Phil Brett looks analyses crime fiction from a socialist perspective.
You don’t need to be a professor of English to know that crime fiction is very popular at the moment. Look at the W.H Smith top sellers for 2015 and you’ll find eleven out of the twenty are crime/thriller novels; look at the TV schedules and you will see a proliferation of the genre. Through globalisation, the genre’s writers and their investigators, settings and corpses are to be found across the planet. Why is that? Why do people like reading or watching drama where people get murdered (usually in very unpleasant ways)? In particular, why are they popular with socialists, activists and trade unionists? And can the explanation for the boom in Scandinavian crime fiction offer any clues? I asked myself these questions after returning from a local demonstration against a fatal police shooting, only to then settle down to read a crime novel where the hero cop does just such a thing as regularly as he cleaned his teeth. Distrust of the police is high both here and in the States and with a growing number of black people dying at the hands of law enforcement, it is getting even higher. Yet, crime fiction remains very popular, despite the fact that it usually has the police, be they private or state, as the good guys. Being both a socialist and a fan of the genre, I thought I would try to offer a few thoughts on the matter.
Firstly, it might be helpful to define what I see as a crime novel. Writer, H. R. F. Keating, simply defined it as a story with a crime. If that is the case though, Emile Zola’s La Bete Humaine (1890) should be regarded as a crime novel because it includes what today would be regarded as a serial killer, but as much as I love the genre I wouldn’t push my luck by saying the great nineteenth century French novel was a forerunner of the CBS TV series Criminal Minds. To make things simpler in the labyrinth of sub-genres, I will concentrate on works of fiction which have one or more murders at their heart, with the plot revolving around an individual or group of individuals, who may be the police, private detectives or an individual who takes the role of such (such as a journalist) to solve it. For me, that is a detective novel. (A thriller is its noisy more action-packed younger sibling but I will be leaving them to jump across buildings somewhere else). I will however, look at both novels and television because in my opinion they have obviously symbiotic relationship; both feeding off each other and helping to continue the genre’s popularity.
The detective genre has increased its literary status over the years but it is still rather looked down upon; simply the phrase genre fiction can drip with distaste from some; you will rarely see a crime novel in the literary prizes unless they are specifically for crime writers. Yet, ‘serious’ writers such Yeats and Auden have been devotees. Others, such as Martin Amis and Isabel Allende, who do appear in such lists, have tried their hand at writing one for themselves. Frankly they have not been their best work, so it can’t be that easy a form to write in. In the world of genre fiction there has been far more written on science fiction (or future fiction if you prefer) and fantasy. I have friends who passionately argue how such genres can analyse present society and explore future ones whereas crime fiction is simply a formulaic re-enforcement of the status quo. I disagree, but then we could end this all by simply saying that it is all a matter of taste: so to many, a trilogy of novels where small fantasy creatures quest for a ring, are the greatest of all time; to me they are long winded yarns about small fellas with furry feet who take their bleeding time in a narrative which is akin to watching a tin of Dulux getting less wet. But where would be the fun in just calling it personal preference?
The body count mounts up
Of course, not all detective fiction is the same. As mentioned above, here is not the place to explore all the sub and sub-sub genres which multiply by the day (Crime Fiction by John Scaggs is a good introduction for those who are interested) but it is useful to have a quick look at the development of the main strands of the detective novel. Personally, I find Ernest Mandel’s Delightful Murder an excellent starting point for a quick resume.
Being a Marxist, Mandel believed that crime is a product of class society and that the police are a part of the repressive state apparatus. He also believed that there is a relationship between the ideas, and therefore the art, of a society, and the way that society organises itself. In the book he notes the birth of the detective novel coincided with the industrial revolution; with the rapid rise in industrialisation came mass poverty, and a huge disparity of wealth between the haves and have nots. The problem for the ruling class was that whilst they weren’t too bothered by the poor ripping off the poor, it did start to worry them if it threatened their wealth or the production of it. Industrialisation meant collective workplaces which might mean efficient ways of producing profit but it also created a space where people could organise and start to rebel against the appalling exploitation. Something more efficient and reliable was required than what had previously been in operation, so the Bow Street Runners which operated since the mid 1700 were replaced in 1829 by the Metropolitan Police. Crime and punishment became an issue for discussion. And novels.
