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)

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'