The Nameless Horror

In Crime Fiction, (Almost) Nothing Changes

Yesterday I read Chris Fowler’s Independent column on “realism” and cliché in crime fiction, specifically English crime.

Yet publishers are keen to convince us that their latest murder mysteries are grittily realistic. They are not, but, more to the point, they never were and never will be. How many killers are captured while they’re still in the middle of their slaughter sprees? How many have ever planned a series of murders according to biblical arcana? How many leave abstract clues for detectives and get caught just as they’re about to strike again?

[T]here is a part of England that forever has an alcoholic middle-aged copper with a dead wife, investigating a murdered girl who turns out to be an Eastern European sex worker. This idea might have surprised a decade ago, but it’s sold to us with monotonous regularity. It’s not gritty, it’s a cliché.

We are told that readers want veracity, but readers will accept that a murderer is stalking London according to the rules of a Victorian tontine, even though they’ll ask why your detective doesn’t age in real time. Consequently, there’s an accepted format for crime fiction that has become even more constricted of late, from subject matter to cover design, until it’s almost impossible to tell one author from the next.

It’s a very good piece and I’d recommend a read. It reminded me of a rant I launched into a shade over five years ago now - and Christ I feel old writing that - on one of the various past iterations of my blog. While I didn’t focus on English crime (aside from anything else, I was writing on the back of four books set in the US), some of the points are the same. (In some cases, of course, they’re more clumsily made because I’m a numpty and Chris has a column for the Indie.)

So let’s repost the old essay, and see how well the arguments still hold up, shall we? Here goes, and be warned - this is quite long:


Crime fiction prides itself on reflecting reality, and on being both character driven and on having “something to say”. So the story goes, anyway. I’ve lost track of the number of writers I’ve heard say that they wrote their latest book because they wanted to explore a particular real-life situation. The effect on a family of having one parent killed by another. How old atrocities committed during WWII or the Stalinist purges can bubble back to the surface in the modern day, affecting the descendants of those who committed them, and inform the present.

And what a phrase “inform the present” is.

If crime writers are striving to mirror reality and to say something about what they see, then frankly, in the main, we’re doing a piss pathetic job.

If we’re hoping to explore new and previously untouched areas of morality, experience or human emotion then most of us should just quit right now.

I’m not talking about individual stories or plots - the “there are only X number of stories” argument is as old as the hills; in any case, the finer details of a given story can vary ad infinitum - but about the overall theme or the whatever-it-is we’re trying to say. We’ve covered how crime can tear a family apart many times. There have been hundreds of books in which suspicion falls upon the wrong individual. I doubt there is anything more to say about the tragic loss of a child that hasn’t already been said.

If we’re writing purely to entertain, to grab the imagination of the reader and give them a story they want to follow through thick and thin, isn’t it about time we took a few more risks, did things a little differently? If this was music, not writing, crime fiction would have reached Little Richard and, maybe, just maybe, Elvis, and stopped developing. If this were theatre, we’d still be making do with repeated performances of Shakespeare and nothing else.

We have worlds, characters and the form of writing to play with as far as our imagination can take it. If we’re incapable of expanding the boundaries of the type of stories we tell, of venturing beyond the happy little comfort zone in which 99% of modern crime and thriller fiction resides, we should wonder why.

We already use our imaginations, regardless of whether we write for entertainment or because “we have something to say”.

Very, very few of us have been cops or gangsters or killers. Very few of us have lived in slums or were born beyond the boundaries of the First World. We are almost all white, middle class and middle aged, or older. Reasonably well educated and from a background that might, just maybe, have been economically difficult at times, but which almost certainly wasn’t one of chronic poverty.

Our existing readership, those our genre’s existing comfort zone relies upon, is overwhelmingly middle class and middle aged or older and they’ve been that way all their lives.

In the main, we reflect that mindset. If you’re writing crime fiction with a message, chances are what you have to say is what we’ve all been saying for decades, to people who’ve heard it time and time again and who are quite happy never to hear anything else from anyone else.

