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Expert Comment: The Rise of Crime Fiction

fingerprint-small Wednesday 25 April 2012

Dr. Cynthia S. Hamilton, Associate Professor and Head of English at Liverpool Hope University

The increased popularity of a particular genre such as crime or romantic fiction is rarely traceable to a single event or trend; indeed the unpredictability of best sellers is well known. It is, however, worth noting four factors that might begin to help explain the current popularity of crime fiction.

Crime fiction flourishes in times of economic uncertainty. It did so during the Depression on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, the unstable interwar years were dubbed the  “Golden Age” of mystery novels by Julian Symons and saw the development of the hard-boiled detective novel, with Dashiell Hammett and later Raymond Chandler as leading practitioners. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the current economic downturn would again make the genre popular.

Second, now as then, the popularity of crime fiction feeds, as well as being fed by, the prominence of crime narratives in other media. In the 1930s, radio thrillers, comics, films and film serials fed the appetite for crime stories. It is now television, film, and the internet that do so. Indeed, “Hector EP2—Senseless Acts of Justice”, an adventure game featuring a sleazy detective, has just made The Sunday Times’ “App List”.

Third, crime fiction has become increasingly diverse, both in the audience it targets and kinds of stories it tells. The crime on which a novel focuses can be medical, political, economic, historical, or supernatural—there are vampire detective series out there now.

If we look at the shift from romantic novels to crime fiction, a fourth and most interesting factor needs to be considered: the changing role of women in society. Detective fiction has always affirmed the competence and importance of those outside the institutional power structures and spheres of influence, but whose achievements within crime novels show them to be essential to the restoration or maintenance of the status quo. As such, crime and detective fiction speaks to people who are ambitious to be recognised, but who feel marginalised. Such a description fits increased numbers of individuals during a time of economic upheaval and can be expected to speak to modern career women’s ambitions in a way that conventional romances do not.

Dr Cynthia S. Hamilton is the author of Western and Hard-boiled Detective Fiction in America and is currently completing a book on Sara Paretsky’s detective fiction.

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