If In Doubt, Stick to the Classics?

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Over the last few years, you might have noticed something about crime novels: they’re all getting more and more samey. 

This convergence is no mistake. As the world of kindle has evolved, the style required has become quite prescriptivist both in terms of presentation as well as content. 

Take a look at the bestseller list. Now compare the beautiful, timeless elegance of an older Agatha Christie cover with the slick presentation of the newest Harlan Coben. Where the bestseller lists used to be filled with timeless, classically elegant serif fonts, you’ll now see mostly bold, modern sans-serif fonts. Part of this is down to legibility – we all shop online, and screen real estate is much smaller than in a traditional bookstore after all – and part of it is down to taste. 

Publishers have been forced to try and signal a lot with a cover. They want readers to intuitively know what a book is about, and thus whether they want to read it. Familiarity is a comfort blanket, and we know we that we like those things we like. If you’re a fan of an author, chances are you’ll go and buy every book they’ve ever written. 

It’s the same at the movies too. This year is the year of sequel and remakes. From new versions of Disney classics (The Lion King, Aladdin, Dumbo) to sequels of classic cartoons (Spider Man Far From Home, Avengers: Endgame), what we’re seeing in the world of entertainment is a spectacular failure of imagination. These are all no doubt great stories which will be beautifully told and presented, but do we really need to see them all over again? 

Every hit spawns imitations. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo kicked off a litany of “The Girl…” titles including many bestsellers (The Girl on the Train, The Girl with All the Gifts, The Girl in the Letter, etc).

Going back to crime fiction, the big trend now is for the detective to become personally embroiled in the case. The Puppet Show sees the brilliant Washington Poe investigate a serial murderer who may have picked him as the next intended victim.

Seems a bit far-fetched doesn’t it? Over and over again we see detached, professional detectives getting irrationally and personally involved with the crimes being committee around them. Sometimes this is a detective being taunted by a hyper-intelligent killer. Sometimes the killer is known to them. More plausibly, the killer sometimes targets them during the course of the investigation. 

What happened to the age of innovation? The late Dame Agatha Christie’s novels don’t seem so innovative these days. This isn’t a lack of imagination or talent on her part, but simply that authors have collectively knocked off her ideas so many times that they now seem almost trite. 

Many of the classics hold up brilliantly. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has been given new life by the television show. Agatha Christie has likewise been a perennial television favourite. These stories stand the test of time because they’re so fundamental to the human condition. They pique our curiosity, entice us with vivid descriptions of places near and far, but most importantly they touch on themes of love, hate, fear and anger. All of these drivers as just as strong today as they were a hundred years ago. 

Crime is evergreen not because of the puzzles, but because readers want to explore the darker side of life in a safe way. Violence and crime in real life are repulsive, ugly, and wrong. In crime, the victim is fictitious, and justice is (almost) always restored. Life goes wrong, and the greatest detectives risk everything – their careers, their families, and their lives – to bring back law and order. 

So whether you want a cozy mystery, a more contemporary bloody forensic thriller filled with shock and gore, or a legal drama to get your cogs turning, you can’t go too wrong with a classic. 

Sean Campbell is the author of the internationally bestselling DCI Morton series of crime novels. To find out more about his Killer Fiction, head on over to DCIMorton.com 

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