We imagine other backgrounds, other situations, other lives. Of course we do. And as soon as we do that we have - usually - vaulted beyond the realms of realism and into pure imagination. Our social comment is, in this case, no more meaningful than that of people in Hollywood who believe that every prostitute in the world looks like Jessica Alba or Julia Roberts.

With a very few exceptions, those of us who claim to be doing something important with their fiction, something greater than the mere stories they tell or the quality of the language they use, are fooling themselves.

And we all slap ourselves on the back and say how we really wanted to “explore” this or that, or that the “message” of our books is this or that, and that we hope we can communicate “some of that reality” to the oh-so receptive readers. Readers clamouring, one could almost believe, to be educated and informed about our terribly important and valuable discoveries.

The same readers who make James Patterson, a man whose work is entertainment formula fiction in its purest form, the best selling thriller writer in the world. The same readers who’ll pick up any old shit with Patricia Cornwell’s name on the cover.

And fair play to them. We all know what we like, and that is what crime fiction’s core readership want to read. Their choice is as valid as anyone else’s.

Our editors, whose jobs depend on selling a large enough volume of books to the same readership time and time again, are aware of this and encourage us to slot into the standard groove. To do otherwise is commercial suicide. On the rare occasions we do have an unusual and valuable message to communicate or a valid and interesting moral point to explore, chances are it’ll be softened, the edges taken off to keep it within the limited readership pool that publishers feed from, time and time again.

Forcing fiction to fit the existing market because it’s the only market there is is bullshit and cowardice, mostly. There’s an audience for just about anything if you can make it aware of and interested in your product. This, of course, is a matter of publicity; something that publishing is, as far as I can see, pretty poor at. Good at preaching to the choir, not so great at getting fresh people inside the church (to use the metaphor).

Nevertheless, that’s the world we work in. The crime, thriller and mystery genre is terribly stagnant as a result. It’s become a closed feedback loop. Books like Book A sell well, so Book B should be like Book A. Book B sells well, so Book C should be like Book B. Like politics and the news media, we’ve become scared of losing our existing market rather than searching for fresh ones. The readership, one writer (Sarah should know; I’ve forgotten, but it was her who told me) said, wants us to be performing monkeys, doing the same trick time and time again. They want their preconceptions reinforced, not challenged. And fair enough; it’s what most of us look for when we want to be entertained rather than stimulated. I’m no different and I’m sure you’re not either.

Surely there have been some changes in our genre? Some ebb and flow, the rise and passing of fads and subgenres? Of course there have been. But we’re talking window dressing here. The rush of serial killer novels of the early 90s were not functionally different to the puzzle mysteries of Poe or Conan Doyle. Instead of politely bludgeoning an innocent victim to death off-camera, ten or twenty were gutted and strung up over the course of 300 blood-soaked pages, and rather than divulge the identity or future moves of the killer through his brand of tobacco or the mud on his shoes, they used forensics and dubious profiling methods.

The basic messages remained the same: order is restored in the end, evil may be made from the smallest beginnings but it is still evil, and anyone could be either the victim or the killer; appearances mean nothing.

Hardly insightful stuff, if that’s your cup of tea. Hardly original, if you prefer just to settle for something ‘different’.

The two main developments in the genre since those early days have probably been the rise of hard-boiled crime out of the pulps of the 1930s and the switch away from the puzzle as the focus of the story to the characters involved (seen, perhaps most obviously, in the formula for the modern police procedural and the interplay between members of the department or team), really taking off in the 1950s or 1960s.

In both cases, while the nature of the criminal became more blurred, less black-and-white, the core messages once again remained the same. Order was still restored - even if, in the case of the classic hard-boiled stories, the outside ‘order’ was actually terribly corrupt or criminal itself and it was the internal moral code of the protagonist that had to be enforced to repair the situation - and good still mostly conquered evil. In rare cases, evil conquered good despite good’s best efforts, but even then the underpinnings were and are still functionally the same.

Middle class, middle aged writers continued to provide a middle class, middle aged readership with middle class, middle aged concerns, or, where they touched elsewhere, kept those people and places safely within the bounds of the simple fictional construct, at arm’s length, the realism tempered heavily by the middle class, middle aged views of the writer whose imagination they inhabited. Books that were considered shocking or daring were considered so not because they actually were, largely, by any objective standard but because there’s nothing a middle class, middle aged readership likes more than something a bit naughty but basically unthreatening they can complain about (and, in many cases, guiltily lust after).

What a revolution.

On occasion, of course, there have been genuinely effective and powerful social messages delivered through fiction, in our genre and elsewhere, just as there have been through theatre and film. But they have always been rare, and it’s the ineffective majority I’m concerned with here.

I mentioned before where we’d be if crime writing were popular music. Let’s take that further. Poe and his ilk, as well as Christie and the puzzle mystery writers of her era, are the equivalent of jazz and swing music from the 1920s and 30s - the first real mainstream pop. Hard-boiled was 50s and 60s rock ’n roll. And character-driven ‘modern’ crime fiction is somewhere between the two - easier on the ears, less raw than rock ’n roll but with more depth and complexity than 20s dance music. 60s guitar pop, probably. And just as in 60s music, for every innovative Beatle or Stone, there are a thousand faceless imitators.

And we’ve been stuck in that position for 40 years now. There are plenty of books written 20, 30, 40 years ago in our genre whose theme or message plenty of people would describe, and do describe, as “still fresh and valid today”.

Good for them, but bad for us, because that means nothing’s changed since they were written. A good story is always a good story, but if your aim is to entertain surely you should be doing more than merely copying what’s come before in your own damn genre, and if your aim is to do more than that, surely you should expand into and explore new moral, ethical or social areas rather than retreading the same ones in the same way as countless others before you?

I know it’s only human to think that our own perspective is unique, valuable in its own right, and that we have something to add to a pre-existing discussion. But in reality, it’s not and we don’t. Not different enough to merit a whole new book.

We badly need something new. Punk is a label that’s almost as over-used and meaningless as ‘noir’, but the equivalent of the punk movement is precisely what’s lacking in crime fiction.

(Actually, the musical metaphor for the modern era of crime fiction might work better by comparing today’s writing mass with the 90s and 00s spate of manufactured identi-pop and R&B. In which case… well, we’d still need punk.)

Most of us lack, as crime writers, two things: daring and speculation.

The secret of good television, as Fry says in Futurama, is that at the end of the episode, everything’s gone back to how it was. Original things make the audience feel confused and unexpected things make them afraid.

Why do 99% of crime stories follow the ‘order out of chaos’ model? Why, at the end, is the pre-existing order restored or the protagonist’s pre-existing moral code imposed on the chaos they see?

I appreciate the need for resolution in a story, but why don’t more crime tales end with the chaos, such as it is, continuing, morphed or mutated in some way, or with something wholly new arising from the ashes?

Take Michael Marshall’s THE INTRUDERS, for instance. Cracking book. The main issue of the story is that the main character’s wife seems not to be her old self, could be harbouring secrets, et al. Come the end, we know what’s going on, what the secrets are. In that respect, we’ve reached resolution of the mystery. And it doesn’t solve anything. The main character is just going to have to live with it. There is no restoration of order, there is no imposition of the hero’s code on the situation. Brilliant.

If you don’t have a story that would still work without restoring matters to some semblance of normality, maybe you should dare to write a different story.

If you’re afraid that your oh-so-real depiction of the world you’re writing couldn’t take a major change to its fabric, maybe you should remember that it’s fiction you’re writing, and dare to change your fictional world as much as you want.

Crime fiction could, and probably, if it genuinely is a genre of social or moral depth (which is, at best, debatable), should touch on far, far more issues than it does. How many books in this genre, with the maturity and intelligence this genre can display, for instance, deal with highly emotive subjects like abortion or teenage pregnancy? [1] Poverty, prejudice, the way we treat or raise our children, the way we live. The way life actually is for people outside the nice, comfortable, middle class and middle aged First World existence we all enjoy.

And I don’t just mean the ‘criminal classes’ of our world; they still live within the reach and influence of the same social system we do. You might be a dole jockey from Liverpool who dabbles in debt collection and casual violence, but you still have to pay the rent, collect your benefits and live with everyone else just the same as we do.

If you’re afraid to touch a particular issue or scenario, regardless of its depth, interest or drama, maybe you should get over it.

Not only do we play safe with the stories we create, we seem to be very bad at speculating beyond a very narrow band of situations within those stories. There are plenty of very interesting moral or social questions that arise from hypothetical situations which don’t necessarily exist, or exist that frequently, in reality but which are perfectly possible to describe, imagine and become emotionally involved with. Some of the great pieces of social fiction have arisen from this kind of process. But we don’t do it, not often, and certainly not often enough.

Take the suggestions of your favourite failed political whackjob or no-hoper and extrapolate. Pretend they’ve happened. Construct the world, the new moral order of things. Could be big, could be small. Explore the consequences. Explore the people in that world.

Take a little-understood area of world social history and bring it into a contemporary setting, make it the centrepiece to the story. If crime is about relatively ordinary people in relatively unusual, scary situations, you can’t get more unusual than the kinds of social upheaval that every part of the globe has experienced at one time or another.

Take the pontificating of your favourite social commentator, philosopher or drunk in a bar and run with their ideas.

If you’re unable to do any of those things, quit writing and get another job.


[1] This is probably the bit that was written most clumsily and which most people way back then seemed to have problems with: “What? So we should all go and write about knocked-up teen single mothers?” What I was fumbling with here was that there are a lot of deeper and more critical personal issues and problems you can write into a character that go beyond the standard drink problem/affairs/need to pay the mortgage/have a difficult parent, usually the father, with whom Conflict Arises. As a writer I wouldn’t say you need to include something along those lines necessarily, just that you might consider doing so when you’re looking for character drama. Equally, you might aim for the fantastical: “father is a zombie”, “plagued by conversations with his dog that no one else can hear” or other whackiness. Whatever works, whether a genuine and relatively seldom touched-on problem, or a flaw whose realism is irrelevant so long as it’s believable and interesting in the context of the story.

(I’m aware alcoholism is a serious issue in reality. In fiction though, it’s all too often just a prop.)

So, how does it hold up today?

Yes, I’m shaky on my history of crime. And yes, too many people when I first wrote it focused on the “punk” analogy to assume I meant “ANGRY SPIKY LOUD” rather than just “something breaking with the rather more staid establishment in a way the creator wanted to, not in the way they were told they had to” (which is at least easier in these days of KDP and its ilk). And yes, I should have mentioned that there are writers who have taken a look at different social strata and different cultures, and that there are those rare beasts who take crime and carry it off into genuinely new worlds and screw the grit and the completely realistic loamy soil of Midsomer et al (The City And The City did it without actually, in the end, doing it, Warren Ellis did it thoroughly in Crooked Little Vein and, as I understand it, Gun Machine, and you could make a case for cross-genre books like Scott Lynch’s The Lies Of Locke Lamora, Andrez Bergen’s Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat, Charles Stross’ Laundry novels, etc. etc. etc.).

(On a personal note, I wrote the original thing while beavering away on the first draft of The Levels, which, like its future sequels, was my own attempt at putting together a thriller free of worrying about the real.)

But. But. I reread what I wrote all the way back then, and with some quibbles and little flaws aside, I pretty much stand by it. If anything, I suspect the industry, certainly in its Big Few iron-hard heart, plays it even more safe these days of sales squeezes and shifting economics. Yes, there are little sideline subgenres - supernatural crime probably top among them - which have been around and supported by the mainstream for a long time (though note that even James had no luck getting a deal with his demon-battling Inspector McLean books until he’d found a market himself). But in the main, how much space - and how much publisher support - is given to the different and the new and the genuinely imaginative?

Fowler’s last line sums it up better than I can:

There are so many other crime stories to tell, farcical, tragic, contemporary and strange. It’s time readers were allowed to discover them.