Once upon a time, back in the days of Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and Colin Dexter, reading crime fiction was fun, relaxing even. Matching your grey cells with Poirot’s, figuring out which upper class cad actually shot the body in the library, puzzling over a complicated alibi—it was all part of the satisfying ritual of a detective novel, to be savoured slowly on a leisurely Sunday.
Modern crime fiction—it’s more like torture porn. The classic detective story, with its normal motives for crime—love, lust, lucre and loathing—doesn’t seem to cut ice anymore. Today’s villain is more likely to be a psychopath who kills because (a) he hates his mother (b) Jesus told him to, or (c) he’s a lonely nerd who can’t get a woman to notice him unless he is dismembering her. Poetry-loving gentlemen detectives like Adam Dalgliesh, E Morse and Rex Wexford have been replaced by alcoholic, misanthropic, nearly psychopathic sleuths such as Kurt Wallander and Lisbeth Salander.
Granted, the fluffy cosies of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers are outdated in these grim times, but the pendulum seems to have swung far in the opposite direction. It’s not enough for women to be merely stabbed or raped; readers seem to be utterly desensitised to women being skinned (Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, albeit published in the 1980s), gagged with sanitary napkins (Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), their eyes gouged out (Patricia Cornwell’s Book of the Dead), decapitated and rearranged to resemble snowmen (hot new Norwegian author Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman), or having snakes or birds stuffed up their private parts (James Patterson’s Kiss the Girls and Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Nesbo’s new book, The Leopard, probably his most violent yet, has women drowning in their own blood from stab wounds in their mouths.
“Television has changed the whole perception of crime fiction,” says doctor and writer Kalpana Swaminathan, author of the Lalli series of thrillers. “After The Silence of the Lambs, CSI and other crime programmes on TV, things were never the same again. You can’t have a normal corpse anymore; it has to be gruesome and gory, bubbling like the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth.”
“Real-life violence has become so much more perverse,” says Swedish crime writer Zac O ‘Yeah, who lives in Bangalore. “Earlier, people used to hit each other with fists. Now they shoot each other or hack each other up with machetes. Writers can’t stay in some old-fashioned cozy mystery cocoon world, and those who write the more violent stuff probably feel they need to grapple with the changed realities.”
Still, O’Yeah thinks readers actually have more options these days. “Detective fiction has been diversifying a lot over the last 50-60 years. Big international writers like Alexander McCall Smith and Tarquin Hall both write very popular detective novels where nobody is sliced up by a psychopath and there is minimum violence. I myself write humorous—if a bit darkish—detective novels. There’s some really good, skilful crime fiction by Umberto Eco, Amitav Ghosh and Julian Barnes, and then others that are not to be taken so seriously, like the Metro Reads. The reader has a lot more choice, as compared to when British cosy mystery ruled the world of detective fiction.”
And the reasons that readers love the new, grittier crime novels? “What I enjoy about writers like Mankell is that they set their books in a very real landscape,” says journalist Sonya Dutta Chowdhury, a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction. “You can actually feel the cold, the darkness and the solitude of the Swedish landscape. Wallander waking up and dragging himself bleary-eyed to the Ystaad police station has a more real feel to it than Miss Marple chatting in St Mary’s Mead. They are edgier, racier.”
But why so serious? “The Swedes are a people who appear to be drawn towards misery—it is part of their lifeblood—so it isn’t that the authors have created a particularly sad type of misanthropic detective, it is a reflection of the national character,” says O’Yeah. “You have to consider that it is a country where it is dark, cold and rainy half the year, where people were given a welfare state in the mid-20th century and managed to turn it into a disaster within a few decades by insisting on a weird collective pursuit of unhappiness. There’s too much drink, too much junk food, low interest in culture, and probably more than 50 per cent of Swedish marriages end in divorce within a few years. And if there are more depressive detectives around, maybe it reflects some kind of global mental depression.”
Maybe, but it’s become more and more obvious that violence sells, especially violence against women and children. In 2009, crime writer and reviewer Jessica Mann wrote in The Guardian that she refused to review misogynist crime fiction anymore since each psychopath in every new book was more sadistic than the last. Writer Ian Rankin also pointed out that some of the most disturbing books, albeit now with male victims, were written by women authors like Val McDermid, Karin Slaughter and Tess Gerritsen. McDermid, in an interview, admitted to bowing to market forces, saying, “There has been a general desensitisation among readers, who are upping the ante by demanding ever more sensationalist plotlines.”
So what does this say about readers? Says Dutta Chowdhury, “It sounds bloodthirsty to say ‘I want violence’, but there’s immediacy, and a sense of palpable menace in the current books that make them more thrilling. Besides, a lot of violence in the world is against women and these books reflect that.” O’Yeah believes it’s a form of political correctness, warped though it may be. “There used to be a taboo in fiction, up to the 1950s or 1960s, where women were supposedly not involved in violent things, whether as perpetrators or victims. Nowadays, as there is gender equality in every branch of life, you suddenly have women fighting with men in karate and Tarantino movies,” he argues.
What this amounts to are pages detailing torture and death, when earlier writers were dark, even noir, without graphic mutilation scenes. Take Patricia Highsmith, who managed to write about the most amoral villains, notably Thomas Ripley, without gory descriptions of his murders. How much more effective—and more chilling—to hint at horror rather than painfully probe it!
In all this blood, mayhem and Interpol intrigue, the days of the subtle joys of classic detective fiction, the slow and soulful dance towards the satisfying denouement when the criminal is brought to book, seem distant. “Detective fiction is an exercise in the human need for justice,” agrees Swaminathan, “I think the Swedes are depriving us of it. It used to be something that you could curl up with; it used to be fun. Now so much crime fiction is an advanced class in misery.”