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.

Photo: Catgod
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Gig economy: apps offering a small-scale solution to the decline of the UK's music venues

Could bands and fans increasingly start swapping concert halls for strangers' living rooms?

Most up-and-coming musicians rely on live gigs to win new fans, but their ability to find somewhere to play is increasingly under threat. Earlier this month, Arts Council England rejected a funding bid from the Music Venue Trust (MVT), the primary charity looking after the country’s grassroots music venues.

After encouraging the MVT to apply for several grants, the Council ended up awarding 85 per cent of its £367m music budget to the opera and classical sectors. There is no more Arts Council funding available for the next four years, which means that countless grassroots venues in smaller towns and cities that rely on support from the MVT will be left out in the cold.

Music venues are already disappearing across the country. Since 2007, more than 430 live music venues in London alone have had to close down. The majority of these were small, local spots that buckled under rising rents, increasing business rates, and the constant threat of avaricious property developers.

Unsurprisingly, such a dramatic decline in the infrastructure supporting the country's music scene hurts emerging musicians, but it also runs the risk of undermining musical heritage. Places like the 100 Club in London – which in its heyday played host to The Clash, Sex Pistols and Rolling Stones – are at risk of shutting their doors permanently.

Spanning several generations and musical movements, these spaces have helped give popular music a central role in the city’s cultural history. They have also shaped bands that at the time were merely looking for a chance to escape their parents’ basement.

The picture appears gloomy, but a potential solution is on the horizon that taps into two things the millennial generation can’t seem to live without: apps and social media. The success of services such as Uber and Deliveroo has inspired music start-ups to apply digital savvy to this very physical problem.

One such start-up is Tigmus, a platform for artists to find venues that are both interesting and affordable, while connecting them with both venue owners and fans. Venues can include cafes, warehouses, and even people’s living rooms.

Tigmus veterans Catgod are a soul and trip-hop collective who relied heavily on the service while establishing themselves in Oxford. Robin Christensen-Marriott, the band’s manager, says Tigmus gigs were “a vital income for us to pay for our studio recordings, as Tigmus take a small cut of the takings, whereas other promoters generally will take more.”

The platform has also helped Catgod unlock “lots of interesting venues in our hometown as you can virtually book anywhere” – meaning the band “played some really poky, cosy venues ...that have been fun and sweaty”.

Tigmus is not the only start-up offering a more unusual way to cater to a smaller budget. Similarly, Sofar Sounds works as a go-between, however it also adds a bit of old-school secrecy to proceedings. An intimate and authentic experience is the company’s main concern – fans apply for tickets, and only when they get accepted does the secret address get released. This adds a layer of mystery to seeing live music.

These days, fanbases are birthed and sustained on social media, so the extra opportunity to publicise events and venues on Facebook or Twitter is part of the allure of these platforms. Both Tigmus and Sofar encourage performers, once booked, to plaster their events all over fans’ news feeds and timelines. This makes them an appealing option for a band just starting out and looking to make a name for themselves.

The development of platforms such as Tigmus and Sofar mirrors the digitisation of music more generally. Just as streaming services such as Spotify and Tidal sprung up in response to the threat of piracy, as digital music replaced vinyl and CDs, digital platforms are emerging to deal with the decline of traditional venues. Could bands and fans increasingly start swapping concert halls for a perch on a stranger’s sofa instead?