• Mary Evans
  • Sarah Moore
  • Hazel Johnstone


Everyone has a favourite writer of detective fiction. Careful readers (indeed those who have already acquired skills in detection) will have noticed that we are already speaking of detective, rather than crime fiction. The term is often used inter-changeably but here the term will be that of detective fiction. The reasons for this are twofold: first that crime does not necessarily involve the death of individual human beings

Who, Why and How

Collecting material for a book about detective fiction is a project somewhat akin to counting the grains of sand on a beach. This genre of fiction is so extensive and so widely read that anyone who has ever ventured to speak or write about it has always been instantly reminded that they have excluded and overlooked yet another author. Everyone has a favourite writer of detective fiction. Careful readers (indeed those who have already acquired skills in detection) will have noticed that we are already speaking of detective, rather than crime fiction. The term is often used inter-changeably but here the term will be that of detective fiction. The reasons for this are twofold: first that crime does not necessarily involve the death of individual human beings. Indeed, what might be defined as crime in the early decades of the twenty-first century is often entirely conducted at a distance from any form of human inter-action: cyber-crime, identity theft, criminal forms of the exchange and transfer of money can all be conducted from any location and directed towards untold others. The human consequences of this form of crime are often dramatic: pensioners, for example, might—and indeed sometimes do—lose their hopes of financial support and security in old age, but they are not literally killed. To many people this might suggest a somewhat artificial or meaningless distinction, but this study will maintain the consistent tradition of detective fiction which has always involved the actual loss of human life, through a determined human action. This does not mean that the guilty have always been either apprehended or punished; detection is, as De Quincey pointed out at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a very fine art but not always one with entirely predictable outcomes. 1

The second reason for maintaining the term detective, rather than crime, fiction is that in using this term we make explicit that process of detecting which we regard as central to this study. As one of the characters says in Anthony Horowitz’s The Word is Murder :

They’re not called murder victim stories. They’re not called Criminal stories. They’re called detective stories. 2

How to detect, what to look for, what to regard as reliable or unreliable evidence are all part not just of detection in fiction but of every form of research, be it in the social sciences, the humanities or the natural sciences. We cannot find out anything that we need to know unless we have some certainty about how we will proceed. And what detective fiction has done, from its very earliest years is to offer some diverse possibilities about how to find out what is going on in the world. Detective fiction, certainly at its best, encourages us to think and more particularly to think about what is going on in the world around us. Again, at its best, it asks us to pose questions about why individuals are behaving in the way that they do and to engage in the work of moral arbitration rather than moral judgement. Perhaps most of all it does not ask us to judge others, often a conventional expectation of much mainstream fiction. Read the notes for reading groups provided at the back of many of novels and readers will find questions to ask about what s/he ‘should’ have done. The long arm of the literary critic F. R. Leavis continues to stretch across swathes of fiction; surrounding readers (and writers) with the endless expectation of the acceptance of moral certainty. Detectives, be they Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Jane Marple or their later incarnations in the form of Lisbeth Salander and Harry Hole, do not, however, accept the world as it is put before them. Nor, and this is very much part of the appeal of detective fiction, do they accept the given social order as a source of moral virtue and behaviour. It is not that this form of often quiet and overlooked radicalism is an attribute only of detective fiction—some canonical British fiction shares aspects of this characteristic—but it is a rejection of the normative acceptance that many societies expect of their citizens. Not the least of this expectation is what can be described as the ‘aspirational coercion’ that has accompanied the normalisation of neo-liberalism: the idea that we all have the same social ‘wants’ and are prepared, and expected, to work in highly individualised ways to secure these ends. So, dissent, marginality and often explicit disagreement are often part and parcel of the make-up of the very best detectives. Holmes and his later colleagues do not naturally accept authority or the given normative order; they may live what can be labelled as conventional lives, but these chosen ways of individual life should not be assumed to indicate a wholesale acceptance of the boundaries and judgments of the given social order.

