The best crime fiction mimics and retraces patterns of evil, unsettling yet reassuring us. Photo: Jonah Samson Courtesy of the artist and G. Gibson Gallery from the series ‘Our Lady of the Flowers of Evil’.
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The consolations of crime fiction, past and present

In a world now dominated by vast, mysterious forces that none of us understands or can control, the comforts of crime fiction are perhaps more apparent than ever. Ian Sansom examines why detective stories continue to exert such power over us.

Like every other industrious autodidact growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I dutifully slogged my way through piles of glutinous, creamcovered Picadors, dour blue Penguins and Pelicans and every other worthy-looking thing available through the Essex County library system, in the belief that the consumption of vast quantities of rich, thick, self-improving stodge might train my poor, uneducated palate. It was as if eating hors d’oeuvres, oxtail soup, poached turbot and saddle of mutton would somehow turn me into a polymathic, teenage Peter Ustinov, who– to my naive, Parkinson-formed mind – more clearly represented the rounded figure of the public intellectual than any real public intellectual such as Keith Joseph, Kenneth Clark or Noam Chomsky.

At the same time as I supped at the altar of what I imagined to be “high culture”, my actual diet consisted mostly of Findus Crispy Pancakes, Battenberg cake and episodes of Perry Mason, The Avengers, Ironside, Hawaii Five-O, Starsky andHutch, Cannon, McCloud, Columbo, Murder, She Wrote, Kojak, Quincy, Van der Valk, The Sweeney, The Rockford Files, Magnum, PI, Charlie’s Angels, Juliet Bravo, Moonlighting, Miami Vice, The Bill, Bergerac and Taggart – and they say there’s too much crime on telly today.

Even into my twenties and thirties, I remained partial to Heinz Big Soup, Twiglets, butterscotch Angel Delight, Wycliffe, A Touch of Frost, Midsomer Murders, Dalziel and Pascoe, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates and Heartbeat. I was in torment. I wanted to live the life of the mind; my body craved the sweet, dark comforts of crime.

The ancient Manichaean universe that I inhabited, in which a taste for the “great tradition” necessarily excluded an appreciation of mass, pulp and pop culture, was the accepted reality until very recently. It was clearly instantiated in newspaper review pages, where most crime novels were lucky to be included in a barrel-scraping round-up: “Oh, by the way, here are half a dozen other books, not for the likes of us, you understand, but popular with the general reading public.” But so popular has crime fiction become, generating about £90m in UK book sales each year, that it’s now arguably the main course rather than a side order or an amuse-bouche.

This may or may not be a good thing. These days, you can comfortably inhabit the world of eccentric amateur detectives and embittered private eyes all year round, in the company of learned fellow travellers, on television, at the cinema, in books and online. There are murder mystery weekends and endless box sets; in classrooms, at conferences and on college campuses, it is now de rigueur for undergrads to study crime fiction and its relationship to feminism, post-colonialism and critical theory, just as I once had to sweat my way through Troilus and Criseyde and the meaning of courtly love. At City University in London, you can now study for an MA in crime thriller novels. Doubtless at a certain point, even Michael Gove will capitulate and make Elmore Leonard his grammar tsar. The underground has become the mainstream.

Just to recap, for those few who haven’t been paying attention or who haven’t had the chance to study, say, module EAS3217 (“Crime and Punishment: Detective Fiction from the Rue Morgue to the Millennium”) at the University of Exeter or EN658 (“American Crime Fiction”) at the University of Kent: Edgar Allan Poe invented detective fiction in 1841 with his short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, then Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone (1868), then along came Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie; America went hard-boiled; and now there’s everything else, including a lot from Scandinavia.

For those interested in arguing the finer points, it’s worth stating that Oedipus Rex is not a detective story (nor is Crime and Punishment, or The Crying of Lot 49), that Scott and Bailey may be better than Cagney and Lacey and, yes, Hugh Laurie’s House was clearly a take on Holmes. The debate still rages as to whether William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) was the first true detective novel, although, having read it, I can guarantee one thing: it is very boring.

There are probably as many theories about the rise of the detective novel as there are Maigret stories, though the good old Marxist explanation proposed by Ernst Bloch is perhaps as good as any. “Why,” he asks in his essay “A Philosophical View of the Detective Novel” (1965), “is the narrator who fishes in murky waters such a recent phenomenon? Above all, why does the detailed hunt for evidence appear at such a late date? The reason is that earlier legal procedures did not depend on it.”

Marx chose not to expatiate on the crime novel, thank goodness, though arguably his entire life and work was a whodunnit – in which an eccentric amateur traced a series of clues, eventually revealing who had committed the crime. In Theories of Surplus Value (1862-63), he does offer this insight: “A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor compendia, and so on. A criminal produces crimes . . . [The criminal] renders a ‘service’ by arousing the moral and aesthetic feelings of the public. He produces not only compendia on criminal law, not only penal codes and along with them legislators in this field, but also art, belleslettres, novels, and even tragedies . . . Thus he gives a stimulus to the productive forces.”

