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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era