We are therefore proposing here, first, that detective fiction has a complex and important relationship to both the social and the epistemological order of contemporary western societies. Second, we shall argue that the appeal and the importance of detective fiction (and the reason for its considerable popularity) is that it is concerned with the life, and the problems of that life, that people living in the west encounter, either as fact or in terms of worries, concerns and fantasies about that world. These sentences make explicit the geographical and historical location of the literature that we have chosen to investigate; the detective fiction of Europe in the period after 1970. In this period, much of Europe has experienced considerable legal and social change; sometimes widely welcomed but increasingly—in the second decade of the twenty-first century—leading to politics that have revived supposedly extinct forms of nationalism. The citizens of this new Europe read more detective fiction than other form of fiction. Anyone who reads detective fiction will be aware that detective fiction is now not only the most widely read genre of literature on the planet but is also a global form, written by citizens of diverse countries and cultures and situated within similarly widely different contexts, both chronological and geographical. Detection and detectives have been situated, for example, in fourteenth century England, Nazi Germany, pre-revolutionary Russia and most decades of the twentieth century. Amongst these books are those which—for example the novels of Boris Akunin set in late nineteenth century Moscow—illuminate much about those societies. Thus, Akunin paints a picture of pre-revolutionary Moscow as a sophisticated city with a functioning and competent bureaucracy. 3 Detectives have also come in a range of genders and races, with many (albeit largely white) women becoming iconic figures in the genre. To a certain extent the entry of considerable numbers of women into detection in the second half of the twentieth century has been much encouraged by the opening of employment for women in the police forces of various countries in the second half of the twentieth century. But before this, the tradition of the amateur detective had allowed the iconic figure of Miss Jane Marple to emerge in the works of Agatha Christie. This apparently quiet and conservative figure interrupted (and continues to interrupt) all expectations of that heavily defended persona, in both emotional and literal terms, of the male detective. Nor was she alone. At the same time as Christie was letting loose the quietly subversive intelligence of Miss Jane Marple her contemporary Gladys Mitchell was demonstrating, through her central figure Mrs Bradley, the possibilities of psychoanalysis in understanding those aspects of human action and motivation which resulted in murder; a very different account of the motives for murder which led Mitchell to write parodies of Christie. 4 Detective fiction, in the hands of these women, was not about maintaining the political and intellectual orthodoxies of the first decades of the twentieth century. In the latter decades of the twentieth century various ‘girls with guns’ took their places in detective fiction but even these figures, the creations of, for example, Sue Grafton and Sarah Paretsky, owed a considerable amount to Miss Marple and other women writers of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of British detective fiction. Grafton and Paretsky are both writing about the United States but what they contribute to is an aspect of ‘Golden Age’ fiction—that of the amateur female detective—which has been less present in the latter years of the twentieth century in the UK and Europe. 5 Yet the legacy of the ‘Golden Age’ is to be found in the validation of intuition, the ‘reading’ of body language and the refusal to accept with unquestioning obedience the words of powerful men.

Thus, the gender of detective fiction has shown itself to be, certainly in the twentieth century, an open space for both male and female writers and male and female protagonists. But two things have changed very little. The first is that the race of the detective, and certainly in the detective fiction of Europe since 1970 which is considered here, has changed little over the decades. It remains the case that the great majority of detectives, of whatever gender, are white. What we might make of this is an issue to be explored later in this book; here it is sufficient to comment that this singularity of racial identity in detection encourages us to recognise that to a very significant extent western societies are not just ruled by white men but are also policed by them. The idea that detection might cross racial lines—that the socially rather than the individually marginal person might investigate the powerful—still remains to be explored in detective fiction. The second aspect of the identity of the detective that has remained stable is that of their sexual identity; largely, although not exclusively heterosexual. What has changed, and certainly since the days of Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Marple, is the form of sexual relationships in which detectives are involved: heterosexual monogamy is no longer an assumed basis for sexual relations. The aspiration persists amongst some contemporary characters, the realisation is rather more infrequent.

These changes, and lack of changes, demonstrate the way in which detective fiction has implicitly recorded much of the reality of both social change and its absence in Europe in the past fifty years. In terms of significant change, the 1970s, across Europe, were years in which much of that continent tore up its legal framework about the intimate lives of its citizens. It was not that the final decades of the twentieth century invented new forms of sexuality but what did emerge was a new public discussion of human diversity. On matters of divorce, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, reproductive rights, the legal autonomy of women and laws about the organisation of marriage, nation states changed the legal framework of the personal lives of their citizens. All of these changes are reflected in detective fiction. But what did not change, and thus the emphasis above of the race and the sexuality of detectives, was what can be described as the ‘hidden’ face of power in most European societies. Across these countries, despite the new liberality and apparent inclusiveness of statute, white, heterosexual men dominated positions of power. Those in these positions of power enacted policies which often supported policies about crime and punishment which continued to impinge more severely on those of marginalised communities. Thus, for example, the changes in laws about discrimination on matters of race in the UK have occurred at the same time as rates of imprisonment for young black men are significantly higher than those of their white compatriots. In the United States, policies about the punishment of crime (specifically those related to drug offences) have resulted in what is being widely described as the incarceration of the young black, male, population. 6 What this example suggests is one of the forms of social fracture within the twenty-first century: societies with various forms of liberal legislation in which elites drawn from traditional contexts of class, gender and race variously continue to operate and implicitly endorse conventional stereotypes.

The recognition of this persistence of various forms of social inequality—across those three foundational social variables of class, race and gender—runs through detective fiction in the years after 1970. It is not, however, the case that this volume includes detective fiction from all parts of Europe although the genre is widely read throughout the area. The concentration here is on those Nordic countries and the United Kingdom where ‘noir’ as a form of detective fiction has become most apparent. This is not, we shall argue, a matter of distinct literary traditions but because of the particular set of political circumstances in these countries: namely the emergence of scepticism about post Second World War political settlements, specifically that of the legitimacy of state provided forms of welfare provision within liberal democracies. Those countries which have now become part of the EU (for example Poland) had similar regimes, but within very different political forms. In what is regarded as ‘western’ Europe countries such as Greece, Italy, Germany and Spain all faced different political challenges, not the least that of coming to terms with their various departures from conventional democratic forms. France remains as a country with a long and energetic tradition of detective fiction but relatively little of that work—with the obvious exception of the French speaking, Belgian born George Simenon—has been translated into English. Despite the general focus on Scandinavia and the UK readers will see that novels from France and the Republic of Ireland appear later in this text.

