Watching the detectives: crime fiction and the zeitgeist
From Sherlock Holmes to Nordic noir, crime stories have had an enduring popularity for generations. Readers have continued to enjoy detective novels, crime mysteries and cop shows regardless of occasional critical disdain. And while some examples undoubtedly fit the description of formulaic genre fiction, many writers have found in crime and detective lore the raw material for genuinely creative and psychologically rich literature.
Writing more than a century ago, GK Chesterton argued that detective stories were valuable both because they were ‘the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life’ and because they remind us that ‘civilisation itself is the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions’. In the years since then, however, much crime writing has taken a darker turn. The police are not always an unequivocal force for good, civilisation itself is not always portrayed in the most positive light, and there is no guarantee that the villains will get their just desserts in the end.
So what, if anything, does crime fiction tell us about the societies in which it is written and enjoyed? Is the moral message implied by Chesterton’s description still relevant? Or does contemporary crime fiction speak to more morally ambiguous times? Are we drawn to mystery stories for the satisfaction of seeing all the pieces fall into place at the end, or is the plot less important than the atmosphere conjured up and the characters explored? Are there ‘rules’ for successful crime fiction, and do they matter?