Many point to E.T.A. Hoffman’s novel Mademoiselle de Scuderi (1819) as the first detective novel. In it a Miss Marple -type figure (a hundred years before the venerable woman from St. Mary Mead first made an appearance in print) proves the innocence of the police’s prime suspect. Charles Dickens refers to the police in Oliver Twist (1837) and features a detective, Inspector Bucket, in Bleak House (1852). Dickens is also responsible for what is believed to be one of the first English murder mysteries, the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). The novel though which is credited to be the first English detective novel is Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868). One that would set down many of the ground rules of the genre. The writer however who is generally regarded as really starting the whole bloodbath is Edgar Allan Poe. In The Murders of the Rue Morgue (1841) he created detective Auguste Dupin. Dupin, with his astute forensic mind, would be the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic Sherlock Holmes forty-odd years later. The genius detective had arrived. Mandel sees Holmes as the epitome of a bourgeois society that believes that reason is all and if all the rules are followed then all will be well.
With mass literacy, coupled with advancements in printing techniques, the working class could read mass-produced works of fiction, often, as with the case of Dickens and Collins, in comparatively cheap periodicals. Included in which, were these early detective novels. If the social fractures of the industrial revolution created fertile ground for the birth of the detective novel, indeed, the creation of the real detectives themselves (although not quite of the intellectual level of Sherlock), then what followed would give rise to two more. World War One had seen millions suffering a hitherto unknown scale of industrial slaughter on the battlefield, only to be followed by an industrial and financial crash in peace time. The previous norms were challenged and the individual seemed lost in a society in crisis and so two more archetypal individual detectives came into the world - of very different types - but sharing the reassuringly ability to make sense of the puzzle of the world around them. In Britain, Holmes was followed by a host of living room detectives (usually of upper class or upper-middle class status) in what has been called the Golden Age of Detective Fiction [which is usually defined as being in the twenties and thirties], with writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and the best-selling author of all time, Agatha Christie. The detectives created here, such as Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion and Hercule Poirot still continue to be popular, with many a hard-pressed Sunday night TV producer finding employment for actors who can talk toff or act serving afternoon tea.
At the same time across the Atlantic, a more rugged individualism appeared with the hard-boiled detective novels such as The Maltese Falcon (1929) by Dashiell Hammett with Sam Spade and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939) setting the scene for the classic private eye. Like Dickens, both Hammett and Chandler started writing in periodicals, which both gave them a chance for publication and access to a mass market. For them, analysing clues and solving puzzles were not as important as interviewing suspects (often with a slap or two) and drinking whisky. Miss Marples they ain’t. Mandel makes the point that these are transitional detectives: unlike the majority of the Golden Age detectives, they are people who have to work for a living and work from an office. What they do have in common with their English country house cousins is the fact that they are tracking individuals and not criminal organisations, a task which clearly they are not suited to. With the rise of organised crime, would come yet another new type of detective, the police procedural.
The horror of World War Two would also lengthen the rope required for the suspension of disbelief for the comfortable English county home murder mystery. Not that it was killed off, the omnipresent detective, be they in the oak panelled library; walking the streets of LA or working in the police station remained (and remains) popular, perhaps even reassuring. Edmund Wilson writing in 1944 found it a relief that someone knew what was going on in a world gone mad. Maybe that was one of the reasons for the rise after the war of two more of the giants of hard-boiled detective fiction, Ross Macdonald and Chester Himes. But society needed more than clever individuals for controlling discontents so what took central place was detective fiction where the main protagonist was a part of a team. Detective novels, like all literature, feeds off itself and so includes in its ranks Charles Dicken’s Inspector Bucket and Nagio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, as well as Ruth Rendall’s Wexford, Colin Dexter’s Morse, Henning Mankell’s Wallender, P.D James’ Adam Dalgliesh and many many more, all supping cold tea in that busy fictional police station.