The date of 1970 is taken as the starting point for this study because it was at the beginning of that decade that the social changes around individual rights coincided with an increasing abandonment of the shared political assumptions that had ensured something of a consensus about the central role of the state in the support of the lives of its citizens. In short, as many other studies have pointed out, what was at first an economic theory supporting the defining role that the market should play in the working of the economy gradually became a more general social theory, usually described as ‘neo-liberalism’, in which individuals were assumed to have full responsibility for their circumstances. In the UK for example, the post Second World War ‘settlement’ of the implementation of much of the Beveridge Report of 1942 was increasingly debated. In the years after 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the UK, neo-liberal ideas became a defining aspect of contests about the nature and the future of the British Welfare State. 7 A similar contest was to be played out across much of Europe, particularly in Scandinavian countries where the aspirations and the empirical reach of the welfare state had been greater than in other parts of Europe. This central political issue plays a very considerable part in the detective fiction of much of northern Europe, distinctively more so than in countries of the so-called ‘south’ (Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece) where questions of the integration of organised crime with the criminal justice system play a more conspicuous part.

Detective fiction did not, as a genre, take up a single, simple, position in terms of this emergent politics. But what it did do was to put before its readers a number of issues which were central to anyone living in Europe. The first of these was to revive the question of the moral legitimacy of both the law and policing. Those questions were also asked in what became known as the ‘new criminology’ of the 1970s. 8 In the work of various authors old assumptions about the ‘causes’ of crime were thrown aside in favour of a discussion of the ways in which definitions of crime were created, and very often created in the interests of the rich rather than the poor. 9 The second question asked was even wider: to ask whether or not the form of society, the very values of society, were those which were worth defending. In this, the public moral plurality introduced by reforming legislation about the personal lives of citizens opened up new debates in which words such as ‘patriarchy’ became central. Although it was not until 1989 that the politics of the Soviet Union (and its satellite states) were transformed, the binary between capitalism and socialism diminished; leaving in its wake a politics in which the citizen became increasingly individualised and with rights to what was constructed as ‘choice’ and personal freedom. At the same time as those definitions were extended so it also became increasingly apparent, as forms of financial de-regulation came to transform economic life, a tiny number of individuals could become very rich and—crucially—distant from most forms of legal jurisdiction. The third—and a matter of considerable separation between Europe and the United States—was that of the state’s attitude to policing and issues of crime and punishment. The power of the view that individuals chose to commit crime—dominant in much of the rhetoric around crime in the US—was countered in Europe by a more nuanced view typified by what Tony Blair was to describe as the ‘causes of crime.’ This difference, much enhanced by the political importance attached in the United States to the right of citizens to carry guns, has created differences in policing, and detection, which are evident in the detective fiction of the USA and Europe. Nobody who has walked around a European city in the past fifteen years is still able to assume that the police forces of many European countries are not armed, but the difference is that the citizens of these countries are seldom allowed—legally—to carry arms. What this creates is a situation in which the expectation, however fictional, is that the police will proceed in their work by forms of traditional procedural methods. The ‘perps’, so central to the fiction of many writers of detective fiction set in the United States, the people who die in armed exchanges with the police or private detectives are less common in European literature. The language of detective fiction in which suspects are ‘taken out’ is indicative of some of the differences between the United States, a country where the public ownership of guns is fiercely defended, and Europe. In the light of these various issues, all of which revolve around the questions of what constitutes justice and how we define the criminal, the individual citizen might well come to ask the question of what exactly is going on and how we might begin both to define and challenge those terms.

These comments set out some of the context in which the detective fiction in the period after 1970 is based. But whilst definition of, and information about, the political and social circumstances of these years can be gleaned from numerous studies there is little available guidance about how to study detective fiction itself. Literary critics as well as those from the social sciences have used detective fiction to illustrate social themes and there are numerous studies of the many distinguished writers of detective fiction in the past two hundred years. This study, however, is attempting to look at more than individual authors. Indeed, its purpose is to look at the work of a great many authors over a period of almost fifty years. So, this study does not intend to use detective fiction as a form of data which can provide illustration of the social world. There will certainly be suggestions about the congruence of the themes and the resolutions within detective fiction with those of the real world, but this is not intended as an exercise in collecting instances of similarity between events in the social world and fiction. It is intended, in the best sense of the work of the detective, as an investigation. In this, there may well be the discovery of ‘clues’ (those points of similarity between the real and the fictional world) but more importantly it is hoped to define coherent patterns of understanding and explanation of how the world of the late twentieth and early twentieth century works. The detective fiction of Europe since 1970 we would argue is collectively an argument about the Politics/politics—both of the private and the public space—of that world. Very little mainstream fiction, we would argue, has attempted to understand this world; indeed, the traditions of canonical fiction have been largely maintained.

The guidelines—the procedural rules of this study—are these: that the texts chosen are from Europe, a term which includes the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Whatever the current political battles around the relationship of the UK to the European Union, as far as this book is concerned the UK is part of Europe and will continue to be so whatever the outcome of Brexit. The decision not to include the United States and other parts of the globe is that the canvas would then become both too wide and face complex questions about the export of literary traditions and the political and intellectual baggage which those traditions carry. The choice of texts is based both on the choice of the public—in that many of the most popular writers of detective fiction are included—and the judgments of the considerable number of associations awarding excellence in the writing of detective fiction. We can note that the genre of both crime and detective fiction is one which has an organised and influential institutional life. There are awards for good and outstanding writing, well attended annual conferences and—to judge from many of the fulsome acknowledgments by many authors—a supportive community. Since thanks to other authors are seldom to be found in mainstream fiction it is worth pointing out that whatever else are the differences within the pages of crime and detective fiction its authors have a strong sense of shared purpose. 10

That camaraderie, the sense of strong working relationships between people, has also often been mentioned as part of the police force. The ‘partners’ of crime (the Holmes/Watson tradition which has continued into, for example, the Morse/Lewis relationship in the novels of Colin Dexter) speaks of those very powerful partnerships forged through long working hours, an often-hostile bureaucracy, and, most recently and perhaps most importantly, that sense of the police force standing at an inter-section of criminal life and the workings of the law. As increasing numbers of detective novels have demonstrated, the police might well catch villains—know exactly who ‘did it’—but bringing a successful prosecution against that individual poses often difficult and intractable problems. This inter-section of European legal systems and the institutions of policing is one which has increasingly come under scrutiny in both detective fiction and in reality. Members of the police—in fiction and reality—are frustrated by the decisions of the courts; the courts and other public institutions are equally frustrated by police failures of investigation, arising from reasons of incompetence and/or corruption. The ‘law’ as the written embodiment of a society’s expectations and aspirations can, in these circumstances, become either the impediment to justice or the basis of hopes for its realisation.

One work of non-fiction which illustrates the issue of the relationship between law and the practice of policing particularly well is a book of non-fiction by an ex-policeman, Stephen Fulcher, called Catching a Serial Killer. 11 Serial killers, as any student of crime fiction or actual crime figures knows, are very rare, however much they loom large in the public imagination. Fulcher’s book concerns his work, when a Detective Superintendent for the Wiltshire Police Force in tracking down the person who had murdered two young women. But the book is also an education in the work of the police in the contemporary UK, not least because it refers to much of the technological and legal apparatus of modern policing. In the case of the former the technology helped to identify the killer, but in the latter—as we will see—the legal requirements about the circumstances of a person’s confession radically undermined the conduct of the case. Students of both crime and detective fiction (in print and in film) may be familiar with the initials SIO and DNA, others may be less aware of the agencies and the technology obscured by other initials such as TRL, VODS, POLSA, PACE, IPCC, SCAS, PCMH, HOLMES, MIR, PNC, APNR and TIE. 12 The extent of this list demonstrates that the years of policing through conversations, with the tools of a notebook and a pen are becoming rare in reality, however much they may appear in fiction. But what it also demonstrates is that ‘police procedural’ novels as they have been defined increasingly include ever changing and developing forms of technology. All police work and all forms of detection have always involved some form of systematic work—the elimination of suspects and the collecting of alibis for example—but what has emerged since 1970 is a highly complex mix of both technological expertise and entirely conventional forms of interrogation. That complexity is illustrated both in reality—the particular case which Fulcher discusses—and in the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in which Martin Beck is the central character. As the back cover of one of these novels, The Man on the Balcony, says ‘The dedicated work of the police seems to be leading nowhere…But then Beck remembers someone - or something - he overheard…’ 13 Little could be more in the tradition of Agatha Christie and Miss Jane Marple than such a serendipitous event; precisely the recognition that an acute awareness of human speech and behaviour is central to identifying those suspected of crime. Fulcher worked, like Martin Beck, with all the machinery of late twentieth century at his disposal. But at the same time his final identification of the murderer came through conversation, albeit in his case a conversation held in the wrong place and outside legal requirements. Nevertheless, that tracking of the suspect, came about through that mix of the use of technology and the traditional methods of police procedure with human acuity which had aided Martin Beck. What these instances—one fictional and the other non-fictional suggest—is that uneasy contemporary relationship between formal procedure and ‘expert’ advice and what is sometimes described as ‘common’ sense. The limits of that ‘common’ sense have been made clear in numerous instances of, for example the stereotyping of criminals, but much detective fiction retains a considerable sympathy for the idea, if not for ‘common’ sense, then at least a place for the intuitive and happenstance.

This possibility was, as suggested, not available to Fulcher. His identification of the murderer was initially made possible by a very simple form of technology, the APNR, which stands for Automatic Plate Number Recognition. Far more problematic was PACE, the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which led to the dismissal of Fulcher for gross misconduct. What this seemed to embody for Fulcher—and it is important to remember here that he is writing from the point of view of the police rather than the accused—is the emphasis which the Act placed on what is named in detective fiction as the narrative of the ‘police procedural’. In this narrative Fulcher suggests, all the criminal has to do to escape being caught and punished is to learn the rules of the criminal game. This may take the form of those elementary precautions of never leaving fingerprints or traces of DNA to the more sophisticated evasions of laws practised in forms of cybercrime. As Fulcher wrote of the workings of the 1984 Act:

