Jill Paton Walsh’s paper at the St Hilda’s conference last Saturday morning sparked quite a debate. She suggested that it was interesting to consider why crime fiction had become so much more gruesome in recent times, and she advanced the theory that it might have some connection with the fact that capital punishment was abolished in the UK in the 1960s.
The idea was, in part, that since readers no longer had to contemplate the horrors of the scaffold, the hood, and the trapdoor, when the culprit was hanged after being brought to justice, they searched for them elsewhere As a great expert on Dorothy L. Sayers, she drew attention to the fact that Wimsey (towards the end of his detecting career, in particular) took the fate of the criminal rather more seriously than many of his fellow sleuths.
Someone in the audience pointed out that the snag with this particular theory (which Jill expressed much more persuasively than my crude summary might indicate) is that crime fiction has become much more gruesome in many countries around the world, some of which retain the death penalty to this day. On reflection, Jill accepted this was a fair point.
So, has crime fiction become gruesome in recent years, and if so, why? Inevitably, we are generalising, but the strong consensus at St Hilda’s was that it has indeed become more gruesome. That’s certainly my view. But what is the reason for it? I really don’t know, but I suspect the answer may have something to do with the fact that – at least on a certain level - life tends to feel more secure today than it did, say, sixty years ago Fiction often seeks to engage very closely with real life, but it also has an escapist component. But does anyone have a better explanation?