Should Crime Novels Reflect The Times?

Christopher Fowler

How much of the times can you reflect?

For most of the twentieth century the crime novel has been timeless, a place you could go where nothing much ever changed. Crime novels do reveal when they were written, of course. I instinctively place a pre- or post-war bracket on the older books I read. And current crime novels can largely be dated by their subject matter; sex trafficking, online exploitation and an obsession with abductions figure heavily in today's paperback crime crop. I've written a number of zeitgeist satires and they don't always age well. It's even trickier when you're writing a series. How much of the times can you reflect without bursting the special bubble you've created around your characters? Mick Herron does a good job here because his books are timeless yet modern. I try to straddle the old and the new, drawing from the past but keeping an eye on the future. But it's becoming harder and harder to keep out the present; climate catastrophe, the effect of social media on mental health, war, supply chain disruption and disease are all having a direct impact on our lives. Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels revealed a Marxist anger with society, but a lot of new crime writing turns inwards to the self rather than looking outward at society as a whole.

Should any of this find its way into a crime novel?

I'm tempted to unleash my anger with the Johnson version of government, a kind of Billy Smart's leadership that chases audience applause while achieving less than nothing. Aside from a felicitous decision to follow the science with Covid, for which thanks goes to Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, Boris's reign has been entirely disastrous. The pushing through of Brexit, a concept with literally nothing at all behind it, is helping to make British life untenable for all but the rich. It has already damaged trade, reduced our world status and killed small businesses (not to mention ruining my own retirement plans) and the long-term effects have not yet been felt.  Sue Gray has issued a damning verdict on the party culture at Number 10, but to what effect? Underestimated and dismissed by Johnson and his cronies, the report will not damage a man who takes nothing seriously. Keir Starmer, suddenly Labour's yesterday man, seems unlikely to make a stand now. Should any of this find its way into a crime novel? Publishers would rather you didn't get too opinionated, because you'll lose the readership of those who disagree with you. But I'll occasionally read 'The Critic' without railing against its right-wing agenda because I try to keep an open mind, and some of its articles are thought-provoking in the same way that the Telegraph can be excellent when it's not banging on about the war, the royals or young 'woke' people. In the Bryant & May novels it's fairly clear that the detectives are humanist liberals, that Raymond Land probably votes Tory, that Colin Bimsley is Labour. Does it matter? Only when a reader turns around and says he won't read any more of your books because you're 'a Leftie'. I'm not interested in any one side, but in the consequences of human folly. And that's a universal subject. Of course, if Partygate resulted in a corpse put out by the Downing Street bins it would definitely make its way into a Bryant & May novel. Now there's a thought...  


Stu-I-Am (not verified) Wed, 25/05/2022 - 23:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We are so daily inundated with 'The Times' (our times) that I find not having to deal with the 'headlines' or contemporary situations in any major way in fiction, especially in crime fiction, a refreshing respite. A passing nod here and there to add colour or advance an otherwise well-crafted plot is certainly acceptable, but I have often felt with some offerings, that current events have been 'bolted on' for a kind of shabby relevance. So rather than take that chance, I tend to avoid fiction 'torn from the front pages,' as I recall the hype for one crime novel trumpeted. On the other hand, I have to believe our far media poorer predecessors viewed 'fictionalised' contemporary issues more often as revelations rather than real life 'reruns' in literary form.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Thu, 26/05/2022 - 01:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I don't expect a crime novel to be a roman a clef but the occasional relevant reference makes the story feel familiar. You had to give our detectives cell phones and the computers had to come into the station but we don't hear about elected officials by name very often and even Oranges and Lemons did the classic "use the official but replace the name" tactic. It was fun reading that and replacing the Speaker with the person with 'that' voice. Mr. Herron does the same thing and I agree that his and your books carry the right amount of currency.

As for those who won't read your books because they are too far left, well, the books are a gentle introduction to a stance that is left of the far right but even if it's only "know your enemy" it's a good reason to read other people's arguments. There is so little you could say is "left" in the books: a desire for fairness, a wish for universal access, a dislike of official bullying and praise for those who help others. Are those things to avoid?

Roger (not verified) Thu, 26/05/2022 - 04:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Could anyone put a character like Johnson in a novel and be published? Someone who became Mayor of London, party leader and PM not despite hidden vices and failings, but because they were ostentatiously displayed and were what people wanted?
Too preposterous to be credible.

In my youth I was a one-nation Tory and was derided by more radical contemporaries. I hold much the same opinions now and those people now think I am a dangerous Red.