It’s certainly one way of looking at crime fiction: as a useful product of the criminal. Another way might be to view it as a necessary by-product of an all-corrosive and corrupting high modernism. As Virginia Woolf determinedly strode off in one direction, away from the crowd, so Raymond Chandler had no choice but to walk the mean streets towards them.

Whatever its origins and antecedents, the satisfactions of the genre seem clear and intense. W H Auden wrote in his essay “The Guilty Vicarage” (1948):

For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol. The symptoms of this are: firstly, the intensity of the craving – if I have any work to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it. Secondly, its specificity – the story must conform to certain formulas (I find it very difficult, for example, to read one that is not set in rural England). And thirdly, its immediacy. I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have read it before, I cannot go on.

Alas, Auden’s addict’s defence reads rather like an admission of defeat. If the definition of a classic is that it can be read and reread, detective stories are not classics: these are books that we consume and discard, a kind of “litlite”, a cheeky, between-meals McFlurry or a Peperami. The critic and author Edmund Wilson was of the opinion that crime fiction was virtually worthless – wasted calories – and he waged a one-man campaign against the genre in a series of articles in the New Yorker, complaining that it was a load of old dross and so much sleight of hand. Yet even Wilson had to admit that crime fiction answered some kind of basic human need. Writing in 1944, in the midst of war and disaster, in a world where everybody seemed suspect and no one guiltless, with “the streets . . . full of lurking agents whose allegiances we cannot know”, he acknowledged that there was a satisfaction to be had in the belief that when the murderer was caught, everything was going to be OK, at least momentarily. An illusion, perhaps, but a consolation nonetheless.

It's almost impossible to pack for holiday without at least one volume of comforting crime capers.
Photograph: Getty Images

In a world now dominated by vast, mysterious forces that none of us understands or can control, the comforts of crime fiction are perhaps more apparent than ever. In the world of Sherlock (and even of Dexter), evil is identifiable and often explicable. The detective –however deranged, damaged and drugaddled – remains our saviour, or at least the devil we know.

In Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1985), a writer of detective stories called Daniel Quinn is mistaken for a detective called Paul Auster and attempts to navigate his way through a confused world in which the writer is the detective is the reader is – basically – us. “The detective is the one who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them.” You hope. G K Chesterton, in his essay “A Defence of Detective Stories” (1901), described crime-solving as an example of “successful knight-errantry”. Enter Sarah Lund, wearing a nice white jumper.

There are yet other consolations to be had from crime fiction. The grey-cell-tickling aspects are perhaps at their most amusing and pronounced in the work of Agatha Christie – and, more recently, in CSI or Criminal Minds. (CSI’s Sara Sidle is Miss Marple with expensive teeth and a degree from Harvard.) However, there are all sorts of other rhythms and patterns apart from the clue-puzzle set-up that have developed in the genre over time and that offer the reader or the viewer similar thrills. There are, for instance, the many postmodern or metaphysical variations on the old themes, in which authors mess around with the conventions and in which the detective may be defeated, clues may be meaningless and the plot may be reversed.

Unsurprisingly, detective fiction exerted a particular fascination for the experimental Oulipo group of writers – Ouvroir de littérature potentielle – who were interested in the ways in which apparent literary constrictions and restraints might be delightfully enabling. The final, unfinished novel by the Oulipian extraordinaire Georges Perec, 53 Days, was intended as a kind of literary thriller, though it’s not recommended if your idea of a literary thriller is one by Lee Child.

I think it was P D James who once remarked that the formula for a successful detective story is 50 per cent good detection, 25 per cent character and 25 per cent what the author knows best. In much recent crime fiction, what the author knows best seems to be torture, rape and mutilation, possibly because many younger authors’ teenage diet, unlike mine, did not consist of BBC adaptations of John le Carré novels or Inspector Morse but rather Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Seven. I tend to write what Americans call, rather nauseatingly, “cosy mysteries” and what my British publishers prefer to refer to coyly as “series novels”. I’m a fan of the so-called golden age of detective fiction – that period between the wars when detectives were relatively untroubled, the settings were pleasantly enclosed, romance was rare and murder most foul was not grisly.

Whatever your tastes, if you’re packing your suitcase and are unwilling to risk the gamble of picking something up at the airport, you could do worse than to follow the recommendations of the great David Torrans, the owner of my little local bookshop, No Alibis on Botanic Avenue in Belfast, which just happens to be one the greatest independent bookshops in Europe and certainly the best for crime books in the UK. This summer, Torrans is recommending to his customers The A26 (Gallic Books, £6.99) by Pascal Garnier, Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer (Harvill Secker, £12.99), Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog (Picador, £12.99) and the second in Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt series, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway (Faber & Faber, £12.99). Fine choices, though I’m also packing a second-hand Ngaio Marsh in case of an emergency and downloading some old episodes of Barney Miller on to my iPad, in memory of the good old days.

Ian Sansom is the author of “The Norfolk Mystery” (Fourth Estate, £14.99)

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hopep to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.