An inspector calls: why are crime novels so popular?

Sunday 31 October, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Lecture Theatre 2

From HBO’s The Wire to the international success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, crime fiction has rarely been so popular. While the detective story has always held a particular hold over the imagination of the reading public – from Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple through to Inspector Morse and Ian Rankin’s Rebus – in recent years the genre has moved from bestselling niche to global phenomenon. Yet while many praise the social critique present in the work of writers such as Henning Mankell and Dennis Lehane, others are concerned by the increasingly gruesome nature of the crimes on display, and particularly the way in which lurid violence against women and children is described with apparent relish.

Similarly, while audiences have lapped up troubled anti-heroes from the ‘shop-soiled Galahad’ Philip Marlowe onwards, today’s sleuths are less likely to be Chandleresque characters conflicted over morality than hyper-rational agents bringing order to the chaos around them. Hit series Dexter, for example, combines forensic investigation with vigilante revenge on criminal low-life; Millennium’s heroine Lisbeth Salander is an autistic super-hacker with a photographic memory and the only certainty in CSI is that ‘the evidence never lies.’

If, as GK Chesterton wrote, detectives represent the ‘unsleeping sentinels’ of civilisation, does the current fixation reflect an unhealthy obsession with the darkness at the fringes of that civilisation, and the potential killer inside all of us, or are fictional detectives simply the last bastions of virtue in a morally uncertain world? Given that today’s top sleuths are just as likely to work outside the law as within it, does their popularity reveal something about contemporary attitudes to the state and justice? Or is exploring society’s dark underbelly simple escapism for those living increasingly safe and risk-averse lives?

Listen to session audio:

 

Speakers
Ruth Dudley Edwards
historian; prize-winning biographer and crime novelist; columnist, Irish Sunday Independent; blogger, Daily Telegraph; author, Killing the Emperors

Gerry Feehily
UK and media editor, Courrier International, Paris

Sophie Hannah
poet; novelist; author, Pessimism for Beginners and A Room Swept White

Mick Hume
editor-at-large, spiked; author, There Is No Such Thing As A Free Press ...and we need one more than ever

Chair:
David Bowden
coordinator, UK Battle Satellites; columnist, spiked

Produced by
David Bowden coordinator, UK Battle Satellites; columnist, spiked
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Why the most peaceful people on earth write the greatest homicide thrillers.

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Clash of the Titans - Ian McEwan vs Lee Child

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David Sexton, Evening Standard, 31 March 2010

Writers should focus on true crime, says David Pearce

'I don't really see the point of making up crimes,' the Red Riding quartet author tells website

Alison Flood, Guardian, 10 February 2010

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Normally when an author finds great success they are around to satisfy the curiosity of their readers.

Finlo Rohrer, BBC Magazine, 29 January 2010

The social concerns of the thriller

The distinction between crime and thrillers on the one hand and

Sean O'Brien, Times Literary Supplement, 21 January 2010

Why Marlowe is still the chief of detectives

Fifty years after Raymond Chandler died, we need his ‘shop-soiled’ Galahad Philip Marlowe as much as ever to put our mixed-up world to rights.

Mick Hume, spiked, 1 January 2010

Corridors of Death

Battered to death with a piece of abstract sculpture titled 'Reconciliation,' Whitehall departmental head Sir Nicholas Clark is claimed by his colleagues to have been a fine and respected public servant cut off in his prime.

Ruth Dudley Edwards, Poisoned Pen, 12 March 2008


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