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Crime does pay: Analysing thrillers for clues to culture

What we can learn from crime fiction - apart from whodunnit, obviously.

Bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin.
Bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin. Photograph: Getty Images

Murder most foul.

Well, maybe. But also murder most interesting.

The fact is that crime fiction is incredibly popular. Readers can’t seem to buy thrillers and ingest them quickly enough. There are many reasons for this – the books provide escapist pleasure, they allow people to experience situations they will (hopefully) never actually experience in real life, they are written in an exciting style that draws readers in, they offer a glimpse of a different culture and/or group of people and/or career, they can teach about the legal system or the criminal underworld or forensic science, and so on.

But from an analytical or academic point of view, it is also fascinating to read crime stories because of what they can tell us about the time and place they were written in. In other words, they subtly offer clues about culture.

Popular literature is generally popular for a reason. Readers want to read work that speaks to them in some way. And popular novels reflect popular culture and the views of the time; they can be considered a sort of combination of gauge and mirror. Obviously, what authors and which types of text are popular changes depending on what is happening in a given society. Would Charles Dickens’ novels be bestsellers today? And does anyone remember formerly bestselling author George Lippard? Would his works appeal to us?

As I write this, the majority of the books on the New York Times bestseller list are genre literature, and a majority of those texts are thrillers.

So what can we learn from looking at thrillers?

We can get a sense of what people in a particular culture fear, what they are anxious about, what they look forward to, what they desire. In short, who they are and how they got that way.

If English language books have become more graphically violent over the years, as is the case to a large extent, does that mean that we have grown more accustomed to violence? Does that suggest that we have adjusted to the idea of some violence being part of our everyday lives but that we fear increasing amounts of danger? And are we most concerned about torture now, or about children being abducted, or about political espionage?

Judging by some thrillers, terrorism is much on our minds right now; there seem to be clear reasons for this. At the same time, though, we want a break from political tensions, so we frequently turn to crime novels featuring the legal system and medicine. And note how I haven’t used the term detective fiction; that’s because at this point in time we don’t want to rely solely on an expert to solve our crimes. Rather, we want to see an amateur – a feckless bounty hunter, a depressed alcoholic, a chef, a librarian – empowered enough to make sense of what’s happened. Our society wants to see individuals succeed, even in fields they haven’t been trained in.

We can also read the books to explore how different groups are portrayed. For example, women are much more active in contemporary thrillers written in western countries than they were a century ago. Does that reflect feminism’s influence and women’s enlarged spheres of opportunity?

We can even take this further and look at translated crime fiction, thereby comparing one culture to another. Scandinavian thrillers are the style du jour. Though they often feature a crime, it often isn’t the crime in and of itself that is the main point. Indeed, Scandinavian thrillers tend to look both beyond the crime and also inwards, blaming society in general and the government’s disappointing welfare policies more specifically for whatever ills people are facing, and thus for the crimes they may commit. The bigger crime in many of these books is the one perpetrated against humanity. People who thought their beautiful idyllic nations would take care of them have been disappointed. Scandinavian crime novelists suggest that their countries have gone from socialist paradise to criminal hell

In sum, crime fiction can be read simply as distracting, relaxing entertainment. But to do so is to let the authors get away with murder, because they are embedding clues to our society within their books. All you have to do is pick up a novel or two and explore what the plots and characters might tell you about the people and times in a given culture.

After all, murder will out.

B J Epstein is a lecturer in literature and translation at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. She is also a writer, editor, and Swedish-to-English translator.