Bear in mind that if a criminal is any good, the only source of information is reposed in the perpetrator’s mind. Yet PACE means it’s the one area detectives can’t go. There is an endemic problem with PACE that prevents voluntary confessions being accepted - because everything about it, from the right to silence to the right to a lawyer who will actively stop you from incriminating yourself, is engineered so that criminals don’t cough. Since PACE was introduced it has essentially blocked off interviewing suspects as an investigative avenue. As such modern policing has become a passive, box-ticking exercise, with coppers picking up the clues a careless criminal has left behind. A trained monkey could do it; you don’t need a detective. It means, evidently, that coppers will only ever catch clumsy criminals. 14

This view is, of course, that of a senior policeman who lost his job because he had received the confession of a suspect outside the confines of a police station and the formalities of an interview. When the suspect subsequently refused to sign the confession the case for the defence argued that the suspect had been interviewed outside the PACE code. The process which examined Fulcher’s case, its implications for him and the many legal arguments surrounding it, occupy more than half of his book and in this part of the narrative yet another crucial institution occurs: the IPCC or Independent Police Complaints Committee, which in this context appears to be antagonistic towards Fulcher. What is made clear in the second part of Fulcher’s book—the part when the murderer has been found—is the complexity of the contemporary relationship between the police and the legal system. Fulcher tells of a situation in which the murderer is caught by a relatively simple piece of technology; no intensive investigation is needed to demonstrate that the guilty person was in the car in the right place at the right time. That person then confesses, in very large part because a rapport has been established between the detective and the suspect. But the confession is without legal weight because when the suspect, a man whom we all now know is the murderer, is taken into custody, interviewed in the police station, under oath, with a solicitor present and a full record being made of the proceedings, he refuses to say anything. Fulcher’s murderer, like that of the villains who haunt the pages of much contemporary fiction, can be identified but they cannot be effectively prosecuted in courts of law. A fictional instance of the same issues is the character Cafferty, the bête noire of the Rebus novels by Ian Rankin. Cafferty is always transparently—to Rebus and the reader—the guilty party. But there are many occasions on which Cafferty’s access to clever and well-connected lawyers means he thwarts Rebus in his attempts to put him behind bars. It is not, in the case of Rebus, England’s Crime Prosecution Service that is so fearful of failed prosecution but the similar processes and institutions of Scotland. Across the UK all police forces are bound by strict expectations that cases will ‘stand up in court’. Rebus, like other fictional detectives, is well aware of the public expectations that the police will ‘catch’ criminals; he is equally aware, as many members of the public are not, that he is often powerless to charge or punish them. But perhaps quite as much as the ongoing issue of the distance between known illegality and effective prosecution is the wider issue of the gap between technological expertise and material collected by forms of surveillance and human observation and understanding. What is raised by Fulcher, as it is by Ian Rankin and others, is the question of the agency and indeed the authority of the human subject; the question endlessly explored in discussions of the part that human judgement will play in societies that are increasingly dependent on technological expertise. 15

So, the example explored in Fulcher’s book, where a criminal is known but only prosecuted, if at all, with great difficulty has created new kinds of challenges in both fiction and reality for the apprehension and the punishment of criminals. This of course, again in both kinds of contexts, creates new kinds of police work and new forms of relevant competence. These new challenges were not, it has to be said, derived from reforms instigated by the police but in large part because of three infamous instances in the English courts and police systems of the miscarriage of justice: the cases of the prosecutions and subsequent imprisonment of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six (both in 1975) and the Maguire Seven in 1976. All these cases related to bomb attacks in England, part of the IRA campaign against the UK’s policies in Northern Ireland. Every one of the people originally charged in these cases later had their convictions over-turned in 1989, but not before some of those convicted (for example in the case of the Guildford Four) had served prison sentences of fifteen years. It was revealed in the appeals against these notoriously ‘unsafe’ convictions that the police had extracted confessions through torture as well as other—subsequently disallowed—forms of interrogation. When the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act was passed it was in part in answer to criticism of the police methods employed in these cases but also because it was becoming increasingly obvious that the police force was losing significant public support and legitimacy. The extent of this emerging distance between the police and its public credibility is suggested by the fact that the Act was passed during the years when the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher was in power, a political leader and party with longstanding and uncritical support for the police. Nevertheless, vocal pressure groups and significant groups in the legal profession had led campaigns to raise awareness about the often highly partial workings of the law. Amongst that partiality campaigns had identified—and continue to identify—examples such as the ‘stop and search laws’ which impacted on the African-Caribbean population and the consistent failure to prosecute accusations of rape and sexual violence. In all these contexts, amongst which the abject failure of the London Metropolitan Police to investigate effectively the murder of the teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, was perhaps the most notorious, what was becoming increasingly apparent to many people was that ‘the law’ in the form of both the police force and the criminal justice system had a somewhat blinkered attitude to the identification and the prosecution of criminals. The Lawrence case, and the public disquiet about the police conduct, resulted in the judgement of the 1999 Macpherson Report of ‘institutional racism’ in the Metropolitan Police. 16

