Or are there? An interesting comment exchange with Bernadette at Reactions to Reading has got me thinking about the amount of detail readers learn about sleuths’ personal lives. Do readers really want sub-plots, story arcs and other plot points that share what’s going on in the sleuth’s home?
On the one hand, I’d guess that most of us would say that we don’t want ‘cardboard characters. We want characters who feel authentic and ‘fleshed out.’ That said though, many of us would also say that when we read crime fiction, we want a plot – a mystery/crime that’s at the heart of the story. Too much ‘home life’ information takes away from the pace of that plot and can actually get tiresome.
It’s tricky to decide just how much information to include, really. And that choice has very likely changed over time as readers’ tastes have changed. There’s a strong argument that, while classic/Golden Age crime fiction certainly includes information about sleuths’ home lives, that’s often not the focus of the mystery. Today’s crime fiction is arguably quite different.
I thought it might be interesting to look at this question of personal lives in crime fiction just a bit more deeply. So the first question I asked myself was this: is there really as much ‘home life’ detail as it seems in crime fiction? To address that question, I chose 148 books that I’ve read. All of the books feature a police or PI professional sleuth. I didn’t consider amateur sleuths because, very often, their personal lives are the reason they get involved in detection. I thought it might skew my data.
Given that, here is what I found:
As you can see, of those 148 crime novels, 123 of them (83%) include ‘home life’ scenes and other information about the sleuth’s personal life. By ‘other information,’ I mean more than such things as a passing reference to ‘my wife/husband.’ Fans of series such as Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache novels or Henning Mankell’s Inspector Van Veeteren series probably won’t be surprised at this finding.
Going on the assumption that publishers are more likely to release books that readers want to read, there’s an argument here, I think, that we want that sort of ‘home life’ detail, at least to an extent. In fact, lots of readers actually follow story arcs in series precisely because they involve sleuths’ home and personal lives. In other words, books and series have this sort of information because readers want it. And that’s logical, given that most readers want believable characters.
The next question I asked myself was: has it always been this way? There’s a general perception that classic/Golden Age crime fiction doesn’t really give a lot of ‘home life’ information about sleuths. It’s been said that’s because those books tend to be more plot-driven. But is that really true? I decided to have another look at my data to see what it might show.
As you can see, era really does make a difference when it comes to personal information and story arcs in crime novels. Only 38% of the pre-1950 crime novels in my data set include ‘home life’ scenes or other personal information. That number jumps to 85% in the years between 1950 and1980. And in the last thirty-five years, the percentage has risen to 92%.
Now, there are some important limitations to these findings. There are only 24 books in my pre-1950 data set. My guess is that that percentage would change if a lot more books were added. Would it go up to 92%? I personally doubt it, but it’s important to note the small size of the set. The same is true of the 1950-1980 set. There are 21 books in that set. If there were more, would the percentage be higher? Very possibly it would. But that, to me, would lend support to the argument that our interest in sleuths’ personal lives has increased over the years.
If this data reflects what’s really going on, why is it happening? Why do readers want to know, more than ever, about fictional cops’ and PIs’ personal lives? One answer is that we increasingly want our characters to be realistic, and that includes the fact that they have home lives. Another, related, possibility is that readers increasingly want story arcs in their series. If that’s the case, then it makes sense that story arcs would focus, at least some of the time, on personal lives. And in turn, it makes sense that we’d see more of sleuths’ personal lives in our crime fiction. Yet another explanation is that in general, people are sharing more of their lives (e.g. on social media). Whether or not that’s a good thing, we may be getting used to finding out others’ ‘home life’ information.
What do you think about all this? Obviously there’s such a thing as too much ‘home life’ in a crime novel. And I think most of us would agree that there’s definitely such a thing as too much dysfunctional ‘home life’ in a crime novel. But that aside, do you prefer books with ‘home life’ and other personal information about sleuths? If so, why? If you’re a writer, how do you balance that information with that all-important focus on the mystery at hand?
Thanks, Bernadette, for the inspiration. Folks, please give yourselves a treat and visit Reactions to Reading, simply one of the finest book review blogs there is. G’wan, you really want that blog on your blog roll!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Careless Talk.