Paul C (not verified) Thu, 26/05/2022 - 11:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sue Gray deserves high praise for her courage in publishing a factual report with no whitewash. The political pressure to soft pedal her report must have been immense.

Current affairs and modern life tend to bleed into all fiction to some extent. I feel sure your B&M books will endure for a long time.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 26/05/2022 - 13:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

With respect to the 'Johnson Follies,' I can't help feeling that somehow Armando Iannucci is behind it all.

John Griffin (not verified) Thu, 26/05/2022 - 13:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Similar to Roger, I was in the 70s and 80s a very MOR Labour voter, having not changed one iota even now, and these views are now derided as 'hard left'. I find 'woke' particularly galling, as it is usually shorthand - if articulated at all - for respect and value for all other humans, compassion for those handicapped by society or disabled by some problem (mental or physical) etc. Those are the values exhibited by your B&M characters, so I hope you wear your 'metropolitan lefty-ish woke' T shirt at all times.
As far as fiction is concerned, nothing that requires a tech fix as a plot device survives. The fixing of a time period is the equivalent of the 'fair play' crossword clue, but then leaves the door wide open for all sorts of cultural blunders and anachronisms. I often open (free) Sherlock Holmes pastiches on Kindle and see how far I can get before abandoning in disgust. One American author, who I gave three chances, never got past Page 2.
Political settings age badly too, unless historical characters are woven in expertly. I also dislike stereotypes. Despite having Fabricant as an MP (as does Hugh Ashton, of decent pastiche standard), the slimeballs are not restricted by party. In real life the worst was a Labour MP, the best likewise, and I've met some very decent Tories - albeit ones that wouldn't survive in Johnson's version of theEnglish National Party.

Peter T (not verified) Thu, 26/05/2022 - 13:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Do the times change that much? When has there not been an environmental catastrophe, a pandemic, a stupid war started by a nutter, corrupt and incompetent politicians, an energy shortage, economic collapse ... and, when something goes right, the usual queue of OBE/OPM/KCMG ready to take the credit? Only the details change.

Joel (not verified) Thu, 26/05/2022 - 18:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I was thinking through all the series that I read. None of them touch on politics, at least not current politics. Of course, I don't think any new books have been written and released since the lockdown, so am not sure if "the rona" will be included. I don't read fiction that has anything to do with current reality. I get enough of that when i peruse huffpost in the morning, and occasionally hear the news at night as i go through the living room (my sister sits and watches it). Although, I freely admit to watching and enjoying the many "disaster porn" movies about worldwide destruction due to the climate, or the moon, or whatever. I fear it is a deeply held secret desire for it all to burn down. But, like sexual fantasies, it is best to leave it where it is, and just look at it every once in a while. lolol

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 26/05/2022 - 19:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Related question. Does an author of fiction, in particular, have a responsibility as a member of society to avoid writing anything which may be harmful to that society ? Is freedom of expression inviolable when it comes to art ?

Helen+Martin (not verified) Thu, 26/05/2022 - 21:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Stu, I'm very much afraid that the accepted answers are No and yes. That is the official librarian's answer and anything else more than smacks of banning. Personally, I wish there was a more helpful answer but as the questions are stated, writing a fiction book advocating a communist regime would have to be avoided since that would certainly harm society as it stands and I would want to be free to write that book as I now am. I realise you said "avoid" and not "be forbidden from" but the step is a small one.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 26/05/2022 - 22:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Helen+ Martin Helen, the questions are rhetorical, as I'm sure you know but, I think, relevant in this day of extreme political polarisation. And of course what is 'harmful' is in the 'eyes of the beholder.' It is also,to all intents and purposes, ultimately a legal term. Then there is also how each 'society' views the limits of freedom of expression. You have Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a foundation. The US has its Constitution with its First Amendment and Britain has Article 10 of the Human Rights Act of 1998 as its base. All place some restrictions on this freedom.

Roger (not verified) Fri, 27/05/2022 - 01:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

But has there ben a time when being a corrupt and incompetent politician was regarded as a virtue, Peter T?

Stu-I-Am, old answer to your rhetorical questions: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

Helen+Martin (not verified) Fri, 27/05/2022 - 05:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It partly boils down to that old line about not crying "fire!" in a crowded theatre -even if there is a fire. We can all say what is dangerous and/or destructive, but defining it from the other end is not so easy and you have that grey area where this is/that isn't meet.

