Genre fiction overall, not just crime fiction, has become more « respectable » in recent years. Sure it hasn’t yet reached the same level of « respectability » as proper « literary » fiction but the days when it was seen as disposable, trivial entertainment-only stuff are long gone.
Don’t worry: I’m not about to embark again on a long-winded jeremiad about how modern crime fiction has surrendered to the diktats of the Literati and lost its soul in the process. This would be both tedious (I’ve been there before and more than once) and unfair (there are actually and fortunately many modern writers resisting the « literarization ») My concern here is not with the contents but with the envelope as it, too, has changed spectacularly over the years and for the same reasons.
The first thing to do if you are to be « respectable » is to clean up your act, and that’s what genre fiction has been doing for the last four decades. Some of its least savoury features – racism, sexism, homophobia – are progressively rooted out and even when and where they survive are nowhere near the level they reached in the « good old days ». Greater attention is being paid to the « serious » stuff and many a modern genre writer has something to say, or thinks they have something to say, about the pressing issues of the day. Typically « literary » values such as realism, polished writing and characterization are now almost universally accepted in the genre fiction community. Genre fiction now takes itself seriously, and the way it presents itself to the public reflects that.
Genre fiction once was made immediately recognizable by the title and the cover art, which were markedly different from those of « serious » stuff. Crime fiction in particular was very fond of the lurid and the outrageous in both departments. The typical crime novel title had to include some of the following words: « Death », « Murder », « Mystery », « Case », « Body », « Corpse » or « Killer ». Less showy titles were allowed but they still had to have some shocking or intriguing power – and what better and readily available source for those than The Bible or Shakespeare? Hence the impressive numbers of vintage mysteries borrowing their names from the Old Testament or either Macbeth or Hamlet. Whatever method the writer chose to use to compose it, the title had to make it clear that something sinister was about to happen – and if it didn’t, well, the publisher changed it.
Cover arts were subject to the same prerequisites. While The Young Lady in Danger was by far the most popular item, the Dark Hand holding a revolver or a dagger was also popular, not to mention shadowy figures with obvious bad intentions. The Fifties were probably the Golden Age of the lurid cover art with the rise of the paperbacks and its seemingly inexhaustible cheptel of gangsters, psycho killers and femmes fatales.
Not that metaphorical, cryptic or « literary » titles and more sober cover arts didn’t exist, but they were the preserve of those writers with « higher » ambitions. None of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe titles for instance make explicit mention of death, be it violent or not – which is the reason why his French publishers had to make up spicier, slangy titles out of whole cloth, much to his displeasure. Golden Age British writers were also prone to aim for subtlety in choosing a title for their books, hence many of them being given much more « direct » ones by American publishers wary of readers not « getting » them.
Things began to change after the war and Julian Symons was probably right to mention Helen Eustis’ The Horizontal Man as a landmark in that respect. Lurid titles didn’t disappear overnight, but there appeared a divide between the « commercial » stuff characterized by its shock titles and covers on one hand and the « sophisticated » one on the other that was all the opposite. Can you imagine a Mike Hammer novel with a Ross MacDonald title, or vice versa? Neither can I, and that’s the point.
The trend took on and as decades went by it became increasingly the norm that any crime novel with « serious » ambitions had to come with a « serious » title, that is, a title that didn’t reference murder and mystery or only in an extremely oblique way. Ruth Rendell both pionneered this approach and took it to the extreme, with Robert Barnard complaining in his essay A Talent to Disturb that some of her titles were undecipherable even to him. Modern crime novels fortunately didn’t follow Rendell’s suit, but it remains true that most of them have deliberately bland titles, at least in comparison to their predecessors – and the cover arts are nothing alike. Let us take as an example the first and latest winners of the Edgar Award for Best Novel:
Neither title is of the « lurid » variety (though Jay’s at least has « Bones » in it) but the Jay cover art makes clear, admittedly in a somewhat clichéd fashion, that it is a mystery and not of the cozy kind. The Mosley on the other hand makes absolutely no reference to any genre and the picture, well, might as well be taken of a book about loneliness, depression – or people on a bridge.
A good crime novel these days is one that can pass for anything but.