How have crime novels become the industry’s sure-fire money-spinner? Here are a few clues: suspense, menace and sex. Barry Forshaw investigates
In the world of books designed for the popular market, such genres as science fiction remain niche — consumed principally by dedicated fans. The same might be said of romance fiction — but there is one field that is liked by pretty well everyone who reads books: crime fiction and thrillers. And this is not a new phenomenon — apart from the popular success the field has always enjoyed, there have always been heavyweight literary admirers, from W.H. Auden to the Poet Laureate C. Day Lewis (who himself wrote detective fiction as Nicholas Blake). However, in the last 20 years, the popularity of the thriller genre has grown exponentially with writers such as James Patterson, Peter James and Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) storming the bestseller charts. And, what’s more, supplying material for hit movies (Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl enjoyed equal success as a book and in its film version, as did Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train). The genre has always been a broad church — but what is the state of the thriller in the second decade of the 21st-century?
An international reach is evident in the work of British titan Lee Child. Cannily designing his books featuring tough ex-military policeman Jack Reacher to appeal to both UK and American markets, Child forged a franchise which has made him one of the most successful writers in the world, rivalling US thriller supremos such as Harlan Coben, Jeffery Deaver and the love-him-or-hate-him Dan Brown (though Child would probably admit that Britain’s finest thriller novelist is still the veteran Gerald Seymour, whose touch remains sure).
Since the status of the field was elevated in critical esteem by writers such as P.D. James, modern crime writers now freight acute psychological insights into their page-turning narratives. And let’s not be too highfalutin’ about it: those pages keep turning because of the visceral appeal of violent death, suspense, menace and (in many thrillers) the sexual instinct being given full rein. In thrillers we experience what we (mostly) can’t do in life.
Informing much of the work of contemporary writers (such as the Americans James Lee Burke and Dennis Lehane, along with the UK’s Val McDermid) is an angry critique of modern society — an element that is locked in the DNA of Scandinavian crime fiction with such writers as the Queen of Icelandic crime, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Who is the pundit most often called upon to talk about the influence of the far right in his country? It is, in fact, Norway’s leading thriller writer, Jo Nesbo.
Given that the issue of class is still an important one in Britain, it is surprising how little the subject exercises current writers. From the Golden Age onwards, the ability of the detective figure to move unhampered across social divides has always accorded the genre a range not to be found elsewhere. Most of the slew of coppers who populate the genre are middle or lower middle class but sport a bolshiness that suggests working class resentment — e.g. Ian Rankin’s DI Rebus and Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne.
In terms of gender, while the middle-aged, dyspeptic (and frequently alcoholic) male copper still holds sway, eternally finding it difficult to relate to his alienated family, the female equivalent of this archetype is the woman who has achieved a position of authority but who is constantly obliged to prove her worth. Not necessarily in terms of tackling male sexism – although that syndrome persists as a useful shorthand. The influential figure of Lynda La Plante’s Jane Tennison is central here. The uniformity of Tennison’s heirs makes it difficult for writers to differentiate their bloody-minded female protagonists from the herd, but ingenuity is paramount – one female detective in the current crop, for instance – M.J. Arlidge’s D.I. Helen Grace — differs from her fellow policewomen in having an inconvenient taste for rough sex and S&M.
There are unsparing women writers who don’t give an inch when it comes to violent, rough-edged narratives: think of Val McDermid’s Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, filmed for TV as Wire in the Blood, or the massively popular London crime specialist Martina Cole. And let’s not forget the quirky women writers of historical thrillers who challenge such male masters as CJ Sansom and Andrew Taylor: the lively quartet of Imogen Robertson, MJ Carter, Kate Griffin and SJ Parris.
However, at present one trend reigns supreme: ‘Domestic Noir’, as in the novels of Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins. Characteristics? Unreliable, damaged women caught in a maelstrom of betrayal and deceit, in which the male sex is not to be trusted — the genre ties in neatly to the current #MeToo movement which focuses on male abuse.
