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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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge