Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Future crime fiction artifacts?

Recent posts here at Detectives Beyond Borders about Fredric Brown's "The Wench Is Dead" (also his The Wench Is Dead) and Dan J. Marlowe's Strongarm raised the question of artifacts.

By artifacts I mean narrative and thematic characteristics or incidental features that make a story seem especially characteristic of the time it was written (In crime fiction a story's time usually means its decade), and I don't mean the term pejoratively.

Earlier this week, an article by Christopher Fowler's article in the Independent was decidedly pejorative about what Fowler sees as the stagnant state of English crime writing. Despite the profound social and demographic changes the country has gone through in recent years, Fowler writes:
"(T)here is a part of England that forever has an alcoholic middle-aged copper with a dead wife, investigating a murdered girl who turns out to be an Eastern European sex worker. This idea might have surprised a decade ago, but it's sold to us with monotonous regularity. It's not gritty, it's a clich√©." 
The line about murdered Eastern European sex workers struck a chord. Such a motif is likely to mark recent crime novels as artifacts of their time. What other themes or situations in crime stories of the last ten of fifteen years are likely to mark them as typical of their time?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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28 Comments:

Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

At the library today, I found many, many mysteries by famous (well, I recognized their names) women writers, all of whom had written novels based around dead kids or missing kids. As a male writer, I don't find writing about kids as victims anything I want to do. Is this a major new trend?

January 16, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It could be, though I'd probably associate it with Scandinavian writers of whatever sex. I have heard a number of male crime writers say they would not write stories in which children are harmed, which opens the way to interesting speculation about whether men and women write differently.

It's also easy to speculate that any rise in crime fiction about missing children coincided with the a rise in public concern about missing kids. Whether more kids go missing now than before is another matter, of course.

January 16, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I cannot offer any specific examples--since my mind is in hibernation mode--but I rather suspect that any crime novel recently or currently that involves desk-bound PCs will eventually be oddly dated. We can already see the probable demise of PCs as different devices take over the market and society, and I imagine the life expectancy of PCs is now very low.

Also, any novel that relies heavily upon technology as part of its plot has a built in self-destructive quality.

January 16, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

It's a great question, but hard to answer. Personally, I too hope the missing or dead children trope will decline.

I can say that there was a great wave of the female detective in the early eighties and it was part of a wave of feminism and new ways of thinking about women's roles. Now the female detective or investigator would not be very eyebrow raising. Lots of stories still use them, but the idea of that kind of character isn't enough to make the story interesting to people in itself.

I suspect that Scandinavian crime fiction will follow a similar trajectory. Some of it will still stand out, but the region of origin won't be enough.

I think, though, that James Patterson will still be a popular brand, even if he happens to die. Not that I'd wish that on him. tha

January 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, R.T.! When did we start saying we were in hibernation mode rather than simply in hibernation or, even more simply, hibernating? Maybe around the time athletes starting saying saying their confidence level, rather than simply their confidence, was up. I suspect that the frequency of such use of mode increased when everyone got his or her own computers and starting putting them in safe mode.

I suppose I never much noticed the role of personal computers in crime novels because they seemed no different from the roles ledgers or paper documents played in earlier novels. We've probably all read books in which laptops or floppy disks disappear from ransacked apartments. The Dan J. Marlowe novel I wrote about earlier this week hinges on the disappearance of a pair of ledger books. Such a plot could be written today word for word, with "floppy disks" substituted for "ledgers" without the slightest harm.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that Independent article takes a swipe at Scandinavian crime fiction, too. I wonder what else Scandinavian crime readers read besides the big names that have been translated into English.

Female P.I.'s are an interesting addition to this discussion. Little of the crime fiction by women that I've read features P.I.'s, but I wonder if novels written by women about worn P.I.s in five or ten years, if they're still being written, will differ from novels by Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, et al.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Without being terribly informed about it, I'd guess that the female PI who has fallen into the role for some fairly conventional reason or another has been replaced by the super hot, super talented and super quirky female leads like Lisbeth Salander.

Tattoos are artifacts that will date a book too, but not for quite some while.

January 17, 2013  
Anonymous Anne - Le French Book said...

