Adrian McKinty recently asked “Why are most crime novels bad?” and came to the conclusion that they were mostly long-running series that have run out of steam. Personally I think he has a point – the truly successful and consistent long-running series is a rare beast indeed. Of course McKinty wasn’t necessarily talking about the long-running series that crime fans hold dear – the Dortmunders, the Parkers, the Scudders and the Hap and Leonards. Those series haven’t troubled the bestseller lists in years. No, you take a peek at the NYT fifteen, and you’re talking about the ongoing Author Industries of Patterson, Clancy and Evanovich. But none of those authors could be considered crime writers. Indeed, there isn’t one of them who could lay a straight-faced claim to writing their own books anymore, satisfied instead in the role of “idea originator”.
Most popular crime novels are bad not because they’re part of a series, but because they’re not crime novels. For the last fifteen years or so – I take 1997 as an off-the-cuff starting point, seeing as that was the year of both Patterson’s Kiss The Girls and Child’s Killing Floor – the crime novel has been assimilated into the thriller, and the thriller has gone from the pared-down wit and excitement of Ambler and Thomas and become the simpleminded macho nonsense of, well, Patterson and Child. There are notable exceptions, of course – McKinty is a fine thriller writer, and you’d be nuts to miss anything to come out of Duane Swierczynski’s brain – but they are just that, exceptions, and haven’t broken in a big enough way to inspire the glut of knock-offs. And so we have an abundance of overwritten, bloated novels featuring a blank-slate avatar instead of a human protagonist and a plot that reads like a series of incidents rather than a cohesive narrative.
And yet, these books have a considerable audience. Next time you’re of a mind, check out the NYT combined bestseller list for Fiction. I guarantee out of the 15 books there, at least half of them will be the usual thriller names – Patterson, Clancy, Larsson – with perhaps a Connelly or an Evanovich thrown in amongst the original novels of movie hits and the odd anomaly. And these novels have a considerable audience because they aspire to nothing more than a way to fill the time. A lot of them are the overwritten, bloated novels I mentioned before, but where these traits might be anathema to the discerning reader, they’re a bonus to everyone else. Overwritten means that plot points are hammered home through repetition in both action and dialogue (the old show and tell), and so reader who aren’t willing (or perhaps able, thanks to the demands of Real Life) to concentrate on a book for any length of time can still follow the story. As for bloated, well, there’s a reason why publishers go to great lengths to bump up that page count – more pages equals more book, which somehow equates in the consumer’s mind with value for money.
You may argue that these novels are badly written, and you’d be absolutely correct. But your bestseller reader doesn’t give a crowning shit about the quality of writing as long as it’s legible and they can follow the story. Truly great writing is more of an aesthetic bonus than a narrative one, and bestsellers don’t concern themselves with aesthetics – they are, like their Hollywood cousins, concerned only with delivering a non-threatening narrative in easily digestible chunks. And to a reader who reads solely for entertainment, who’s perfectly happy buying what he’s been told to buy and who likes the warm, fuzzing feeling of camaraderie he gets by reading what everyone else is reading, that’s absolutely fine.
We don’t like to think like that, though. As genre aficionados, we like to champion novels that we feel represent the genre at its best and most innovative. And so it’s easy to forget that a vast majority of readers couldn’t give a flying fuck at a rolling Polo mint about the genre, about its history or its future, and will continue to enjoy the “same, but different” novels they always have. And so most popular crime novels are bad because their authors and publishers are geared towards bestsellerdom and therefore mimic the authors who can pull that off. And so those returns, my friends, they diminish until that particular genre implodes and something else – children’s novels featuring plucky boy wizards, sexual abstinence in the face of sparkly vampires, and sub-standard takes on Battle Royale, for example – becomes huge.
And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s been this way since forever, and it shows no sign of stopping now that digital publishing has “democratised” the process – compare the number of self-pubbers producing work of quality to those who have used the platform to launch their own (sometimes extremely successful) knock-offs of Clancy, Cornwell, Ludlum and Patterson. Readers want what readers want, and there’s no sense force-feeding caviar to pigs. The fact is that most discerning readers already have TBR piles that would dwarf Ayers Rock, and those who care about the genre still actively recommend those novels that they think have a lasting spark. Every now and then, the tastes will match, or a movie adaptation will be a success, and you’ll see an author break into the mainstream, even if it only for an instant. But for the most part, genre fans will talk to other genre fans, and writers will continue to not make a living.
We are not, after all, the only game in town, us hardboiled/noir/social fiction/whatever the fuck we’re calling ourselves this week. In fact, as games go, ours is a penny-ante craps game in a roadhouse back room compared to the neon blaze, slot-till-you-drop, big-money Las Vegas wonderland of mainstream crime and thriller fiction. It may be fat and gaudy and bad for you, but it’s always going to be more popular, and the sooner we accept that, the better. Because once we accept that and quit bemoaning the “state of the genre”, the more time we’ll have for making it good.
And that, friend-o, is as good a vocation as any.