On the politics of the crime novel

SimpleArtOfMurderYou’ve probably not noticed, but there’s an election campaign happening in the UK. Frankly, it’s been unavoidable these past few weeks; and whilst the process of democracy has its own strange beauty – governments changing without a shot being fired – the low-level name-calling that stands for much political debate can also get very trying. It’s enough to send anyone running for the cover of a favourite crime novel.

But that’s no guarantee you’ll escape politics. In a recent piece for The Guardian Val McDermid proposed that current crime writing was inherently left-wing: ‘It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don’t vote.‘ As she is describing the sort of crime fiction I like to read I would have to agree; and it’s a trend that I’m sure will continue. But it raises is a more interesting question: if the genre is like this now, was there ever a time when it pointed in a more right-wing, more traditionalist direction?

Yes, there most certainly was. And we have that on the authority of one of the genre’s pioneers. In his seminal and influential 1944 essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ Raymond Chandler turned his keen eye on what made a successful detective story. For him, Dashiell Hammett represents that peak of what the genre had achieved up to that point, a man who ‘gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.’ But what’s most interesting about the essay are the deficiencies that Chandler identifies in many of the other crime writers of the time. For him these are all symptomatic of the fact that this kind of writer is ‘too little aware of what goes on in the world.

Chandler’s criticisms of Golden Age crime fiction cover three main areas. First, there is their reliance on amateur sleuths, ‘always available when the local gendarmerie loses its notebook. The English police seem to endure him with their customary stoicism; but I shudder to think of what the boys down at the Homicide Bureau in my city would do to him.’ Second, there is the reliance on overly complicated methods of killing someone, methods often thought up purely to inject some novelty into proceedings and which often heavily rely on chance ‘A murderer who needs that much help from Providence must be in the wrong business,’ notes Chandler drily.

Lastly, there is the low opinion that these writers seemingly have of both their readers and the police. ‘He thinks a complicated murder scheme which baffles the lazy reader, who won’t be bothered itemizing the details, will also baffle the police, whose business is with details. The boys with their feet on the desks know that the easiest murder case in the world to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with; the one that really bothers them is the murder somebody only thought of two minutes before he pulled it off.’

When combined, all of these faults serve to divorce the novel even further from the real world. For Chandler, these novels ‘are too contrived… If the writers of this fiction wrote about the kind of murders that happen, they would also have to write about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived.’ This last sentence brings us back to the sort of crime fiction that Val McDermid was talking about: life as it is lived for the many people who find themselves (whether by accident or design) on the margins of society. Today, the most successful examples of the crime genre are those which match a complex and engaging narrative with an equally satisfying psychological approach to the characters and societies they describe.

Exhibit A for me here would be David Peace’s Red Riding quartet, four books set in the north of England in the 1970s and 80s. Peace has described the books as his attempt to process the environment he grew up in, one dominated by the hunt for the serial murderer known as the Yorkshire Ripper. ‘Why was it a Yorkshire Ripper?’ Peace asked himself. ‘Why was there not a Cornish Ripper?’

The books deal with complex, societal themes such as police and local government corruption, violence against women and child abuse. The latter has become particularly timely given the revelations surrounding Jimmy Savile and other public figures. Savile’s crimes covered a 50-year period but continue to reverberate and impact on lives today. A past that lies unburied all around us is an idea that obsesses Peace and is one he returns to frequently in his books.

nineteen seventy fourPeace’s quartet is the very opposite of the Golden Age’s closed community, and his police are no fools; indeed, they are sufficiently sly to be the ones responsible for much of the corruption he describes. In Peace’s world everyone is guilty of something and no-one is innocent. The Yorkshire Ripper could be your husband, your brother, your son. Even Peace’s more heroic characters are not without their darker sides. Peter Hunter in Nineteen Eighty has an extra-marital affair with a fellow police detective, whilst lawyer ‘Big’ John Piggott has his own demons to face, even as he campaigns on behalf of an innocent man unjustly imprisoned.

The first book in the Quartet, Nineteen Seventy-Four, is set in the last year that the UK saw two general elections. Given how tight the polls are for today’s vote, there is a strong possibility that this could happen again. The outcome is unknowable; but my hope is for a government that puts itself at the centre of life in the United Kingdom. One that rules with an awareness of those on the margins of society, as well those at the centre. And one that governs with attention to – as Chandler put it – ‘the authentic flavour of life as it is lived.


  1. An excellent piece. I’ve just been reading Barbara Vine’s The Birthday Present, which excellently (although I know others disagree) punctures the sense of entitlement and the distance from ordinary human beings epiromized by the later years of the Thatcher/Major administration. Of course, all three major parties have become exactly like this — although Miliband’s, to his credit, far less so. What Rendell/Vine recognized was that — and, although left of center, she was far from an out-and-out leftie — it was part of the job of crime fiction to display society as it really is, which inevitably (I think) means venturing into politics.

    I haven’t actually read the Peace quartet. The movies based on the books are stunning.

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