Will Our Love Affair With Thrillers Ever Subside?

You hear more than you want about our obsession with vampires these days, on television, in books, and now and then at the movies. There's no denying the trend, or ancillary fads with angels and zombies. But those phenomena look like mere momentary distractions when compared to a literary trend that's so overwhelming it might be considered less a movement than a crucial element of life itself, like air, water, earth and fire. I mean, of course, our love affair with crime fiction.

People have been reading detective stories and spy novels in large doses for the better part of two centuries, but in the last couple of decades, this fondness has flowered into a devouring obsession so big that in any given week, the best-seller lists leave room for almost nothing else. Stieg Larsson's trilogy is everywhere you look, but right behind him come other usual suspects--James Patterson, James Lee Burke, Janet Evanovich, Tana French. That's this week. Look again in six weeks or six months, and you'll find Michael Connolly, Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, John le Carre or any of another couple of dozen household names.

I have no ready explanations for this phenomenon, maybe because I'm as caught up in it as anyone. I certainly have my favorites and read more than my fair share. Yes, people like murder stories, or stories about betrayal and treachery, but they always have. Lately, though, this interest in crime of the fictional kind has turned into a mania.

Is it because we crave, in the midst of life that seems ever more complicated and confusing, stories where something is settled squarely at the end? Is it because form (crime--investigation--solution) is paramount, because, in the simplest sense, we know how it's all going to end? Is it, in the case of series where the same crime fighters reappear, because we like the people and want to keep company with them again and again, the way we do with people on cop and lawyer shows on television? Is it because, for a long time, mainstream fiction became less interested in--for lack of a better word--sociology? Is it because crime novels were for many years not published in hardcover and therefore were not allowed on the hardcover bestseller lists--but once this changed, 30 or 40 years ago, the lists changed, too? Or is it because crime fiction has taken out a long-term lease on the territory once staked out by social-minded novelists such as James Gould Cozzens (By Love Possessed) or Sloan Wilson (The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit)?

Crime fighters get to go everywhere and talk to everyone--the bum on the street, the rich widow in the penthouse, the cops at the station. Most fiction writers today are slaves to the idea of "write what you know," which they seem to think means: write about people just like you. Richard Price and Tom Wolfe may be no match for Balzac, but at least they get out of the office now and then and have a look at what's going on in the world--and they write about it. Two hundred years from now, historians will be lucky to come across the work of writers such as George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane or Laura Lippman, writers who use fictional crime like a crowbar to open up the workings of our inner cities and, more often than you might suppose, our inner lives.

Weirdly, in the midst of this heyday for fictional sleuths, true crime gets hardly a mention. True crime was, not 20 years ago, one of the booming trends in American letters. Not much of it was top-tier stuff, but people gobbled it up. Now you hardly hear of it. You'd think that our fascination with fictional spies and gumshoes would mean that we'd be just as greedy for true stories of real murder, theft and other criminal enterprises, but no. We prefer the made-up kind of crime.

Where it will all end I couldn't say, but it doesn't look like it's going to end any time soon. Raymond Chandler, in handing out advice to wannabe detective novelists, once said, if you get into trouble with a story, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. Judging by what's out there now, there are an awful lot of authors in trouble.

 

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