From these, have sprung a multitude of sub-genres. Such a variety is not solely down to the author’s (or TV script writer’s) imagination but also the growth of technology. Mandel cites the advent of photography and the telephone as having an important effect on real and fictional crime-fighting. But published back in 1984, he skips over the growth of forensic science (DNA for example), surveillance or the internet. These have created new stories or at the very least, new elements, of old narratives. One example will suffice: the CBS series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation follows a Las Vegas forensic team who solve murders using science. As a part of a team they belong to the police procedural, however, as critic Scaggs discusses, the lead criminologist Gil Grissom, is an outsider, with an incredible brain stuffed with knowledge – not unlike one Sherlock Holmes.
One obvious reason for the genre’s success is that there is some good stuff out there. This is not to say that there is not crap as well in the crime section. There certainly is. But there have been works of obvious literary merit. Those who argue that the detective novel is all plot and no narrative may have the point with Christie but with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) or Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992)? The detective novel can be literary enough to satisfy a variety of needs. Locations can be conjured up effectively as any worthy prize winner. P. D James for one, paints believable and gripping settings, such as the nursing school in Shroud for a Nightingale (1971); what about Peter Robinson’s Yorkshire Dales or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh or Tudor London in C.J Sansom’s Shardlake series?
Characterisation can be as strong as anything in mainstream fiction, sometimes achieved with just one sentence. Here’s Philip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely (1940) meeting someone with a rather unfortunate body odour; but then “an occasional whiff of personality drifted back to me”. Or Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (1953) expounding his philosophy on the world, “There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set yourself”. Jean-Paul Sartre, eat your heart out! Other writers spend almost as much care on the characterisation as they do on the murder case. For example, look at Henning Mankell’s Swedish detective Wallender, who in addition to solving murder cases copes with his father’s dementia (which he himself also gets) and his daughter’s resentment. The first series of Danish TV’s The Killing (2007) had each episode covering twenty-four hours in the investigation of the murder of Nanna Birk Larson, allowing time for the drama to explore the grief of the parents of the murdered woman.
The crime TV series (Morse, Murder One, The Wire, The Bridge, Spiral) also boast fine acting and have high production values. They treat the audience with respect and as intelligent beings who are able to understand a narrative with many strands, which takes time to evolve. Detective fiction can have humour, tragedy (well I guess it needs that) and hope. Because of one success, businesses with all the imagination that ageing capitalism can muster, tend to want copy it. Before 1962 record companies were all looking for the next Elvis; after, the next Beatles (we will not dare ponder if now, God help us, it is the next Justin Bieber). The same applies to detective fiction. With the success of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005) Nordic Noir boom really took off. Everyone was looking for the next Larsson. But it is not solely one big conspiracy, it seems reasonable that if you have read one particular type of novel or seen a TV series which you enjoyed then it is logical to try another one.
One popular theory is that we enjoy detective fiction because we all enjoy violence and it is a vicarious thrill to read or watch it (Mandel considered this to be an innocent pursuit – it being better to read about violence that practise it). Now it is true that in your average Agatha Christie it is like a war zone on a bad day, but they tend to be almost bloodless deaths; the point is to find the killer and not to revel in the gore. Authors such as Jo Nesbo and Mark Billingham do have graphic scenes but I don’t think they are there primarily for some kind of thrill. For starters, the internet has far worse. When I was a public librarian in north London, I saw hundreds of people borrow detective novels, amongst whom many were pensioners, and they did not strike me as wannabe homicidal killers. (Apart from on the occasions when we forgot to put the daily newspapers out). I think it is a far too negative view of humanity. Maybe such horror, if I can steal from Terry Eagleton’s discussion of tragedy in Sweet Violence (2002), helps meet certain emotional and psychological needs by confronting our fears and nightmares. There can be no doubt however that there is an issue concerning the level of violence against women included in the genre; the vast majority of the victims are female. How does that sit with the genre’s popularity with the population, including and perhaps especially, with those who consider themselves socialists?
There are some novels and television series, including the detective, where the depiction of women is sexist and where the violence is gratuitous, that cannot, should not, be denied or passed over. But is it central to the detective genre? It is perhaps instructive to look at the publishing sensation which is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Disturbing sexual violence is present in all the books of the Millennium Trilogy. What happens to Lisbeth Salander is appalling, but is the reader invited to see her as a victim or as a fighter? Do we not cheer when she gets revenge? The author, Stieg Larsson, by all accounts was on the left and originally the book was called Men who hate Women which seems an obvious sign of his allegiances. What complicates it further however is the story which writer and critic, Barry Forshaw relates about an interview with Larsson’s father, who said that he had complained to his son that there was too much sex in the book, to which Stieg replied that it was commercially important.