The Macpherson Report was only instigated after a concerted press and public campaign about one specific murder. But what had been gathering strength throughout the 1980s was a recognition of the corrupt and brutal possibilities of police work; possibilities which had been more than realised in the UK in the cases involving not just the politics of Northern Ireland but also in those politics resultant from the Hillsborough Football Stadium loss of life in 1989 and the Miners Strike of 1984. The crucial link between all these instances is that of the ‘outsider’ status imposed on the victims of police corruption; the working class (at home or at leisure) and the Black population are accorded less respect and credibility. 17 Across Europe other instances of corruption and bias were being similarly identified as they have been in novels set in mainland Europe. 18 What has emerged, across Europe is a recognition that police work has to be subject to regular public and external examination. This, in its turn, drives new definitions about what is, and is not, ‘legal’ since the institution responsible for the keeping of the law is now subjected to that same long arm of ‘the law’ which the police had at one time been assumed to represent. An uncritical view of the police force has always been tempered by concerns about its intelligence and professional competence, but what becomes a defining factor in the majority of works of detective fiction by the middle of the 1980s is a resultant complex location of moral boundaries. These boundaries no longer coincide easily with the police as ‘good’ and the criminal as ‘bad’. It is not the case that all detectives become infected with the kind of existential doubt about their work which the novels of, for example, Henning Mankell suggest, but that moral certainty of purpose and method is increasingly rare amongst those charged with the keeping of the law.

But just as the ways in which the police work, and in particular the ways in which they collect evidence, have become more constrained by legislation so two other factors, one longstanding and one of more recent origin, have played, and continue to play, a part in the transformation of policing. The first, with a long history, was that of the place of the public voice in the prosecution of actually criminal or socially unacceptable behaviour. The second was the question of the reliability of evidence based in new forms of technology. In the case of the first, there is a long, trans-cultural, history of what has been spoken of as ‘people taking the law into their own hands’. This has taken various forms, from the vicious and often murderous actions of the lynch mob to the instances where civil disobedience has challenged both the letter and the implementation of the law. Examples of these kinds of behaviour range from the racially motivated attacks on the African-American citizens of the United States to the vocal and influential campaign fought in the UK to implement what became known as ‘Sarah’s Law’ in England. This law, passed in 2011, was a result of public and media interventions after the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in 2000. The law as passed for England and Wales allowed individual citizens to be informed about convictions for child sexual abuse for any person having contact with children. But it was a law which had disastrous consequences. An entirely innocent Iranian Bijan Ebrahami was murdered as a result of being falsely identified as a paedophile; an equally innocent woman paediatrician was forced from her home after numerous death threats. 19 Against these disastrous consequences of legislation propelled into existence by sensational campaigns about threat and danger there are other, more positive, instances of community and individual resistance to various aspects of the law. These include recent campaigns in London about housing and—perhaps most famously in the past fifty years—the continued forms of civil disobedience against the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons. 20 All these various instances, of the law being questioned outside accepted institutions and processes have increasingly been written into the narratives of detective fiction.

So, in an increasingly complex relationship with the public, and powerful media voices, the police also have to contend with political pressures to arrest those suspected of serious crime. This pressure on the police—an issue spoken of widely in detective fiction—has resulted, in reality, in those miscarriages of justice cited earlier. The political rhetoric about the ‘terrorists’ of the IRA, voiced by Margaret Thatcher at the same time as her government was also seeking ways to negotiate with those same ‘terrorists’ was nothing new in British politics then or since. 21 But it is important to recognise here that policing is highly attuned to political discourse: pressures from the public, the media and politicians to make sure that the ‘guilty’ are brought to justice continue to inform both the identification and the prosecution of suspects. Whilst PACE has done much to regulate the ways in which the interrogation of suspects is conducted in England and Wales, what still remains evident is that behaviour towards suspects in police stations can be at best careless and at the worst brutal. The detective novels of William Shaw about police work in London in the 1960s and 1970s are replete with references to ‘old’ forms of policing, essentially the years before PACE. But a study of the cases of people who have died in police custody in 2017 would suggest that whilst legislation has done much to regulate the interrogation of suspects what it has not been able to do is to eliminate those attitudes to people suspected of crime which result in serious physical harm. 22 Neither has that judgment of ‘institutional racism’ lost its relevance; the issue of ‘joint enterprise’, with its mobilisation in some cases of highly racialised ideas of ‘gang culture’ has recently become another area in which questionable attitudes about race and race relations have been suggested. 23 These questions, about the values and attitudes of both the police force and the public on matters of crime and the prosecution of the criminal have given to many fictional detectives (whether privately or publicly employed) something of the status of the arbiter of moral judge. This continues that tradition of detective fiction, evident across the west in the 1930s and the 1940s, in which the police forces of many countries were viewed both as so stupid and so corrupt that they could always be relied upon to arrest the wrong person for the wrong reasons. Something of that tradition has informed much of the various ‘noir’ detective fiction of Europe since 1970. There are many loved and highly respected publicly employed police men and women in these works but what these individuals share is that they are—to a man and a woman—at odds not just with the senior figures with whom they work but also with many of the values which those figures embody. Across Europe senior management in detective fiction is represented as self-serving, careerist, greedy, incompetent and corrupt. Not every figure represents every one of these negative traits, but the point that is being made is that which has been made in military history: that campaigns are often fought and won despite the participation of officers.

