist before the term became synonymous with man-hating and victimhood, I loved the strong female characters one found in so much crime fiction and not just in those written by women.
TEN THRILLERS TO DIE FOR: BY FOYLE’S WAR CREATOR ANTHONY HORROWITZ
A Place of Execution,Val McDermid (1999)
In 1963, a young girl goes missing in Derbyshire. Thirty-six years later, a journalist re-opens the case and at once a whole series of dark secrets begin to emerge.
McDermid is one of Scotland’s most accomplished crime writers and this book builds and builds to a terrific conclusion.
A Question of Blood, Ian Rankin (2003)
There is a long list of novels featuring Rankin’s hard-bitted, heavy-drinking DI John Rebus and I could have chosen any one of them.
This one, which starts with a shooting in a private school, just happens to be one of my favourites. There’s a chance that Rebus could be returning to TV soon. Let’s hope so.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale (2008)
It was a brilliant idea to revisit a real crime that took place in 1860 — the murder of a three-year-old boy in Wiltshire which became a cause célèbre in Victorian England.
The central character, Jack Whicher, was one of the first Scotland Yard detectives and he’s all the more compelling because he was real. Summerscale’s book also inspired a popular ITV series.
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, Soji Shimada (1981)
If you like your crime stories to be bloody and bizarre, then this one may be for you.
The winner of several major awards, it’s ‘a locked room’ mystery . . . almost a genre in itself and the solution is one of the most original that I’ve ever read.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson (2005)
Lisbeth Salander — an abused child who has grown up to become a dangerously unpredictable, borderline sociopathic computer hacker — is without any doubt the most startling and original investigator in 21st-century crime fiction.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the first of three books that Larsson wrote about her before his untimely death in 2004, but she has since been given new life in David Lagercrantz’s excellent continuation novels.
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters (2014)
I’m a huge fan of all Sarah Waters’s work — which blurs the line between literary fiction and crime writing.
This one, set in London during the Twenties, is the story of a family forced to take in lodgers and the chaos that ensues as lust gives way to illicit love and finally to murder. It’s a profoundly absorbing read.
The Darkness, Ragnar Jonasson (2015)
I’ve only recently discovered this extraordinary Icelandic writer who adds several shades of darkness to Nordic noir.
This story, which begins with an asylum seeker found dead on a frozen seashore introduces a female detective — Hulda Hermannsdottir — and builds to a deeply shocking climax.
Closed Casket, Sophie Hannah (2016)
It was clever of the Agatha Christie estate to entrust Hercule Poirot to a safe pair of hands and I particularly enjoyed this mystery — Sophie Hannah’s second outing with the Belgian detective, set in a classic Irish country house.
The motive for the murder is one of the most peculiar I’ve ever come across.
The Dead House, Harry Bingham (2016)
The body of a young woman is found in a ‘dead house’ beside a Welsh cemetery, surrounded by flickering candles.
So begins the fifth outing for Bingham’s troubled, dope-smoking detective, DC Fiona Griffiths, a woman with a unique affinity with the dead. Creepy and atmospheric, there are now six books in the series.
The Thirst, Jo Nesbo (2017)
Two women — both users of the dating app, Tinder — are murdered days apart and there’s just one clue.
Fragments of rust and paint have been discovered in the wounds. It’s enough to bring Nesbo’s most famous creation, Harry Hole, out of retirement for another dose of violent, often quite gruesome Nordic noir.
The Word Is Murder, the new whodunit by Anthony Horowitz, is published in paperback by Arrow on April 19
Of the first four presidents of the Detection Club — the pre-eminent club of crime writers — it is no coincidence that two (Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie) were women.
I read all the great Agatha’s detective novels until in my late teens I decided I was an intellectual and wrote her off as no more than a puzzler.
I sneered at her stereotyping and pedestrian style. But she had the last laugh when as an adult I got bad flu, someone brought me a clutch of Christies and I fell back in love with a genius who outwitted and humbled me in almost every book.
