Monday, August 20, 2018

Crime fiction's in good shape

Q: What difference do you notice between the prose in crime novels that were written twenty years ago and current ones?  Do you think the writing has gotten better? Are the subjects different?
- from Susan
Good question! Since 1998, huh? I’m doing a mental scan of my bookshelves to look for patterns. In the meantime, this:
1998 Edgar winners: 
James Lee Burke
Joseph Canon
Laura Lippman

1998 Leftie winners:
Janet Evanovich
Margaret Chittenden
Sarah Shankman
Don Winslow

1998 Agatha winners:
Kate Ross
Sujata Massey 

All are familiar and worthy names and most are still writing and winning awards 20 years later. Does that in itself say something?

My informal, highly subjective feeling is we have been immersed in “girl in jeopardy” crime fiction for a long time, the jeopardy getting more twisty every year as the authors try to find something fresh in the theme. I see more female villains (some of those girls in jeopardy among them – plot twist), more psychological suspense, and more tilt toward fast paced suspense and thrillers. There are so many characters today who are not quite good guys, but damaged individuals who do bad things. Less black and white.

There are a few more writers of color making the mainstream crime fiction publication lists, and I think – hope – that trend is on an upward curve. I have really enjoyed the writers and protagonists I’ve met so far, Blanche White (Barbara Neely), Lanie Price (Persia Walker), Easy Rawlins (Walter Mosley) Lou Norton (Rachel Howzell Hall), and Jing-nan (Ed Lin) among them. The more we can read, the more we can share in other people’s experiences, so bring it on!

The cozies have gotten a bit twee as markets get sliced into narrow niches (cooking, vegetable farming, quilting, b&b operating, etc.) but are obviously very popular since there are literally hundreds competing for shelf space and top of mind, and they have passionate fans. You only have to experience Malice Domestic to know cozy mysteries are not in decline with readers.

My favorite development is the visibility and appreciation of some of crime fiction’s newer, smart, quirky female protagonists: Vera Stanhope (Ann Cleeves), Precious Ramotswe (Alexander McCall Smith), Aimee Leduc (Cara Black), and Ellie Stone (James Ziskin) among them. V.I. Warshawski (Sara Paretsky), Jeri Howard (Janet Dawson) and Kinsey Milhone (Sue Grafton) were already on the scene in 1998 – thank heavens – and I think their popularity opened a way for more strong, unapologetic women protagonists on the side of justice. 

Readers: This is by no means my complete shelf and memory scan, but who have I inadvertently slighted who must be added to any survey?


Could I be reviving an older trend by featuring a happily married, middle-aged, definitely eccentric American couple in my French village mysteries? Katherine and Michael are no Nick and Nora, although she certainly sails off in that direction in spite of his concerns. 


Dietrich Kalteis said...

A very interesting post, Susan. Thank you.

Paul D. Marks said...

Good survey of the last 20 years, Susan.

Lyda McPherson said...

Thank you Susan. Great re-cap. I think I'm most aware of the shift in dialog. For better or worse, texting and tweets have caused a shift in how we write dialog.

RJ Harlick said...

I agree with you Susan. I think we would have to go back 40-50 years to see a real difference in the genre. Great post.

Susan C Shea said...

Thanks for commenting, Dietrich, Paul, Lyda and Robin. I'm pretty sure I could have gone deeper or wider, and I know I could have listed a dozen more great examples of positive trends. I'm eagerly awaiting the other Minds' takes.

James W. Ziskin said...

Great post, Susan. And thanks for the shout-out. I’m very honored.


Terry said...

Lots of great examples here, Susan.