Wednesday 23 December 2015

How Crime Fiction Reflects Society: Where To Turn The Mirror Next

‘                             Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
                              special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature:
                               for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
                               end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the
                               mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
                               image, and the very age and body of the time his form and

we will always have her work to remind us that crime fiction at its best holds a mirror up to society, showing us that dark corners exist everywhere and within us all.’

Ian Rankin on Ruth Rendell (New Statesman, 16th October 2015)

© Tim Wheeler
Fog clung in skirts around the city’s buildings, and November’s sunlight was reduced to a splutter, when I attended Reading Crime Festival in 2011. At the time I was writing a humorous account of working in the fashion industry, comfortable in my tongue-in-cheek style, I was there only as a keen reader of the darker genre. My sister-in-law and I juggled our three-month-old niece between us, and joked she was the youngest crime fan in attendance.

I was attracted to a panel discussion between NJ Cooper, Denise Mina, Ronnie Thompson, David Wilson and Dreda Say Mitchell, which posed the question: Crime and Society: How is crime, fact and fiction, influenced by the society in which it occurs? I wanted to understand why crime fiction, above other genres, is so readily cast as Hamlet’s players: tasked with holding up a mirror to nature.

For crime thrillers are revered for their ability to reflect society. Authors are praised for unearthing truths about humanity. What is it about these tales of dark shadows, of the grubby underbelly, of desperate acts, of criminality, of death, that we so strongly and readily relate to? In writing about crime, authors show the worst of us. Our grim urges and impulses laid bare when decency and law collapse. As economies go into recession, government cuts begin to bite, and life gets that little bit harder for the many, UK sales of crime fiction hold strong and steady. When even militant extremists release choreographed videos in carefully coordinated PR campaigns, and our everyday life is reset through a more flattering filter online, our cynical side knee-jerk reacts against the air-brushed, candy-floss rebrands of our own hopes and dreams pitched at us by globalisation’s uber brands. We’re savvy. We know there’s no pearl if there’s no grit in the oyster.

Society, as so readily reflected in crime fiction, is often shaped by geography. Our communities defined by location. You’re a Londoner. A Northerner. Urban. Suburban. Provincial. We group together for support, understanding, growth, protection. We carve ourselves up. Draw boundaries. Raise walls. Are you one of us? The police utilise independent mediators (religious leaders, advocates, voluntary sector workers), to reach those in specific communities. The dark morally complex Scandinavian Noir, mirrors the twenty-four-hour darkness of their winter. Morse has Oxford, Rebus has Edinburgh, the cities almost characters in their own right. And we’re back to the spotlight crime fiction shines on our communities.

In the last decade we’ve seen the growth of new communities: those online. Beyond groups  which have collected around shared interests - Marvel comics, make up tutorials, fanaticism – huge swathes of the population have joined social media platforms. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Blogger, have become part of our daily lives. Part of our language. With fifteen million users in the UK, Twitter must be the biggest single community to form in the last decade. What dark corners lay hidden within this community?

Four years after I questioned why crime fiction does it best, I found myself writing about a killer who tweets clues about their next victim. A killer whose tweets are shared, replied to, liked, followed. I’m turning the mirror to face society, I’m turning the mirror to face social media.

Follow Me (HarperCollins) by Angela Clarke is out in e-book on 3rd December 2015 and in print on 31st December 2015.

You can find more information about Angela Clarke on her website.  You can also follow her on Twitter @TheAngelaClarke and on Facebook.

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