Literary Notes: A whodunit is born every 13 hours

IF THE end of the Cold War all but killed off the spy novel, what are we to make of the continuing success of the detective story? Not only is it abundant in bookshops and libraries and on best-seller lists, but television drama would be bereft without its Morses, Wexfords, Frosts, Wycliffes and Cadfaels - all derived from novels.

In fact, on the surface the crime-writing industry is booming. The author and commentator Mike Ripley has calculated that a new crime novel will be published in the UK every 13 hours during the first quarter of this year, and that well over 500 new titles will have appeared by the time Hogmanay comes round. Of these, roughly 40 per cent will be by American authors such as Grisham and Cornwell, but that still leaves room for a flourishing British crime industry. What's more, of last year's hundred top paperback best-sellers - fiction and non-fiction combined - over 40 could be classified as crime or thriller.

These days one assumes that the whodunit genre died out with the likes of Christie, Sayers and Allingham. But in fact young writers are being attracted to the form because of their love of the hard-boiled American mentality: Elmore Leonard's dialogue; James Ellroy's characters. They may never have read a traditional whodunit, but they could major in the screenplays of Quentin Tarantino.

Circumstance and society are often their motivating force. So long as drug-taking remains an illegal activity, those who write about a community of drug-takers will feel bound to have crime on their minds. But crime writers are also finding that the form gives them certain freedoms. In writing about crime, we are writing about the social order at the end of our century. Being "entertainments" does not mean whodunnits cannot carry serious messages, too; it just means they find a good-sized audience for that message.

This "second Golden Age" of crime fiction can be measured not only by the amount of print available or the prevalence of detectives on our screens. For a long time, London boasted only one specialist shop selling whodunits. Today there are three. New crime magazines and fanzines are springing up, too, and the UK can now boast its own annual crime fiction convention, "Dead on Deansgate".

The whodunit was first pronounced dead sometime around 1938, yet has always been capable of reinvention and regeneration. Each new generation of writers brings with it a new readership, though why those readers are attracted to the form is another question entirely. We live in a society which is becoming ever less crime- ridden (if the statistics are to be believed). Were there to be a correlation with the spy story, then the crime novel should currently be in decline, unless it's true that, despite the figures, our actual fear of crime is greater than ever. It all depends on why readers open a Rendell or the latest Minette Walters. Primarily, as was ever the case, they do so for a good story, something gripping and involving and pacy. There's also the vicarious thrill of pain and panic which they can feel without having to experience at first hand.

Over the past 40 years or so, the move in the British crime novel has been away from Marpleland and towards a more realistic portrayal of crime and its consequences. Often this has meant using police detectives as heroes rather than the amateur of old, an assertion any week's television scheduling will corroborate. But Britain's "new wave" writers feel constrained by this, and many have begun writing from the criminal's perspective, or from the point of view of a new breed of private eye. Quite a few even choose to set their books in the United States - either in homage to writers they admire, or because they have one eye on an American sales market. Or maybe just to show that they can.

Ian Rankin is the author of `Dead Souls' (Orion, pounds 9.99)

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