Should Crime Novels Reflect The Times?
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…