But what’s next? If publishers knew the answer to that one, they’d be even more prodigiously rich than they are.
Barry Forshaw is the author of Brit Noir and Historical Noir
Twists that Stick
2018 is set to be a bumper year for crime novels and thrillers, from espionage and dystopian nightmares to page-turning tales of shadowy figures. It’ll be enough to keep you awake at night, writes Louise Rhind-Tutt
The Feed by Nick Clarke Windo
With a chilling premise at its core, this dystopian nightmare will be devoured by fans of The Girl With All the Gifts and Station Eleven. It presents readers with a chilling vision of the future reminiscent of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series. TV rights were acquired at auction and a series is in development, already lauded as the UK’s answer to The Walking Dead.
Out now, published by Headline.
Need to Know by Karen Cleveland
The author sheds light on a hidden world thanks to her experience working in counter-terrorism for the CIA. Her protagonist, Vivian Miller, is an analyst who’s assigned to uncover Russian sleeper cells in the US – and discovers that someone she knows could be a spy. Film rights have been sold, with Charlize Theron set to star and produce.
Out now, published by Transworld.
The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
This hugely anticipated debut is a psychological thriller about an agoraphobe who believes she has witnessed a crime in a neighbouring house. Comparisons are being drawn to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Fox 2000, the makers of Life of Pi and Hidden Figures, have the film rights, with Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy Letts writing the script.
Out now, published by HarperCollins.
Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit
This highly original literary thriller about a family living above their stalker is based on the life of the author, who spent six months in a living nightmare when his downstairs neighbour harassed and terrorised him and his family. Described as the most anticipated thriller of 2018 by Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, its fans include Lionel Shriver and Joanne Harris.
Out now, published by Orion.
The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox
From the bestselling author of Sirens, Detective Aidan Waits returns in Jospeh Knox’s latest thriller. We find the detective in a disused hotel, confronted with the body of a man. His teeth have been filed down and replaced, and even his fingertips are not his own. Only a patch sewn into his trousers gives any indication as to who he was, and his desperate last act.
Published on 8 March 2018 by Doubleday.
The Blood by E.S. Thomson
On the Victorian London waterfront lies a world of secrets, murder and betrayal in this thriller. When a young prostitute is washed up in the tide of the Thames, all clues lead to ‘The Blood’, a hospital boat moored near London Bridge. Apothecary Jem discovers that prejudice and ambition seethe beneath a veneer of medical respectability.
Published on 5 April 2018 by Constable.
Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall
Described by Gillian Flynn as “one of the most disturbing thrillers I’ve read in years,” this deeply unsettling novel is about passionate love that ends in murder. It was inspired by a documentary about Amanda Knox that made the author think deeply about female sexuality, and how it is both vilified and salivated over in the courts and media.
Published on 3 May 2018 by Century.
Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh
Fans of John Grisham and Lee Child will enjoy this book, in which the killer isn’t on the stand, he’s on the jury. When Hollywood star Robert Solomon is charged with the brutal murder of his wife, the defence want one man on their team: con artist-turned-lawyer Eddie Flynn. But as the trial begins, a series of sinister incidents in court start to raise doubts in Eddie’s mind.
Published 14 June 2018 by Orion.
The Tall Man by Phoebe Locke
In 1990, three girls disappear into the woods. In 2000, a young mother goes missing. In 2018, a teenage girl is charged with murder. The three events are connected by one shadowy figure. A gripping blend of dark psychological suspense and spine-tingling chills, The Tall Man is based on Slenderman, an online urban myth that sparked the public’s imagination.
Published on 14 June 2018 by Headline.
Sticks and Stones by Jo Jakeman
How far would you go for revenge on your ex? In a moment of madness, Imogen does something unthinkable: she locks her husband in the cellar. Now she’s in control. But how far will she go to protect her son and punish her husband? And what will happen when his ex and his girlfriend get tangled up in her plans?
Published on 12 July 2018 by Harvill Secker.