Times are tough, but crime still pays

Crime fiction, better than any other genre, can reflect the psychological devastation of the recession, says Alexandra Heminsley

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The Independent Culture

The recent announcement of the longlist for the Man Booker Prize saw big novelists out and new writers and independent publishers in – although fiction about the Tudors is still popular and Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies is the bookies' favourite to win.

But in an age dominated by the twin terrors of financial austerity and property obsession, it seems that our literary fiction is not doing as good a job of reflecting the age as our crime fiction. While there is no shortage of tales of financial skulduggery, regretful bankers, or middle-class families telling dreadful lies to keep up appearances, nothing quite sums up the insidious inescapability of the recession like crime fiction.

Ian Rankin has been exploring this territory for some time, and his now iconic Rebus series provides a better biography of modern Edinburgh over the past 25 years than almost anything else. Standing in Another Man's Grave (Orion, £18.99) will see Rebus return after five years of retirement, this November. In more recent years, Peter James's DS Roy Grace series has pulled off a similar trick in modern Brighton. These two writers have charted their cities' fortunes through various governments. But it is this year's batch of crime novels that has captured the full bite of the recession the best.

Tuesday's Gone (Michael Joseph, £12.99) the second in Nicci French's Frieda Klein series, opens on a decomposing body in a council flat in Deptford. No one knows who the deceased is or how he came to die there. Klein, a singular heroine with a penchant for doing her thinking while walking across London, affords us an up-to-the-minute view of some of the city's forgotten corners. Small alleyways in Deptford, an area paralysed between recession and regeneration; the water quietly lapping against boats along the canal. As the intricacies of the case emerge, so does a hypnotic picture of London today.

Tana French's fourth thriller Broken Harbour (Hodder, £12.99) is similarly atmospheric. A father and his two children are found murdered in their home, while the children's mother is in intensive care. Their home is in Broken Harbour, a ghost estate outside of Dublin. Conceived as a lavish development, the estate is half finished and half inhabited. When the developers ran out of funds, the shops and facilities failed to materialise – and so did many of the houses.

As detectives arrive – no thanks to their perplexed and uncooperative satnavs – it looks as if the estate will provide a neat backdrop for a simple thriller. But the case proves significantly more complicated and a picture of life on the isolated estate begins to become clear. After what had seemed to be a dream come true turned into an isolating and disorientating nightmare, the family seems to have become detached from reality. Detectives discover a house wired to the hilt with baby monitors and video recorders, with strange traps set in the attic and an erratic history of internet use on the laptops. Has the family been attacked by animals running wild near the sea? Are they being monitored by local drug dealers? Or has something altogether weirder devastated the family?

Creepy, compelling and uncomfortably believable, this is not just a story about solving a crime, but about the destruction of a generation's hopes and dreams. "I didn't consciously go into this book planning to comment on the recession", explains Tana French. "But if you're writing a psychological mystery novel, then something that's left so many people so psychologically devastated all around you is probably going to seep in."

It's this organic process that has resulted in recent crime novels doing such a great job of describing our modern financial landscape. Instead of writing about the recession, the best thriller writers have simply let it seep into their fiction, and then had fun with the results. As French elaborates: "If you live in Ireland, it's in the air. Financially and socially, it's a part of everyone's life, and a lot of people have been traumatised. People who believed the politicians and property developers and bankers who told them that the bubble would never burst. They tried their utmost to do the right thing, to play by the rules – and then the rules let them down. So it's not just their lifestyles that are devastated, it's their whole sense of how the world works; of cause and effect and control. And most of them are my generation, the thirty-somethings."

One of the best US literary thriller writers to emerge in recent years has also tackled the psychological state of a recession-ravaged town. Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (Weidenfeld, £12.99) sees New York couple Nick and Amy Dunne move to Nick's home town in Missouri, after their Brooklyn dream has turned sour. The small town, once proud of its gleaming mall, has lost its identity since the mall's closure and is slowly turning in on itself. The abandoned mall becomes a feral mini-city filled with addicts, dealers and many of the others cast aside by the economic downturn. When Amy goes missing and Nick finds himself under the police's gaze, the town almost self-combusts in a frenzy of gossip. Questions about identity and what happens when life's securities are removed are once again the driving force of a truly great novel.

Rankin has long been on record as believing that crime novels should be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. "Dealing with the real world is what the best crime fiction does," he has said, while "there's an awful lot of literary fiction out there that talks about having affairs in NW3". His dream may not be here yet, but if this year's crop is an indication of things to come, it may be drawing ever closer.

Broken Harbour, By Tana French

(Hodder, £12.99)

"The satnav was getting out of its depth: it dead-ended us down Ocean View Drive ... and informed us, 'You have reached your destination.' .... As we got deeper into the estate, the houses got sketchier .... Pretty soon they were random collections of walls and scaffolding, with the odd gaping hole for a window; where the house-fronts were missing the rooms were littered with broken ladders, lengths of pipe .... No one lived here."