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.