Crime does pay: Analysing thrillers for clues to culture

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

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.

Bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin. Photograph: Getty Images

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.

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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism