Crime sto­ries — an in­ves­ti­ga­tion

Krimis gehören­zud en be­liebtesten Liter at ur g at tung en. Warum das so ist? Wir haben einen Ex­perten ge­beten, in dieser Sache zu er­mit­teln. Von MARY SI­MONS

Spotlight - - INTERVIEW -

It’s a fact: we all love a good crime story. This year, for the first time ever, crime fic­tion be­came the best­selling genre in Bri­tain. Take a look at The New York Times best­seller list in any given week: you will find at least three books there in the cat­e­gories of mys­tery, thriller, sus­pense or crime. How, though, do we ex­plain our con­tin­u­ing pas­sion for sto­ries of death, blood, and gore? In search of some clues, Spot­light spoke to Pro­fes­sor of English Emer­i­tus Leroy Panek of Mc­daniel Col­lege, West­min­ster, Mary­land, in the US, close to the city of Bal­ti­more. Panek has taught crime writ­ing. He is the au­thor of a num­ber of books on de­tec­tive fic­tion, and he has won awards for his work on this topic.

Spot­light: Our ap­petite for crime — in real life, fic­tion, in book form or film — ap­pears to be in­sa­tiable. How do you ex­plain this ob­ses­sion with the genre?

Pro­fes­sor Panek: First of all, it’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize that crime has al­ways been a sub­ject of great lit­er­a­ture. In­deed, one can read most of Shake­speare’s tragedies as crime sto­ries. Ham­let, for ex­am­ple, spends most of his time and en­ergy in the play try­ing to un­cover what has hap­pened to his fa­ther. When pop­u­lar fic­tion — read­ing for en­ter­tain­ment or re­lax­ation — emerged in the 19th cen­tury, crime fic­tion sat­is­fied read­ers in a num­ber of ways that ro­mances and sci­ence fic­tion could not. First of all, it showed the tri­umph of jus­tice: that through the ac­tion of a hero, in­no­cence can be as­serted in spite of the con­fu­sions of cir­cum­stance and of­fi­cial in­ept­ness. Next, it demon­strated prob­lem-solv­ing: the tri­umph of ob­ser­va­tion and rig­or­ous logic over prej­u­dice and lazi­ness. It also made read­ers par­tic­i­pants. In some books, not only do they ob­serve the process of solv­ing a crime, but in the “who­dunit” form, they play a game with the writer, who does his or her best to play fair, but also to fool and sur­prise them.

When did we start to fall in love with crime sto­ries?

Crime sto­ries, as we know them, be­gan in the early 19th cen­tury. The ear­li­est kind were sto­ries based on the de­fects of le­gal de­ci­sions in­volv­ing cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence. These re­sponded to fun­da­men­tal changes in An­glo-amer­i­can law, ex­em­pli­fied by the US Bill of Rights, which gave new pro­tec­tion to in­di­vid­u­als ac­cused of crimes. Next, there were po­lice sto­ries. These arose when Eng­land, France, and states in the US estab­lished po­lice forces in the late 1840s. Fi­nally, Edgar Al­lan Poe in­vented the reader-writer game story with his Mur­ders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. In this piece, Poe gives his read­ers clues to the so­lu­tion of the crime and then pro­vides a so­lu­tion that sur­prises them.

How has crime writ­ing changed over time?

For the first 100 years, crime writ­ing very rarely dealt with the most shock­ing kinds of crime — rape, child mo­lesta­tion, can­ni­bal­ism, etc. And when crimes did ap­pear, they took the stage only briefly and were de­scribed with eu­phemisms. The ad­vent of se­rial killer books in the 1970s aban­dons this ap­proach and fo­cuses on hor­rific crimes per­pe­trated by in­di­vid­u­als whose mo­tives defy and chal­lenge ra­tio­nal­ity.

Wit­nessed by the re­cent pop­u­lar­ity of “Nordic noir” nov­els, crime writ­ing is also no longer an An­glo-amer­i­can monopoly. Most con­tem­po­rary cul­tures have pro­duced their own crime writer or writ­ers. And, of course, de­tec­tive he­roes now re­flect the di­ver­sity of con­tem­po­rary cul­ture. In­deed, the flex­i­bil­ity in the choice of hero and set­ting is one of the virtues of crime fic­tion — and a prin­ci­pal rea­son for its longevity.

Does crime writ­ing mir­ror so­cial and po­lit­i­cal change?

It cer­tainly re­flects so­cial change. This can, per­haps, best be seen in po­lice fic­tion, where char­ac­ters mir­ror the shifts in po­lice per­son­nel and in so­ci­ety. It is no sur­prise to find writ­ers in­tro­duc­ing women as well as gay, reli­gious, or eth­nic mi­nori­ties who act as he­roes and re­flect the re­al­i­ties of a di­verse cul­ture as well.

Sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, too, have changed crime fic­tion, and so has mod­ern psy­chol­ogy. Thus, con­tem­po­rary fic­tion takes on darker and more trou­bling sub­jects and events than tra­di­tional crime fic­tion.

Crime fic­tion’s con­nec­tion with po­lit­i­cal change is far less clear. Per­haps the one area in which books re­flect on pol­i­tics lies in those set in to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes or times, and that por­tray the dif­fi­culty of find­ing the truth in an au­thor­i­tar­ian world.

Does it take a cer­tain kind of per­son to be­come a crime writer?

Not re­ally. But one does find a num­ber of news­pa­per and me­dia re­porters who have be­come crime writ­ers.

Who is your fa­vorite crime writer and why?

This all de­pends on what I’m work­ing on. It changes from time to time. The Nor­we­gian writer Jo Nesbø is still one of my fa­vorites, in part be­cause of his mas­tery of de­tail and his up­dat­ing of the hard-boiled hero. Ray­mond Chan­dler’s short sto­ries are on my list be­cause of his wit and mas­tery of Amer­i­can English. While he’s not quite a crime writer, I keep go­ing back to Charles Dick­ens, too, and es­pe­cially his Bleak House, which con­tains a crime story that is per­haps bet­ter than Wilkie Collins’ de­tec­tive tale The Moon­stone. The bless­ing and the curse of crime fic­tion, how­ever, is that there is al­ways an­other writer and al­ways an­other book to read.

If you had to write your own crime story, what would it be about?

Be­ing an aca­demic, it would have to be mur­der on a col­lege cam­pus. The cam­pus is the clas­sic closed en­vi­ron­ment, and the fac­ulty, deans, and stu­dents pro­vide enough bizarre char­ac­ter types to sat­isfy any reader. Maybe it would be some­thing like Death of a Donor, or Bur­glary at the Bur­sars. Ide­ally it would read like one of Michael Innes’ or Ed­mund Crispin’s (both of whom I should have men­tioned above) loony Ox­ford nov­els.

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