How we read this is complex: on the one hand this refusal and suspicion of hierarchy could be regarded as an energetic determination to question authority and power. There are various ways of ‘speaking truth to power’ and detective fiction often chooses to do this by explicit criticism of the powerful. On the other hand, we might argue that to refuse the possibilities of forms of power—and in some cases forms of specialist professional competence—is to come perilously close to that validation of ‘common sense’ which allows considerable space for prejudice and ignorance. Detective fiction does not resolve this issue but what it does do is to explore a question which has become central to western (if not global) politics: the relationship between power and forms of public action, knowledge and information. In the following pages we examine the ways in which detective fiction has grappled with these, and other issues which are central to the experience of living in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In the following chapters we both ‘set the scene’—which follows immediately in Chapter  2—and then consider some of the key themes and questions of contemporary ‘noir’ fiction. Two themes have emerged as central in our reading of the novels: that of the question of who’s to blame for murder and the issue of the way of life, the very context of our contemporary existence, that results in murder. These are the central themes of Chapters  3 and  4. The final chapter echoes that infamous command, ‘Only Connect’. It would be foolish to suppose that we have achieved that Eureka moment of connecting the personal with the social but our first hope is that we have moved towards connecting the social with the powerful imagination of detective fiction.

A second aspiration here is to rectify what we see as absences in current academic writing about detective fiction, notably increased since the beginning of the twenty-first century. So, finally here we turn to consider how our contribution fits alongside this body of literature. Much of this work is focussed on contemporary Scandinavian novels—‘Scandi noir’, as it’s often called—and aims to sketch out the emergence and development of this genre (see, for example, Forshaw 2012), or its translation from novels into film and television (see, for example, Effron 2013; Peacock 2013, 2014). Genre tends to be a key concern in these accounts—that is, ascertaining the parameters of certain types of detective fiction across media—and that reflects the disciplinary backgrounds and interests of those writing on detective fiction today. That is, they tend to belong to Arts or Media Studies disciplines. On occasion, this body of work engages with sociological issues, most notably Gregoriou’s linguistic analysis of deviance in detective fiction (2007) and Astrom et al.’s (2012) edited collection on the depiction of rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. By and large, this sociologically-oriented work concentrates on the key themes, structures, and devices in the fiction studied, and the focus remains on the novels themselves, rather than what they might tell us about the world beyond. More thorough-going sociological accounts are very rare indeed. More accurately, sociological accounts of detective fiction have become rare. The German, marxist thinkers of the early and mid-twentieth century realised the value of the detective genre for social theorising. Siegfried Kracauer, who wrote an (unpublished for decades) manuscript during the early 1920s about the detective novel, saw in the genre a distillation of the central problem of modern social life: the evacuation of meaning from decisive action (Frisby 1992: 12–13). Kracauer’s contemporaries, Bertold Brecht and Walter Benjamin also saw the detective novel as a distinctively modernist literary form, but found more to recommend. Both were avid fans of the genre, wrote essays during the 1930s to better understand the appeal of detective fiction, and even started work on a co-authored detective series (Herzog 2009: 14). The Convolutes section of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, his compendious collage of insights about the social conditions of modernity, is littered with references to Edgar Allen Poe, the originator of North American detective fiction.

All of this makes the current lack of sociological interest in detective fiction all the more striking. Within this, two recent texts stand out. The first is Todd Herzog’s (2009) Crime Stories: Criminalistic Fantasy and the Culture of Crisis in Weimar Germany, which considers detective fiction as emblematic of the cultural crisis of Germany’s inter-war years. The second is Luc Boltanski’s (2014) Mysteries and Conspiracies: Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Societies. Here, Boltanski argues that nineteenth and twentieth century detective novels participated in a historical shift wherein the nation-state’s claim to offer the authoritative account of ‘reality’ came to be challenged and power came to be viewed with suspicion.

This book contributes to this small—but, we hope, growing—body of sociological work. It does so by offering the first in-depth sociological account of post-1970s detective fiction. We take this body of fiction to reveal important, but so far unidentified theoretical ideas about what it means to be an individual in the twenty-first century. We make a case for this in the concluding chapter. By way of introduction, and to clarify our approach: we see detective fiction as a form of sociological enquiry, able to shed light on the relationship between the individual and society, and particularly the strains of everyday life. In this, too, the book is distinct from previous sociological accounts of fiction, which generally understand its value in terms of how it can illustrate, enlarge, or help articulate a social theory.


  1. 1.

    Thomas de Quincey, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts; Being an Address Made to a Gentleman’s Club Concerning its Aesthetic Appreciation (first published in 1827; London, Penguin, 2015).

  2. 2.

    Anthony Horowitz, The Word is Murder (London, Century, 2017), p. 61.

  3. 3.

    The central character of the Akunin novels is a detective named Erast Fandorin; see, for example, The Winter Queen (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003) and Special Assignments (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007). Novels set in Nazi Germany include those by Philip Kerr; three were published collectively as Berlin Noir in 1993 by Penguin. Murder in sixteenth century England has been recorded by C.J. Sansom in the Matthew Shardlake series, the first of which is Dissolution (London, Macmillan, 2003). Gladys Mitchell published 66 novels featuring the detective Mrs Bradley in the period 1929 and 1984. During this period, she wrote two parodies of Agatha Christie, The Mystery of the Butcher’s Shop (London, Gollancz, 1929) and The Saltmarsh Murders (London, Gollancz, 1932).

