Could Box Sets Kill The Crime Novel?


At this time of the year crime books metaphorically hit my doormat in increased numbers, and a lot of them look the same; blocky white sans-serif typeface on moody landscape shot, a copy line that reads something like ‘She awoke from a coma to find her daughter dead…but what if she’s still alive?’ Inside the text is present tense and inelegantly written. I ask myself, why would anyone read this?

Then I look at box-set TV. Firstly I notice the difference in quality; only the books with original characters and settings have been selected by producers. The raised budgets make everything look good. Top movie directors are being hired to bring stories to life. Big stars are turning up in key roles. The new eight or ten part format (like the BBC’s old serial format from the 1970s) perfectly matches the shape and experience of reading a book, and doesn’t get squeezed into multiple series anymore.

What’s more, the new portability of entertainment means you can get through the whole story simply by watching during life’s dull patches – on a bus or flight or train journey, waiting in a doctor’s surgery or (and I’m guilty of this) even just queuing in the supermarket.

Why bother to read a bad book when Netflix or Amazon or Sky Atlantic will find the good ones for you? Of particular interest lately are Netflix’s world TV and films sections, bringing subtitled hits from other countries.

For the past week I was hypnotised by ‘Sharp Objects’, starring Amy Adams, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed the superb ‘Big Little Lies’. It’s a slow-burn Southern gothic murder mystery that withholds most of its motivation until the final section of its eight-hour run, operating exactly like the climax of a good book. And it was written by Gillian Flynn, who wrote ‘Gone Girl’, the good thriller with ‘girl’ in its title. It’s also female-led, and even its few sex scenes are there for a specific purpose.

Most interesting of all is its method of revealing the story; deliberately slow-paced and enervated, almost indolent, it is punctured with moments of pain and anguish, but keeps its approach oblique. Physical items are lingered over, as if they possess some kind of hidden importance (and sometimes they do). Key scenes cut away to mundane ones, silences are everywhere, conversations are unresolved, and the final reveal is purposely thrown away. What’s more it is incredibly satisfying at the conclusion, because the most terrible part of the tale can be visualised here and made ominous throughout. so its implications are enormous.

Getting these things absolutely right costs money, though, and publishing is still cheap. For authors it’s like a low-stakes card game where the odds start to get steeper as you move toward a TV or film reimagining. Almost anyone can get published if it has something an editor can shape and pull out to present to a section of the market, but only a few reach the worldwide distribution of Netflix, or whoever this year’s favourite company might be.

But for the top-flight shows to work, there needs to be a steady supply of material. That’s where the books at the lower end come in. One can’t exist without the other, because the authors lay all the groundwork. And as always, they get paid peanuts to do the heavy lifting. Dangling above them is the golden dream that one day their work might reach millions.

12 comments on “Could Box Sets Kill The Crime Novel?”

  1. Colin says:

    Have you read Don Winslow’s The Force? A brilliant crime/thriller, best I have read in a long time.

  2. Maya says:

    I haven’t read ‘The Force’ but I thought his ‘The Power of the Dog’ was a great thriller with some brilliant research and very honest writing about the CIA’s involvement in trafficking and the effect of America’s ill-thought-out war on drugs on Mexican society.

  3. Debra Matheney says:

    Sharp Objects was creepy and mesmerizing. Patricia Clarkson’s performance was bone chilling. Maybe worst mother ever and certainly the cruelest.

  4. Vivienne says:

    These days if I want a satisfying crime book I tend to look for one of those British Lubrary reprints. The tend not to be full of gruesome scenes of torture and unlikely characters. I also worked my way through the Bloomsbury 100 best crime novels and found some really excellent stuff:it’s a bit like Invisible InkForgotten Authors. Springing to mind, David Goodis, Dark Passage, Bardin’s Deadly Percheron, and The fabulous Clipjoint by Frederic someone.

    Those modern ones used to turn out to be about incestuous abuse, but now they all seem to feature lost/murdered/abducted children. Find the next trend and go for gold!

  5. David says:

    Walter Presents…. on the Chanel4 player site has some great international box sets as well.

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    Vivienne – Frederic Brown, The Screaming Mimi is another of his crime ones, he wrote across many genres. The Knock an SF short story is one of the best adapted radio plays. The 1st two lines of The Knock classic suspense, “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …”


  7. Vivienne says:

    Thanks Wayne, will I ever answer the door?

    (Will try to read the book

  8. Denise Treadwell says:

    I enjoyed ‘Sharp Objects ‘, it was creepy. I don’t think the mother is the killer, I think it is the our heroine ‘s sister. I have not read the book so I can’t compare the book with the tv series.

  9. Matt says:

    I’m sorry to put it this way but I hate all these slow paced crime things on TV. I don’t mind reading a book and creating my own pictures in my mind as I read but honestly watching some of this stuff just is just too tedious. I often get the feeling I could have sat through the first episode and then just watched the last.

  10. admin says:

    I partly agree, Matt, but when it’s a limited-ep series like this (8 hrs) and you watch it as you’d read book chapters, it probably amounts to the same time. There was a little padding (one ep; ‘Calhoun Day’, could have gone) but not much.

  11. Matt says:

    Yes admin, I think I was generalising a little too freely with my comment. I did enjoy ‘Breaking Bad’ and thought that was a fabulous show. I also enjoyed every season of ‘The Bridge’. So not all the crime on TV that is slow paced needs to be tedious watching.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Am wandering around in The Armchair Detective, a collection of short stories from a wide range of writers: Wells, Hammett, Erl Der Biggar, and Christie, Sayers, and so on. There’s a potted history of the author and of the detective – when introduced, when filmed, when put on TV. Some of them are very weak as far as plots are concerned and one expected you to catch that a supposed car license plate came from the wrong year as well as the fact that the Bank of England didn’t start printing notes until 1694. Some are fun or weird because time has changed things but I’m in the middle of the Georges Simenon story and wish he’d just get on with it. There’s a reason why some of these authors disappeared.

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