This does hint that an essential part of the modern detective novel is sex, if that is so, then does that include sexual violence, specifically against women? With that question comes quickly a second: if so, why there are so many women readers and why there are so many female detective writers? Novelist Melanie McGrath sees it as no big mystery, because it gives women, “permission to touch on our own decorous feelings of rage, aggression and vengefulness, sentiments we’re encouraged to pack away.” Paula Hawkins in the Guardian, whilst discussing the success of the Girl on the Train (2015) writes that such books show “a desire among readers for stories that speak to their experiences.” Val McDermid (who herself has been criticised for sexual violence) says simply that the reason for so many great female writers is that, “Women are better at scaring us.”
I also think another reason for the macabre deaths is the distrust of the police. The maverick detective who ‘plays by their own rules’ is a staple of the genre yet the reader or viewer need to be able to overcome their opposition to the real-life police who do that. With cops in the real world killing people because of their colour of their skin or ignoring sexual violence there has to be a good reason to support, even cheer on, officers who break laws, doors or jaws in fiction; a purloined letter is not going to do that, capturing a sadistic torturer will. In the real world people see millions stolen by multi-nationals and the very rich go unpunished for non-payment of taxes or even theft, yet a family in a bedsit will be hounded for a minor infringement of their benefits; they see the justice system’s connivance in this bias. They need an incentive to support that system.
This has also given rise to fiction which is either centred on the criminal(s) themselves [for example, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969)] or where the reader/viewer has split loyalties. From many examples, I would pick the first HBO TV series of The Wire (2002), regarded by many as the greatest television series of all time (I’d probably be one of those), which pitted the Baltimore police department against the drug dealing Barksdale family, as a fine example of this.
In a situation of distrust of the establishment, even those stories featuring officers who behave well need to motivate the reader/viewer to be on their side. Here we have the troubled but sensitive individual detective, who may be in a team but is not really a creation of it. P.D James’ Dalgliesh is a poet and Dexter’s Morse is a sensitive, intellectual, loving opera and the classics equally. Paul Foot pondered the popularity of Morse and considered him to be, “most people’s role model of what a policeman/detective ought to be like.” The key word is ought. Terry Eagleton writing about the quirkiness of some of Dickens’ characters says, “You cannot have deviation without the norm”, comparing Fagin to Oliver Twist. So the reader/viewer warms to the detective because they are the ‘characters’ who are surrounded by mundanity and ineffectiveness. The norm in these books/TV series isn’t how Marxists view the police, as class oppressors, but simply as being dull and unimaginative. The reader/viewer supports the investigator as an individual, not the state institution.
I, like many others, read detective fiction because I like, to use a hideous piece of management jargon, the goal-driven structure of it (which for some is the very reason to hate it). Right from the start, to solve the puzzle has been the central thread of the genre. The American Golden Age crime writer, S.S Van Dine, saw it as much as a sporting competition as an intellectual challenge and compiled a much quoted set of rules which the genre must adhere to for it to be a fair contest. I am not interested, and do not like, graphic scenes of violence for their own sake, but catching a serial killer adds a greater challenge, a greater urgency, to finding a solution. For in the crime novel, unlike life under capitalism, the best brains and the best people tend to win.
Many of the victims are female but there are also many female writers and female detectives; and some combining both. These include giants of the genre: Sue Grafton with private eye Kinsey Millhone; Sara Peretksy with V.I Warshawski, Patricia Cornwall with medical examiner Kay Scarpetta or Val McDermid with Kate Brannigan. The list of female detective writers is long and rich. With a female detective working in a male dominated world, sexism cannot but be addressed. The ITV 1990’s ITV series Prime Suspect written by Lynda La Plante is one such example, centred not just on DCI Jane Tennison hunting a murderer but also confronting the sexism in her team. Grafton and Peretsky subvert the macho hard-boiled PI genre to question social and cultural values, a similar aspect can be seen in La Plante’s police procedural.