Peter T (not verified) Fri, 27/05/2022 - 07:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Has there been a time when being a corrupt and incompetent politician has been regarded a virtue? Well Roger, for me the answer is no. That seems obvious. However, looking at the individuals that powerful parties select as candidates and leaders, considering the ones the electorate tend to vote for, it's clear that most people disagree with me.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Fri, 27/05/2022 - 15:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Remember the Peter Principle? If people tend to progress to their point of incompetence then it would be quite likely that those in politics particularly would function that way and if that is all the electorate sees on offer then that's what they vote for.
I've got a nasty dental appointment this morning and perhaps that's why I'm so grim today.

Liz+Thompson (not verified) Fri, 27/05/2022 - 16:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Helen+Martin, I was in a crowded theatre in York (UK) when the fire alarm sounded, just before the start of the performance. We all sat there, no reaction, and it took a staff member running in and shouting that it was a genuine alarm to get us to evacuate. Which suggests that a cry of 'Fire' in a crowded theatre may sometime be necessary. Mercifully, the alarm had been triggered by a direct lightning strike on the theatre roof, and there was no fire. We had to wait half an hour outside in the thunderstorm before the fire brigade gave clearance for our return to the building, which in turn left me and my friend frantically sprinting for the last, and midnight, train back to Leeds at the belated end of the play.
Roger, Stu-I-am, afraid I take the line of Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But then I am an anarchist, so have little tolerance for politicians and sham democracy anyway.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Fri, 27/05/2022 - 16:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Liz+Thompson Liz, I tend to agree with you that while true democracy is a noble ideal, it remains just that -- appearing closer or farther away depending on which end of the political 'telescope' is required by those calling the shots --- but always seemingly out of reach.

Alan R (not verified) Fri, 27/05/2022 - 17:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Billy Butlin is possibly a closer comparison with BJ than Billy Smart. Locking people up behind barbed wire fences and literally controlling their every move with strange people in Red Coats - is very relevant.

The 20th Century didn't see a significant change in the way most people lived their lives compared to the last 22 years and I believe this change cannot be ignored by a writer or commentator.

George Orwell's 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four has now come to pass. I cannot see that there remains a viable career in traditional crime for criminals. Big Brother's surveillance recording cameras on every street, DNA identification, number plate recognition, facial recognition, traceable cell phone (mobile) calls and phone positioning, and global data capture, has now made it impossible for criminals to earn an honest living. It's no longer a fair cop, copper. Ronnie and Charlie would turn in their graves. Blimey mate, there lies the problem. If there is no crime - what is there for modern crime writers to write about?

With self-help books dominating the best seller lists in 2021 and with Dav Pilkey's Mothering Heights (Dog Man #10) selling like crazy, if I were a careers adviser, I would advise aspiring young writers to consider writing a graphic novel-style, self-help book for unemployed criminals and to build a franchise around this concept in the future. Gotta be a winner.

Roger (not verified) Fri, 27/05/2022 - 19:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I agree with Ambrose Bierce, Liz+Thompson: patriotism is the first resort of the scoundrel. As long as there are countries, though, and as long as we are allowed or forced to have some responsibility for what the country we live in does, then we have some obligation to try to make it behave well, or less badly than it does.

Linwood (not verified) Sat, 28/05/2022 - 01:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It is interesting reading - your perspectives - and the "sides" everyone is on. It is also comforting to know that you all have, despite the examples you can view from my America, those that you label as corrupt, incompetent, who create useless, harmful, un-insightful policies and actions. I thought that America was the only nation with such. The utter corruption of the "elites" here is devestating to our country, but continues, despite laws being broken, people and families broke and broken, and entire groups probably not being surprised if civil war breaks out. Watch us and don't do what we do here, please.
But, dear detective writer, please don't push that too far in your writings - the truth is so depressing. Humanizing is still the best policy, as I so enjoy your stories for.
Democracy is to two people, which is rape to one. The Republic is not supposed to be a democracy.

Roger (not verified) Sat, 28/05/2022 - 10:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I think the important difference is that Johnson was known to be " corrupt, incompetent... {and to} create useless, harmful, un-insightful policies and actions", and people supported him because of that, Linwood.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 01/06/2022 - 00:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Liz, I see your "fire in a crowded theatre" and offer a Victorian "bull in a china shop". There was an article in a mid-1800s Ladies' Weekly about a herd of bullocks being driven through a major part of central London. Now a bullock is a much quieter animal than a bull, but still.... A young woman wearing a red shawl was walking along the pavement and was spotted by one of the animals. (We all know that it isn't the red colour that attracts a bull.) The bullock started to chase the young woman, who ducked into a nearby china shop with the animal right on her heels. The woman darted through the store, collapsing on a sofa in the ladies' retiring room at the back. The bullock followed her and then wandered his way back out to the entrance, not having damaged a single item.