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)

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

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The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

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In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt