TO DIE FOR
It’s bloody murder being an author these days, writes Graeme Blundell
ASADIST who drives strangers to suicide; a neighbour who rapes and murders a teenager who tells her story from heaven; a serial killer who captures, starves, kills and skins women. When it comes to crime fiction the usual suspects are stranger than they used to be and there are a lot more of them. Especially now the crime genre has gobbled up the conventions and content of horror writing.
generation ago, crime writing was a minority taste. The big novels of the 1960s and ’ 70s were blockbusters by Irving Stone, Harold Robbins, John O’Hara and Jacqueline Susann, who all preferred to deal with religion, sex and money rather than murder.
Robert Crichton, Jilly Cooper and James Clavell followed but there was still no big- time crime. Bestseller lists were variously the preserve of literary writers, those global Booker Prize types, and authors of what became known as ‘‘ shopping and f . . king stories’’.
Crime writing was trapped in a genre ghetto, often published as paperback originals, which rarely found a mass audience and were written for the entertainment of the reader rather than as social commentary.
The best were about puzzle, riddle or place, though the American hard- boiled tradition persisted in the writing of Ross Macdonald, Ed McBain and Richard Stark. But few lay down the law on social issues or scared readers by addressing their anxieties.
There was no DNA in crime novels back then, no forensic science, no serial predators. There were few prominent female writers, Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter was the only homosexual sleuth, and the police procedural was still in the hands of McBain and Joseph Wambaugh, with no female cops to be seen.
Most important, while Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh ( and later P. D. James, Ruth Rendell and Minette Waters) had been phenomenally successful, writers had not discovered the modern market’s preference for female heroes who subvert and challenge male power. But then everything changed, with genres splitting in all directions as globalisation shrank the world.
Origins and influences became ever more entwined and complex, especially from 1981, when Thomas Harris unleashed his notorious creation Hannibal Lecter, the cultivated forensic psychiatrist turned psychopath, in Red Dragon . Seven years later, Harris subverted the crime genre with The Silence of the Lambs and since then his imitators have trafficked in an unprecedented orgy of highly lucrative unpleasantness.
As critic Patrick Anderson suggests, changes in publishing also played a part as takeovers and mergers brutally transformed what was once regarded as a ‘‘ gentleman’s profession’’, intensifying bottom- line pressures to produce books that sold in huge numbers. Marketing became more aggressive and writers were forced into the spotlight, hawked and commodified as franchises. Authors’ tours became as important as the ideas in their books. And the range of what was on offer became much wider.
Crime fiction now is a complex precinct where readers face a bewildering variety of choices.
In a good bookshop you will find an extraordinary range of possibilities in almost every mystery and suspense category: romantic, vicious, paranoid, analytical, quiet and cosily literary, even comic. There are whodunits, whydunits and even who’s- gunna- get- its.
Do you like clue puzzles, feminist private eyes, lesbian crime and romance, gangster chic, inheritors of the hard- boiled tradition, historical murders, crime about cats and dogs, police procedurals or psychological thrillers?
Do you want your favourite detective to be a rock musician, 1920s flapper, funeral director, game warden, advertising executive, sports agent or a Navaho reservation cop? If none of these appeal, you can find a detective who doubles as a stand- up comedian, priest, black bookseller, professional hit man, English profes- sor, or a pastry chef, fashion stylist, football player, herb shop owner, librarian, chef, birdwatcher, salvage boat operator and lesbian forensic chemist.
They are all out there and their adventures are no longer a minority interest.
In Australia it’s rare for the BookScan sales statistics not to feature at least five thrillers in the top 10 fiction list. At present it includes books by James Patterson, Kathy Reichs, Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Cornwell and Peter Temple.
The protagonists of writers Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller have proved that female private eyes are plausible and saleable. Leaving their guns in their bedside table drawers, these characters sympathise with the victims of crime and the terrible social disruption caused by murder; changes in genre eventually accommodated by male writers.
‘‘ It’s a genre that requires a fine eye to detail and insightful observation of character, a tidy mind that is prepared to enter the darker aspects of human nature and then resolve all the mess,’’ Australian crime novelist Cathy Cole says. ‘‘ I think women crime writers have always enjoyed that challenge and this is mirrored in the female reader who reads along with the process.’’
In her study of the influence of politics and feminism on the development of crime writing, Private Dicks and Feisty Chicks , Cole argues the genre shapes the way we see the world, looking at contemporary anxieties and making creative use of our fears, offering millions of readers new ways to read the news.
And they do it in more sophisticated ways. With the arrival of the literary thriller, authors such as Umberto Eco, Matthew Pearl, Robert Harris, Leonardo Padura and Temple are producing longer novels with more writerly flourishes and mannerisms than authors did when crime novels were simply mysteries to be solved.
In Melbourne, Text Publishing picked the trend and has relied on crime since 1994 when it launched Shane Maloney’s Stiff , the first of his brilliant political entertainments involving ethnic feuds, union shenanigans and sexual politics in the Labor Party tribes of workingclass Melbourne.
‘‘ We took an unconventional approach to publishing inspired by Maloney, who quickly entered the company’s DNA,’’ Text’s publisher Michael Heyward says. ‘‘ We looked for outstanding novels in which crimes took place but our concern was the quality and engagement of the writing.’’
Several years later Text acquired Temple, whose bestselling, award- winning The Broken Shore has been published in 20 countries. ‘‘ Temple taught us comprehensively that crime was now a literary genre,’’ Heyward says.
This year Temple won the British Duncan Lawrie Dagger, the world’s biggest crime writing prize, largely by ignoring genre. The Broken Shore , although partly a police procedural, is an unconventional novel, as much about family and place as it is about a crime.
Temple says the novel was not written in response to police corruption or pedophilia, though it deals with both.
‘‘ I wanted to write something bigger than the ordinary crime story, to tell a story about a man who happens to be a policeman, someone who has seen bad things and who knows the meaning of pain,’’ he says. ‘‘ The Broken Shore is about retribution, memory, politics and family. And it’s about evil.’’
Heyward says local readers have demonstrated they want to read novels built on character and context. ‘‘ We don’t do ‘ job lot’ novels,’’ he says.
As a publisher, Heyward says he is interested only in books that involve the conventions that celebrate the ‘‘ ancient satisfactions of reading that go back to Homer’’, with beginnings, middles and ends. ‘‘ The exciting thing now is that as a genre the crime book contains all the challenges of the novel proper. They are books that deal with ideas that are central to us and who we are. They carry serious moral weight.’’
But while crime writers are no longer dismissed as genre hacks, it has been a bloody transformation. There is mayhem in the mainstream as the categories of the mystery novel
continue to fragment. The change is apparent in the stomach- churning descriptions of crime in the books of Mo Hayder, Tess Gerritsen and Karin Slaughter. Slaughter, in particular, seems outraged by violence against women and is determined to illustrate how vulnerable they are.
Then there is true crime, where women are no safer. This is probably the most popular subgenre among crime readers at the moment as writers adapt the devices of fiction to enhance their real- life narratives. ‘‘ But true crime rather alarmingly slides into the so- called ‘ misery memoir’, with its prurient element,’’ Allen & Unwin’s Patrick Gallagher says. ‘‘ I just don’t want to know some of the people who buy some true crime books, but they sell like stink.’’
Also assisting the coroner with the gruesome details are the writers of the relatively new genre Temple calls travel crime and Heyward translation crime, as more and more novels from other cultures reach our shops.
Michael Dibdin’s English language series about Venetian detective Aurelio Zen, first launched in 1988 with Ratking , popularised a new genre, the distinctively contemporary world- weary European procedural.
With Rankin’s disillusioned Edinburgh cop John Rebus, Zen is arguably the most influential crime- fiction character of the past 20 years. His weariness, which comes from navigating the Italian justice system, defines the new European crime novel.
Dibdin was followed by Henning Mankell, with his beleaguered, slogging detective Kurt Wallander, called the best Swedish export since flatpack furniture. Mankell’s Faceless Killers ( 1997) announced not only a great talent but also a pristine, new Swedish landscape, the antithesis of mean, gritty American streets. Six novels have followed, all written in Mankell’s spare, poetic prose and all with rain in their souls. This Scandinavian invasion, as publishers called it, was quickly reinforced by a wave of outstanding novels from Norway, Denmark and Iceland.
But as relaxing and recreational as these postcard novels are, crime writing generally has become a fictional device to reflect what we fear in the world, and increasingly that is the sense of threat, be it from terror attack or violent murder by strangers.
Serial killer stories are huge, with readers vicariously stalking with the killer and, in empathising with the hero, escaping from them at the same time. ‘‘ The underpinning question is: ‘ Could it be me?’ ’’ Cole says.
She believes that more than any other genre, serial killer stories test the reader. They can ask themselves where they would hide and whether they would learn from the victims’ mistakes.
According to Cole, these novels have a modus operandi designed to thrill and chill the reader: ‘‘ Victim one sets the narrative, we watch the next few victims make mistakes. The final stalk is usually the one who resists or is rescued at a very opportune time.’’
These are cautionary tales for adults and offer the same education as fairytales provide children. They test our ability to pick the good person from the bad one, who is not always the hairy, wolflike one.
For Jane Goodall, who won the 2004 Ned Kelly best crime novel award for her debut thriller The Walker , the serial killer is the figure who, more than any other fictional prototype, focuses the imagination on the question of evil.
‘‘ A story that draws us into the sphere of this figure through suspense and mystery, but also with carefully crafted logic, is giving us an imaginative experience that calls to some fundamental curiosity in us about the limits of human nature,’’ she says.
But not all writers wanted to imitate Thomas Harris. Thrillers such as The Silence of the Lambs also encouraged a new wave of polite, cosy mysteries, remarkable for their nonthreatening content and non- violent characters.
After indulging homicidal maniacs who tracked blood all over the genre, mystery readers were ready for more civilised killers with more agreeable manners. For several years, mysteries with female protagonists were the publishing rage, outpacing crime novels that featured private eyes and detectives.
Mystery bookshop owners shoved their hardboiled titles aside to make more space for these softer, gentler novels.
The new sleuths, often named Maggie or Kate, covered a lot of literary territory and their stories were targeted at more decorous readers than the other sub- genres, concentrating on understanding deviance and the motives behind bad deeds. They could be found talking to their cats in pretty mountain hamlets in the rural south of the US, or in sleepy English villages, pondering a bit of poetry over a pint of ale in the local pub.
The female sleuths were smart, feisty and independent; their male counterparts were attractive, sensitive and caring. Together they sold a lot of books as female readers participated in their mysteries, testing their intuition and powers of deduction.
Most arguments about why women are attracted to write and read crime revolve around the undeniable fact they are simply more used to living with fear than men.
‘‘ Crime fiction creates, then dissipates, stress and anxiety. I still think women are the major readers of crime because it offers a safe outlet for murderous thoughts about work colleagues or family,’’ Cole says.
She feels the role work plays is especially interesting, not just in contemporary crime novels but in films and television. ‘‘ The role of work in crime narratives reflects how hard we all labour for a living and how important professional skills are to us,’’ she says. ‘‘ We expect our crime characters to have professional expertise in forensics, medicine, in the world of clubs and bars, to be savvy and knowing about the ways of the world.’’
Forensics, medical or legal knowledge is useful, of course, in real life and on the page, according to Cole. ‘‘ Readers love to poke about too,’’ she says. ‘‘ The number of blood spray experts out there, courtesy of crime fiction, is phenomenal. Insights into the ways of life and death are a new religion.’’
Of the newer crop of Australian writers, Cole loves Goodall’s take on Britain in the ’ 60s and ’ 70s, and her references to culture and music.
‘‘ They’re chilling reads and powerfully evocative,’’ she says. ‘‘ Leigh Redhead is fun and Katherine Howell is one to watch.’’
There’s a new professionalism in the characters, too, and younger local writers seem to be drawing more actively on their work experiences — Howell as a paramedic, Redhead as a former stripper — and this gives their writing detail and credibility. Kathyrn Fox, a former forensic physician, is successful too with her medical cop series featuring Anya Crichton and Kate Farrer, sold in 18 countries.
Another trend in an overcrowded market involves themes on terrorism and the threat to civilisation of globally mobile crime lords. Generically, the espionage thriller is making a significant comeback with a new gallery of stereotypes: Russians running peoplesmuggling, cocaine or prostitution rackets, Iranians planning nuclear carnage and Indonesian Muslims arming bombs.
‘‘ In Agatha Christie’s time it always seemed to be the village lesbians, later it was the psycho- monster, individualist and predatory,’’ Cole says. ‘‘ Now it’s a kind of collective race against race, the free world v the chaotic one. This is why crime fiction is such a great chronicler of the times; it speaks so much of collective anxiety.’’
There’s no doubt that thrillers, while reminding readers just how ugly and dangerous life can be, still offer hope in the end, providing at least the illusion of order and retribution in a world that sometimes seems to have none.
Riding high on a crime wave: From far left, Ruth Rendell, Shane Maloney, Kathryn Fox, Peter Temple, Leigh Redhead and Ian Rankin