Saturday, 9 January 2010

The Economy and Crime Fiction


To what extent is there a link between prevailing economic conditions and the type of crime fiction that people want to write and to read? It’s an interesting question, although I’m not confident that I know the answer.

The 1920s, for instance, was a time of great economic difficulty, and it coincided – certainly in Great Britain – with the rise of escapist puzzle-fiction, the whodunits of Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and so on. One might argue that the light, entertaining mysteries offered people an escape from often grim personal circumstances, as well as the aftermath of war. There were similar books written in the US, by the likes of S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen, but this period also saw the growth of the pulps and the arrival on the scene of writers like Dashiell Hammett.

We have, in recent years, had a period of economic prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic, and perhaps this (in part) supplies an answer to the question I posed a while back, as to why modern crime fiction has, in many cases, become so much more gruesome. Possibly, a prosperous society that feels relatively safe looks to fiction to provide it with danger and excitement.

But things are changing for the worse in economic terms, certainly in the UK, and if the forecasters are to be believed, once the general election is out of the way, the next few years are going to be tough for many people, though of course there will be exceptions to the general rule, as there always are. Does this mean that there will be a renewed appetite for lighter, escapist fiction? I’m unsure, but I’d be interested to learn the views of others.

12 comments:

Bernadette in Australia said...

I can recall one of my economics lecturers saying that the two things to invest in during an economic downturn are cinemas and middle of the road restaurants as people will always want to be entertained and have a bit of escape. So I would think the same might be true of fiction - that people will turn more to something light or funny like Janet Evanovich or Carl Haissen. I'm lucky enough not to have been too badly impacted by the current financial crisis so I haven't had to think about changing the content of my reading.

vegetableduck said...

The 1920s did to have its flippant, escapist fads and the craze for the puzzle novel seems to have been one of them, on both sides of the Atlantic (and certainly the 1920s were not tough times economically in the US). I think this must have had something to do with with reaction to World War One and the cynicism engendered in its aftermath.

By the thirties, however, people seem to have become more earnest, wanting more realistic fiction. We see the accelerated development of the psychological crime novel and the hardboiled tale. At the same time, puzzle novels still remained popular, but new trend lines were clearly developing.

After World War 2, the ground shifted decisively against the classical puzzle novel.

I'm not sure that we can make a simple formula, like bad times = escapist fiction with nice, ordered endings. In the Depression-era United States, why would people have wanted to read books like The Postman Always Rings Twice and No Orchids for Miss Blandish, if they wanted to escape from unpleasantness? These books offer "escape"--but it is escape from dull lives into more thrilling worlds of sex and violence, not escape from unpleasantness and disorder into coziness and order.

The 1920s and 1930s had differing aesthetic values in all sorts of areas, including mystery fiction; and I think we can lose sight of this when we talk about a Golden age of detective fiction from 1920-1940 or thereabouts. What seems to me to be the case is that you had a puzzle craze start following WW1 that began abating by 1930, increasingly so after 1945. It seems to me that the escapism of the 1920s came to seem superficial and unacceptable in a time of increasing world crisis in the 1930s. The 1930s were the time of social realism and proletarian art, etc. But I think it was only natural that the 1920s escapist mindset would abate over time. All "play" eventually gets boring to many of us.

vegetableduck said...

Another thought: what do we mean by light, "escapist" fiction excatly?

PD James novels, for example, usually teem with unhappy, frankly often rather miserable people, yet they avoid explicit sex and violence and profanity (for the most part) and, as PD herself says, they offer a rationale solution at the end, complete with a Great Detective, along with authorial asides on architecture and interior decoration. Does that make them escapist or "realistic"? Is there such a thing as realistic escapism or escapist realism?

The pulps are often praised for their "realism" but most Americans had little personal experience with the kind of crime they describe (though America was often written about as if every town in the country experienced daily shoot-outs with gangsters). The characters in them are highly stylized (is the whole idea of the "femme fatale" realistic?). I imagine many young men who read these tales thought they made great "escape" fiction. They could escape from their comparatively humdrum lives and enter a world where tough men showed up the corrupt, effete rich and wowed the beautiful dames. This seems more fantasy than realism!

In other words, pulps offered visceral excitement, where the classical puzzle novel offered cerebration; but in both cases readers read these works primarily for entertainment, not enlightenment about the human condition or world social ills or what have you.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Bernadette. I think the point about entertainment and escape is well made.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Curt. Your analysis strikes me as convincing. The UK and US markets seemed to react differently after WW1, but I agree that the differences can be reconciled as you suggest.

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - You've raised such a fascinating question! I agree with Bernadette that when there is a time of great economic difficulty, people do turn to lighter escapism. The same is true, possibly (I haven't done research) of the cinema. During the worldwide depression of the 1930's, we saw a rise in cinema attendance, and the kinds of movies featured weren't at all dark, psychological movies. Rather (at least in the U.S.) they were westerns, gangster films and cliffhangers - "hero" films where viewers could "get lost" in the story. I wouldn't be surprised at all if there were a connection between the kind of reading people do and the economic times in which they live.

Dorte H said...

I think these predictions are difficult, but if people steer clear of the most gruesome and horrid crime fiction, it might be a good thing for many of the writers I read and enjoy. (It could also be good for me).

Real cozies do not seem to be popular in Denmark, however. I think Donna and Elizabeth write excellent cozies, but I am not at all certain they would sell here. I know that L.C. Tyler has tried with his, but unsuccessfully.

Juxtabook said...

I think the trend for historical crime fiction is part of a reaction to all sorts of aspects of now. Whatever the pluses and minuses of a past age at least they aren't our problem any more. I love the historical series Dandy Gilver, Jim Stringer, and Nicola Upson's Josophine Tey. They're not all cozy and the last two are quite dark in subject matter but at least they're not the here and now!

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, the comparison with cinema is thought provoking and persuasive.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Dorte. I should add that Danish publishers haven't been flocking to my door either - but you never know what may happen one day!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Juxtabook - a further reason for the growth in appeal of historicals, I think, is that they offer an escape route from the police procedure that is so pervasive in the modern genre.

vegetableduck said...

Martin, I think PD James' point about detective fiction and discovery of truth and restoration of order is an interesting one (of course Auden made this point decades ago). Even in the "tough" Chandler books, the Detective overcomes obstacles and finds truth and some measure of justice. I think in that sense all detective fiction, not just the traditional British stuff fulfills, an inherent human need for security, resolution, control over destiny.