Warning: The following contains some strong opinion stated as fact.
I’ve said it before and I say it again: I am empathetically not a crime fiction purist. I don’t think the rules must be followed to a T or that a really good mystery must read like it was written by Agatha Christie in her prime. I may not always be happy with the way the genre evolved over the years, especially in recent times, but I am glad that it did for one of the few things I retained from my high school biology courses is that specialization is a dead end. Once you find yourself a niche and no longer move away from it, you stop growing and extinction awaits you.
Not being a purist doesn’t mean I don’t have strong ideas about what the genre is or must be. I have literally spent decades telling the world about them, first on discussion groups then on this blog. I can go with a very lax interpretation of the « rules » and like me some breaking them now and then but I still believe in some minimal requirements to be met in order for me to recognize a book as crime fiction. Should I use this label though? The fact is that while I use it I’ve always felt closer to the vanishing American equivalent, mystery. For this is what I am after first and foremost when I read a crime story or novel. I can do without the detective, I can do without the investigation, but I need the mystery, whether it is presented as a puzzle or not. Mystery-less or mystery-light forms of crime fiction appeal to me a lot less.
This I realize puts me in a minority, an ever-shrinking one, in the « serious » crime fiction community. A predictable yet unpredicted result of the post-war loosening of the « rules » has been that plotting has increasingly become less central to crime writing and is now almost optional. Not only do contemporary detectives not do much actual detection – they get to the truth but don’t solve the case – but a lot of modern crime fiction offers little or nothing worth investigating in the first place. Non-mysterious crime fiction has always been with us and has given the genre some undisputed masterpieces, but even nominally mysterious stuff is desperately lightweight in that respect. Not that I expect modern crime writers to reach Christie-esque or Carrian levels of ingenuity – this virtue was inextricably linked to a time and a conception of the genre that no longer exists, as Julian Symons, himself not a slouch at the game, correctly pointed out. What I expect from them on the other hand is to try to be interesting and this is where so many fail, mostly because they don’t even try. The Golden Age has long been over but the « plain whodunit » as Dennis Lehane put it is the most frequent and popular form of mysterious crime fiction today. Someone gets killed, sometimes in a weird fashion to elicit some interest, and the police investigates and ultimately finds who did it. That’s all. Nothing imaginative, nothing colourful – but then how could it be when the largest share of the books are police procedurals, arguably the subgenre least open to flights of imagination? Not for nothing did F.W. Crofts never wrote anything like Rim of the Pit – how do you insert Inspector French into such a story? Modern crime fiction is realistic, and realism is deeply antithetical to genuine mystery. This is why the few attempts at bringing back Gothic and baroque crime fiction, while well-intentioned, most often fall flat or disappoint. Modern crime writers are not necessarily less talented than their elders; they just have different priorities and also are caught in the straitjacket that is realism. « They don’t make them like they used to do » indeed but it is because « they » won’t, not because they can’t.
As a result, crime fiction, even the kind that wins critical plaudits, is more clichéd than ever – which readers and critics hardly notice since most of them know little about the history of the genre. The « troubled cop » is probably the most frequently criticized – but also alas the most popular – of the current clichés but I’ve lost the count of the coming-of-age mysteries that have appeared over the last decade. Having a child or young adult as your protagonist immediately elicits To Kill a Mockinbird comparisons and too much of a good thing is never too much it seems if recent Best Novel Edgar winners are anything to judge by. Another « favourite » trope of mine is the unreliable narrator forced to go back to the place of his childhood and face their traumas; probably the most famous entry in this subgenre is Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, one of the least original but most frequently imitated crime writers of our time.
And they said Golden Age mysteries were formulaic!
Once again and one last time, I’m not a purist and never will be but the current state of crime fiction leads me to act, talk and read like one. Even worse, it makes me repeating myself post after post since the ills I’m pointing out are never addressed or even thought of as being ills. As I said, a lot of people in the crime fiction community are incredibly ignorant of what happened in the genre before them and it is even truer of writers. This is of course unfortunate but also infuriating as vintage crime fiction becomes more and more readily available after decades of neglect and collective amnesia. Perhaps if crime buffs read more of it, they’d realize that no, such and such « shocking » plot twist or « audacious » narrative device isn’t that shocking or audacious after all and that there’s nothing revolutionary about having the narrator being the murderer. They’d also realize that some crime novels written sixty or seventy years ago were more original and daring that most of what passes as such today – all the while retaining a genuine, strong and exciting mystery element. The future of the genre is not in Scandinavian noir or « domestic suspense » but in the catalogues of the British Library, Dean Street Press, Agora Books, Coachwhip or Stark House Press.