Heather Worthington in Key Concepts of Crime Fiction (2011) writes that, “Crime fiction offers a contained and containing world in which contemporary cultural and social anxieties can be explored”. This includes gender and sexual orientation. Again, from Worthington, “McDermid has openly stated that her serial amateur detective, Lindsay Gordon, was part of a wider project to introduce an openly homosexual character into mainstream fiction and so normalise gay and lesbian sexuality.”
One should also add race. Again, even if it is not the main issue, having a black detective operating in a racist society throws up all sorts of issues. The BBC series Luther, which has Idris Elba in magnificent form playing DCI John Luther is respected by his team (and the viewers) is not primarily about racism but the character’s dedication, which is clearly damaging him, cannot be but a positive image.
Chester Himes wrote a series of cracking novels in the late 1950s featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones as Harlem detectives. Although not overtly political, Himes didn’t ignore racism in the books (Himes himself had experienced racism first hand, which even his fame did not protect him from) but did so by the placement of black cops enforcing white laws in black Harlem. Walter Mosley with his 1990 novel, Devil in a Blue Dress introduced Easy Rawlins who by the end of the novel has become a LA private detective.
The series of novels featuring the private investigator reboots the hard-boiled genre to explore the African-American experience in the post-war years. All in all, it makes the fictional cop-world far more inclusive than the real.
In the DNA
So as we’ve seen the detective novel can be more than a dead body in the library. Worthington, I think describes the genre’s contradictions well: “Crime fiction is at once deeply conservative in its formulaic conventions and yet potentially radical in its diversity. What seems simple is, in fact complex. The genre offers new and exciting insights into the cultures that produce it; its very status as popular and accessible literature means that it responds quickly to change.” Looking at that quote, words such radical, diversity, cultures and change jump out and offer good reasons why many a socialist enjoys a good detective novel.
Many have written them. Even in what may seem to be the most conservative of sub-genres, the Golden Age of Detectives, sitting by Dorothy L Sayers et al, there can be found one author who died in the Spanish Civil War fighting Franco (Christopher St. John Spriggs), British Communist Party Members, cabinet ministers of Clement Atlee post-war Labour Government (Ellen Wilkinson) and the wife of one of Stalin’s commissars (Ivy Low, married Maxim Litvinov, People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs). Indeed, look at any of the era of the detective novel and you’ll find lefties. Dashiell Hammett for example, was a member of American Communist Party and in many of his novels, alongside witty dialogue and snappy characterisation, there are barbs at the American way of life. Ross Macdonald used his Lew Archer novels to highlight the corruption of the Californian myth of wealth and sunshine for all; or in other words, the local American Dream. Ten novels featuring detective Martin Beck by Marxists Per Wahoo and Maj Sjowall use cracking stories to counter the perception of Sweden as a democratic socialist paradise.
Generally, the criticisms of society or structures of society, are reformist rather than revolutionary: the faults can be rectified; the wrongs will be of a single incident of crime rather than its causes. The disease of corruption might not be cured but the temperature lessened. Sometimes what is at fault is the national state or the system but usually it is localised power, or it’s a corporation, or an individual who is in the wrong. But no matter what type of detective, or how damaged they might be, they all want justice. Paretsky for example has said, that it was essential that V.I Warshawski was female because hers would be a sensibility which said, “What is wrong in people’s lives and what should we do to fix it, not how many people can I blow away and look really tough and cool?”
What is wrong in people’s lives is, I believe, an important part of the popularity of the Scandinavian crime writers, collectively known as Nordic Noir. Swedish author Liza Marklund for example, echoes Paretsky in citing the presence of “strong female heroines – who have actually behave like real women”. You can see that with Saga Noren (played by Sofia Helin) in Danish/Swedish TV series The Bridge, Sarah Lund (played by Sofie Grabol) in Swedish TV series The Killing or Rebecka Martinsson in Asa Larsson’s books. The stories may at first appear to be gloomy but people care about each other; they have real problems. Also, in many of them, there are no easy answers; there isn’t a sense of redemption and good triumphing over evil. It is more complex than that, indeed sometimes major characters are killed off. The form demands a result but not necessarily a total resolution.