This is an interesting discussion. As Seana says, great question but hard to answer. I agree that I've seen enough of the Eastern European sex workers and dead kids, but then again, I'm reminded of that book from the 1920s about the 36 possible dramatic situations. I guess if the story is told well enough, I'm not bothered by the trope. OK, OK, except for the old computer thing. Whenever a writer mentions specific software or an operating system, I just put the book down and never go back. Seriously, that's something that probably was outdated before the book ever hit the presses.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

Floppy disks?!?! Talk about artifact :)

Earlier this week I was in the local used book store because I had some store credit that I was hoping to use on some Jerome Charyn books. They had a couple but not the ones I wanted so I started looking for other books to get. I had a good time noticing the books from the 80's that proclaimed to be on the cutting edge of technology. I don't have any specific examples but I was amused.

I recently re-watched the movie War Games, which is a great artifact. There has been some talk over the years of remaking the movie which I think would be a mistake because the movie, which came out in 1983, is fundamentally about a fear of technology and computers taking over. In 1983 most homes didn't have computers and they were the feared "other". But today computers are so prevalent and well integrated into our daily lives that a remake would fail to nail that fundamental theme of the original movie or it would ring false.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

"Floppy disks"? Really? Does anyone use those things anymore? If I were to mention floppy disks to students in my classes, I think I would see only blank looks on their faces. They would be thinking, "There the old guy goes again, talking about old stuff."

I am, by the way, only beginning to figure out cell-phones. And that reminds me--think about stories like "Dial M for Murder." Who the hell dials anything anymore? Perhaps telephones are also a candidate for over-the-hill content in past fiction.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, what other crime fiction heroines have fit the Salander mold?

Another possible Larsson artifact is crime stories that are bouillabaisse of a thousand kinds of stories: crime, revenge, supernatural, and so on. I got this insight when I read an interview with the female half of the Swedish Lars Kepler writing team, who take the Lars part of their name as an explicit tribute to Larsson.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anne, you touched upon a point that, of course, underlies any such discussion as this: a good writer can write about anything.

And I'm with you on computers and operating systems. Why would anyone make a topic so subject to obsolescence a big part of a book--unless the plot was about, say, a detailed method of subverting that specific system some way, in which case the book would be a kind of high-tech heist novel.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, right. "Flash drives," "floppy disks," and "incriminating ledgers" are interchangeable, so they're incidental artifacts. But, say, a plot that centers on escape from suburban conformity, at least in popular fiction, is less likely to pop up in 1923 or 2013 than in 1963.

Your remarks about "War Games" are, as usual, full of interest. I'd like to read a book that mused on the domestication not just of technology but of phenomena in general once feared, shunned, or regarded with apprehensive fascination.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.,. those students of yours might smile indulgently at a story in which, say, a harried private detective desperately seeks a pay phone to call reinforcements or a source or a colleague.

But, since they'd presumably be familiar with small, easily portable carriers of information, none but the dimmest and least attentive among them would be fazed by a story that hinged on disappearing floppies, letters, or other small, portable evidence.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

The butler can never do it again. The age of servants is long, long gone, and former writers(late 19th and early 20th) who focused on upstairs and downstairs social units probably did not see the death of the motif on their nearby horizons. For example, the characters in _The Moonstone_ are strangely and disturbingly quaint when we encounter them in 2013. So it is also with many of Doyle's stories.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Eureka! Regarding our previous exchange involving "The Wench is Dead," I have discovered where I had encountered Brown's tale: A Century of Great Suspense Stories, edited by Jeffery Deaver (2001), a book that sat prominently on my shelf, and one that I should have immediately remembered. Ah, the terrors of a fading memory. But, ah, the joys of recovery!

January 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The butler can never do it again

Now, there's a fine title.

P.G. Wodehouse comes to mind as a writer who not only saw an era's end coming but bid it nostalgic farewell. Some astute commentator remarked that the Jeeves short stories set in the 1920s really portrayed a world of the 1880s.

And this, in turn, reminds me of Peter Lovesey's Bertie and the Seven Bodies, a crime novel written in our time in the style of a British crime story of the 1920s and set in the late Victorian age that nonetheless manages to poke sly fun at the era of its setting. It is a virtuoso performance all around.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

For purposes of this discussion, Lovesey proves that one can, in fact, resurrect motifs and artifacts in crime fiction. But it takes an exceedingly deft hand to make such a story work simultaneously as tribute, parody, and on its own terms, as an enjoyable crime story.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I could title a future post "The Short Wench in the Deaver Book."

January 17, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

As for the Salander types, there are any number of examples, mostly played by Angelina Jolie. But there was alreayd La Femme Nikita, and the female lead on Burn Notice who may not be autistic or have tattoos but has the even less enviable role of having to be a glamorous fashion plate while being being just as able as the hero. The Ginger Rogers saying in relation to Fred Astaire about the same in high heels applies today to spy stories and other adventure tales.