Having forgotten almost all the plots, I was condemned once again to being unable to sleep until I had found out whodunit.
The excellent P.D. James, whom I greatly admired, remained rather sniffy about her, but good though James’s books are, my guess is that Agatha will still be read in 100 years though James may not be.
Agatha Christie was middle class, but in the ensuing decades crime writers emerged from an ever-wider range of backgrounds and began to address every social problem I had heard of and many I hadn’t.
I’ll never forget the effect on me of Ruth Rendell’s 1977 A Judgement In Stone, a whydunit which began: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’
Rendell’s extraordinarily skilful writing has that Scandinavian sparseness, those whiffs of cold air we see from the Nordic noir writers.
Perhaps it is because her mother is a Swede, or simply that she was ahead of her time. Whatever the case, almost none of her 80-plus books is a dud.
The fact is that female crime writers were, and are, as ruthless, adventurous and successful as men.
Patricia Highsmith, a predatory lesbian, invented the spine-chilling psychopath Tom Ripley, and is rightly revered.
What’s more, she has an army of female readers. The irony is that, despite so much of crime fiction’s unbearable tension, despite descriptions so gruesome they make your flesh creep, more women turn to it than men.
Last summer, a study by the University of Wolverhampton found that more than twice as many women read crime novels as men.
Is it because women are the stronger sex? Or because they have a stronger yearning for justice and order? Possibly both.
…And five classic whodunits
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE (1902)
Pretty much all crime fiction begins with Sherlock Holmes — the great-grandfather of all modern detectives.
Doyle only wrote four novellas, but this is by far the most accomplished, a terrific mystery and a wonderfully atmospheric tale of an ancient family curse and a phantom hound who stalks the moors around Baskerville Hall.
THE MALTESE FALCON, DASHIELL HAMMETT (1930)
What’s not to love in this tangled tale featuring Sam Spade, the first and the greatest of the so-called ‘hard-boiled’ private detectives?
The Maltese Falcon was turned into a famous film starring Humphrey Bogart, but the book is still worth revisiting. Hammett worked as a detective himself and his writing style is still unique.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, PATRICIA HIGHSMITH (1950)
Brilliantly filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, Strangers On A Train remains one of the cleverest crime novels ever written with two complete strangers swapping murders when they happen to meet on a train.
There are rumours of an impending remake in Hollywood. Count me out.
CARDS ON THE TABLE, AGATHA CHRISTIE (1936)
Nobody does it like Agatha Christie and this is my favourite of her novels with just four suspects, each one a suspected murderer from a past case.
When the host is himself murdered, Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot steps in to investigate.
Speaking personally, I always preferred Poirot to Miss Marple and even with so few characters, you won’t guess the ending.
THE DEADLY PERCHERON, JOHN FRANKLIN BARDIN (1946)
You’ve probably never heard of the book or the author and it’s not easy to find, but — trust me — this is most hallucinogenic, extraordinary mystery you’ll ever read.
The New York Times called it ‘a story of murder and mayhem and hideous torture — one which will hold your attention to the last’. A percheron, by the way, is a small horse.
Whatever, Patricia Highsmith’s books proved too frightening for me, for I inhabit what my late friend, the great crime writer Reginald Hill, christened the Jane Austen end of the crime writing genre.
No one ever suffered a nightmare from reading my books, the last eight of which star a tough woman who says whatever she likes and thumbs her nose at the respectable and the politically correct.
My books are mostly satires on the British establishment, an expression of my urge to make fun of authority, pretension and narrow-mindedness.
I don’t do the gore, the heart-stopping suspense and often terrible sexual violence towards women that is so popular at the moment — although I have many female crime-writing friends who do, and whom I love, but whose books I’m afraid to read.
Yet this is the great strength of a literary genre that is, to my mind, way ahead of literary fiction in taking up contemporary issues and scrutinising them mercilessly — it is so impressively wide-ranging.
And as the reading public turn to crime books for reassurance, in these scary and uncertain times, that the baddies won’t win, that surely is a cause for celebration.