A week ago Bryon Quertermous asked a question on his blog about why the crime fiction story market seems lackluster compared to other genres, specifically, sci-fi, fantasy and horror. The ensuing discussion on his blog didn't really answer the question, but it did raise another one, which I was already pondering: Is crime fiction an old people's game?
What we generally think of as crime fiction started in the first half of the 20th Century. You can trace the genre back to Poe, sure, but most people would classify Poe as a horror writer. Even "Murders in the Rue Morgue" could be called a horror story. Sure, it featured a detective trying to solve a crime, but the killer was an orangutan with a straight razor. An orangutan with a razor is scary, but he's not exactly Professor Moriarty is he? In the 20's and 30's you had locked room mysteries and Agatha Christie, who topped Poe for half-assed endings and implausible scenarios with Murder on the Orient Express, where everyone on the train was guilty. It makes a homicidal orangutan seem plausible.
At roughly the same time as Agatha Christie and her contemporaries were writing about well heeled detectives and murderers Dashiell Hammett was, as Raymond Chandler put it, [giving] murder back to the alley, and the kind of people who do it for a reason." One only needs to read Red Harvest to know that Hammett's early efforts were not necessarily any more believable than Christie. Unlike Christie, however, Hammett's work changed over time, and he eventually wrote some believable stories.
And there you have it. The two schools of crime fiction: Cozies and Hard boiled. Not much has changed in crime fiction since the 1930s. As such, it's not hard to see why crime fiction fans may tend to skew old. My recent experiences tend to bear this out. Over Labor Day I went to the Decatur Book Festival where I attended a panel with three mystery writers. I'm 30, and I was, by far, the youngest person in the room. The next day I stopped by Dragon Con, a huge science fiction and fantasy convention, where I attended a panel on podcasting. The room was packed with young people, and Scott Sigler, an author/podcaster, was greeted like a rock star. So was the founder of Podiobooks.com, who wasn't even on the panel. He was just in the audience, but when someone pointed him out, the crowd burst into applause.
Why the young, enthusiastic crowd at the panel composed mostly of science fiction podcasters and the sedate, older crowd at the crime fiction panel? The answer, I think, is that science fiction has to reinvent itself every few years. The genre is based largely on technological developments, and, must stay fresh. Now that we've sent probes to Mars, little green men aren't really plausible anymore. Hell, with the advent of human/animal embryos, The Island of Dr. Moreau no longer seems all that far fetched. My point is that young people can see their world reflected in science fiction. With crime fiction, authors are still working largely off templates drawn up before the Second World War. The genre deals with actions and motives that are as old as Cain and Abel. Not a lot has changed since then. One thing that Seth Harwood said when I interviewed him him really stuck with me: "When kids stop reading Harry Potter they have to read something else. Hopefully we can get them to read crime fiction." To me, that seems like an optimistic statement. I'm not sure crime fiction is in a position to do that at the moment. Sure, it appealed to me when I was in high school, but I'm fully prepared to admit that my tastes aren't exactly mainstream. If I really like something that's a good indication it will never sell ten million copies. So, how do you make crime fiction appeal to younger readers? The answer is simple: Make it reflect the world around them. How, exactly do you do that without resorting to gimmicks or obscuring the essential truths crime fiction touches on? I wish I knew.
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