It's weird to say this, but I think the female protagonists written by Grafton, Paretsky, et all were a different breed than those written by Steig Larsson and today's film people. Salander is really a male fantasy of women, which women buy into because it reflects favorably upon them--they're portrayed as strong and competent, but I think isn't coming from any actual woman's idea of herself.

January 17, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

et al...

January 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should watch Burn Notice again. I enjoyed the pilot episode, but our paths have not crossed since.

Your remark about Lisbeth Salander being a male fantasy of women may play into the post I plan to put up shortly. I may be engaging in sentimental blather about a more innocent time, but one could argue that those hard-boiled writers who offered over-the-top physical descriptions of women never pretended to be offering anything but male fantasies. The same, to say it gently, could not be said of Stieg Larsson, for all his obtrusive larding of at least one of his books with portentous statistics about violence against women.

January 18, 2013  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I remembered this post when reading the posthumously-published The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain. Begun in 1975, it was reconstructed and published last year. One of the subplots concerns a woman's anxiety over a possible (unwanted) pregnancy. So anxious that she cuts short her honeymoon in London to return to the US in order to get tests done and then, if necessary visit an "abortionist." As Roe vs. Wade became law in 1973, I'm not sure why she was so anxious. Perhaps this subplot predates 1973...? At any rate, unwanted pregnancy and the visit to a shadowy doctor to terminate it is an artifact of its time.

I know I've read other period crime fiction in which unwanted pregnancies/abortions were part of the plot but I can't think of their titles off hand.

I also bring this topic up because, sexist me, I don't imagine many male readers would have put this near the top of their artifacts list...

Last night, while watching that motion picture epic, Nancy Drew, Reporter, I thought of you, Mr. Copy Editor. Along with several other high schoolers, Nancy is thrilled to have won a contest providing the opportunity to work on an honest-to-goodness newspaper. But the City Editor, the typical glum, pessimistic type found in most 1930s films, says something like: "Why anyone would want to work for a newspaper is something I'll never find out." And this was in the Thirties!

February 05, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The abortionist is a great old crime fiction artifact, especially if he was disgraced and struck from the rolls so had to scratch together a living performing medical procedures without asking too many quesions. Such a character strikes me as bizarre in a book begun in 1975. I wonder when the book was set.

I would bet that such a crusty city editor as you mention would pull together and prove his mettle when the chips were down.

February 05, 2013  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I wonder when the book was set

I wondered that myself, a few times, but the cocktail waitress's costume that included "hot pants" puts it squarely in the 1970s.

Hey! Didn't the Giorgio Scerbanenco first novel published in English, Duca and the Milan Murders include a subplot about Duca being unwilling to perform an abortion? The thinking on the part of the person(s) wanting it was that he had been struck from the rolls for performing euthanasia so what the heck's the difference with an abortion. I checked and see that first-trimester abortion was legalized in Italy in 1978. And what was the name of that Andrea Camilleri Montalbano novel in which the sister helps her struck-from-the-lists doctor brother perform an abortion on his lover?

Oh, sure, the City Editor was just a gruff, old bowl of mush and was thrilled when Nancy, natch, solved the murder!

February 05, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Duca has been struck off for euthanasia. I'm not sure about his unwillingness to perform an abortion. Is the Camilleri novel Paper Moon? A city editor is likely to have been a former reporter, with all that implies about his or awareness of what's what in the newsroom.

February 05, 2013  
Anonymous kevin mccarthy said...

1)too many bloody fiendishly clever sex murderers. i've worked w/several such (in my day job) over the years and they are far from any kind of clever, full stop. just can't buy it anymore. 2) the alcoholic, widower cop's kid in peril--jesus, lads, just hire a nanny get your mom to mind the kid...oh, the nanny is a secret junkie and your mom is missing for 20 yrs in an unsolved cold case? doh! 3)missing, murdered kids--can't think of a way to generate sympathy for your fictional victim? make him/her a kid. (i've just done this myself in my latest novel and am finding it hard to sleep at night...or was it the pizza after gallons of guiness? hmmm...)

what's missing from modern crime fiction and a relic from 60's/70's crime fic is the heist novel. when was the last great heist novel anyone's read a la Parker novels, or any by Izzi or old Leonard?

February 07, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Three points there, as good as a beautiful goal by Henry Shifflin. At least in America, popular culture is so saturated by fear for children that we probably regard novels that take up the subject as inevitable.

Duane Swierczynski's earlyish novel The Wheelman shows a Starkish flair for writing about planing a caper.

February 07, 2013  

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