Social comment is also often little disguised. Mention has already been made of Stieg Larsson and Sjowall & Wahloo, but there are many others. One could add Arne Dahl exploring the public rage against banks, or Mari Jungstedts’ view of a corrupted society or Marklund’s investigative reporter Annika Bengtzon who deals with such themes as domestic abuse or most obviously, Henning Mankell’s novels. One such example is Faceless Killers (1997) which highlights the racism in Sweden’s seemingly liberal society, now especially apt with the country closing its borders to refugees. Such corruption appears to us all the more shocking because many people have a perception of the region of having, in writer and journalist, Solomon Hughes’ glorious phrase, “weak-tea social democracy”. Or as Norwegian author, Thomas Enger, eloquently says, “The eruption of violence for instance, somehow seems more shocking in this more carefully controlled setting”. With the assassination of Olof Palme, the Prime Minister of Sweden, in 1986 and the Minister of Foreign affairs, Anna Lindh, in 2003, not to mention the massacre of 77 people by Anders Breivik in 2011, any notion of the region being a utopia has been seriously dented.
However, many people look at their society and their health care, or housing and education policy and find ours wanting. It still appears to be more shocking to read about drug gangs in Oslo than it does in LA, or even London. It also occurs to me that for Marxists, or simply just those people with a healthy questioning attitude to society, the reaction might not be that it is a surprise that it happens there but rather that it is confirmation that crime, corruption and alienation accompany capitalist societies - including those dressed up in liberal social democracy.
Of course, the fact of there is something new to exploit, to feed a large market, or the cashing in on success, plays a part (Ian Rankin has been quoted as saying, “Scandinavian crime writers are not better than Scottish ones, they just have better PR”). Or it could be that the crap stuff hasn’t been translated. Its location at the top of Europe could also be important: being near enough for us to recognise but different enough to interest. The cold vast landscape intrigues, entices but also frightens us. Or maybe that’s just soft, urban me.
Icelandic writer Ysra Sigurdardottir uses the desolate northeast of Greenland in the Day is Dark (2011) to such an effect. These are places which are made for dark tales of murder, revenge and betrayal. There is a reminder of the Western, of the individual on the frontier, which itself had so influenced the hard-boiled detective writers. Rebecka Martinson for example has a bolt-hole in Kiruna, Sweden’s northern most town. The cities can be recast in a bleaker, almost black and white picture, making it more noir than the reality.
Bringing to justice
I have not for a second meant to argue that all crime fiction is fantastic or that there is not some truly awful and/or reactionary stuff out there. I’ve read some of it. Nor is this meant to be one of those facile popular novelist Z is better than Tolstoy type pieces. But as Hughes puts it, “Once you write about crime, you are writing about the rules of society”. Whatever the writers personally feel about those rules, the contradictions of society cannot be completely hid. Whatever the intention, the nature and the purpose of the rules often are laid bare.
Returning to Mandel again, he places the popularity of the crime novel as a response to our intellectual alienation, of the monotonous drudgery of working for a system based on profit rather than need, so a fictional work where the intellect is tested and some kind of justice is achieved is rewarding. Nick Elliot, once head of BBC Drama, wrote of crime fiction that it “satisfies in us a secret yearning for justice, the unappeasable appetite for a fair world”. Although for those on the left I would say that it is hardly secret, but yelled from the rooftops.
Leon Trotsky may not have been talking of crime fiction when he said, “Generally speaking, art is an expression of man’s need for a harmonious world and complete life, that is to say his need for those major benefits of which society has deprived him” but surely we can find a reason for these stories within it? People are not fools; we recognise that these are not true depictions of law and order. We recognise that they are not documentaries of a fair world. We may sometimes want to escape into a world where the detective temporarily achieves a redress against wrong, but to do so permanently in the real one, we need more than the skill of an individual, we need the intellect, power and creativity of a whole class.
Phil Brett is a primary school teacher, who has written two novels (Comrades Come Rally and Gone Underground) set in a revolutionary Britain of the near future. In between planning lessons and marking, he is writing the third.