  4. 4.

    The first detective novel to feature a woman detective was The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester, first published in 1864 (London, The British Library, 2015). More recently, the central women detectives created by Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky in the USA are, respectively, Kinsey Malone and V. I. Warshawski. Grafton’s novels are set in California, those of Paretsky in Chicago. Both women, while far from trigger happy, have killed various characters.

  5. 5.

    The British author Nicola Upson has written a series of novels bringing back to life a real-life author (Josephine Tey) as a fictional amateur detective. The first of a series of these novels, all of which evoke the time of the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction is An Expert in Murder (London, Faber and Faber, 2008). In a similar homage to the work of distinguished women writers of crime fiction Stella Duffy has recently completed an unfinished novel by the distinguished writer of detective fiction Ngaio Marsh. Marsh, like Christie was a prolific author (she wrote 32 novels featuring ‘her’ detective Roderick Alleyn but left unfinished a final Alleyn mystery, now published as Money in the Morgue: The New Inspector Alleyn Novel [London, Collins Crime Club, 2018]).

  6. 6.

    James Foreman, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).

  7. 7.

    For a concise account of neo-liberalism see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neo-liberalism (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005). A more detailed account is given by Daniel Stedman-Jones in Masters of the Universe (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2012).

  8. 8.

    The National Deviance Conference met regularly at the University of York from 1967–1975 and was hugely influential in changing many aspects of crime and policing. The Conference was revived from 2011, again at the University of York.

  9. 9.

    Amongst the most influential of the books about the ‘new’ criminology were: The New Criminology: For a Social Theory of Deviance (London, Routledge, 1973) by Ian Taylor, Paul Walton and Jock Young and Steve Box’s Deviance, Reality and Society (New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971).

  10. 10.

    The authors Tana French and John Harvey are notably extensive in not just the numbers but the range of their thanks.

  11. 11.

    Stephen Fulcher, Catching a Serial Killer: My Hunt for the Murderer Christopher Halliwell (London, Ebury Press, 2017).

  12. 12.

    DNA stands for Deoxyribonucleic Acid; HOLMES for Home Office Large Major Enquiry System; IPCC for Independent Police Crimes Commission; MIR for Major Incident Room; PACE for Police and Criminal Evidence Act; PCMH for Plea and Case Management Hearing; POLSA for Police Search Advisor; SCAS for Serious Case Analysis Section; TIE for Trace, Interrogate, Eliminate; TRL for Technology Readiness Level; VODS for Vehicle Online Descriptive Search.

  13. 13.

    Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man on the Balcony (London, Harper Perennial, 2007), p. 150.

  14. 14.

    Stephen Fulcher, Catching a Serial Killer, p. 383.

  15. 15.

    Gary T. Marx, Windows into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of Technology (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2016).

  16. 16.

    As well as the Macpherson judgement the case of Stephen Lawrence had far reaching implications and recognition. It resulted in the passing of the Criminal Justice Act of 2003, which rescinded the ‘double jeopardy’ law. In detective fiction the case re-appears in the novel by Deborah Crombie, The Garden of Lamentations (New York, HarperCollins, 2017) where it becomes a dream of the ‘bad’ past.

  17. 17.

    The definitive account of the Hillsborough disaster, and the aftermath, is Phil Scraton’s Hillsborough: The Truth (Edinburgh, Mainstream Publishing, 2009). Over the course of 28 years families of the deceased fought for a change from the original coroner’s court judgement of accidental death. Their campaign succeeded in 2017; the verdict was changed to ‘unlawful killing due to gross negligence’.

  18. 18.

    For fiction on this subject see, for example, the novels of Donna Leon, set in Venice and those by Michael Dibdin, set in various parts of Italy. Scandinavian fiction is replete with examples of corruption in many state institutions; the most famous recent examples to be found in Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. For a discussion of instances and relative levels of state and institutional corruption see B. Rothstein, 2011. The Quality of Government Corruption, Social Trust and Inequality in International Perspective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

  19. 19.

    The disabled man, Bijan Ebrahami, had repeatedly asked his local police force for protection. None was given and in 2013 Ebrahami was murdered by his neighbour, Lee James, who suspected him of being a paedophile. In February 2016 two policemen were given prison sentences for ‘misconduct in a public office’.

  20. 20.

    Two studies, across almost thirty years, demonstrate the continuity of protest on this issue. See: Frank Parkin, Middle Class Radicalism (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1968) and Sasha Roseneil, Disarming Patriarchy: Feminism and Political Action at Greenham Common (Buckingham, Open University Press, 1995).

  21. 21.

    Jonathan Powell, Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts (London, Bodley Head, 2014).

  22. 22.

    The research organisation INQUEST has estimated that since 1990 there have been 1990 deaths in police custody in England and Wales.

  23. 23.

    See Ben Crewe, A. Liebling, D. Padfield, and G. Virgo, ‘Joint Enterprise: The Implications of an Unfair and an Unclear Law,’ Criminal Law Review, Issue 4, 2015, pp. 252–269.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Gender StudiesLondon School of Economics and Political ScienceLondonUK
  2. 2.Department of Social & Policy SciencesUniversity of BathBathUK

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