Every Child Had a Pretty Good Shot*

Social Classes in Crime FictionOne of the most interesting things about crime fiction is the way in which it shows us ourselves. But does it really? What sort of people does crime fiction really portray? That’s of course a very broad question, so I decided to just take a look at a very small part of it: social class.

Social class is defined differently in different cultures. That said though, I thought it would be interesting to ask which social classes’ stories are told in crime fiction. To answer that question, I chose 251 books from among those I’ve read. I sorted those books into categories based upon the social class of most of the characters. Admittedly, this data is limited in a few ways. First, by no means have I read all the crime fiction that’s out there. Therefore the sample may not represent the entire genre. Second, there are many crime novels where the main characters belong to one social class, but other characters to another. So a book marked as, say, ‘middle class’ may in fact have one or two characters (or more) from another class. With those caveats in mind, here’s what I found:

 

Social Class in Crime Fiction

 

As you can see, the middle class is by far the most heavily represented in this data, with 80 books (32%) featuring that social class. That’s logical, considering the number of real-life people who are in the middle class. It’s also logical when you consider that most of us like to read about people with whom we can identify.

The upper class is the next most frequently-featured class; 59 books (23%) focus on that socioeconomic group. That, too, is not surprising, given the interest in this class and their doings that a lot of people have. To many people, there’s a certain cachet associated with wealth and privilege. To others, there’s a satisfaction in seeing members of that group taken down a peg, as the saying goes. Either way, people do like to read about the privileged.

Members of the professional class (doctors, attorneys, academics, etc.) also feature in plenty of crime fiction (45 books – 18%). That’s logical as well, given the number of such professionals in real life. It’s also worth speculating (I don’t have the data on this to suggest this with any authority) that there are plenty of crime fiction readers who belong to the professional classes. Again, people like to read about those with whom they can identify.

There are also of course many members of the working class, not to mention those with working-class roots who have ‘moved up’ socially. So it wasn’t a surprise to me that 40 books in my data set (16%) feature working-class characters. This also makes sense when you consider the number and variety of working-class jobs and communities that there are in real life.

There were also 15 books (6%) that featured members of the artisan class (craftspeople, carpenters, stage professionals, visual artists, musicians and so on). These books don’t focus so much on economic class as they do on the craft/art that binds the group together. Comparatively speaking, there are fewer professional artisans than there are members of other social/professional groups. So it didn’t really surprise me that this group isn’t heavily represented in this data set.

It’s also interesting (and important, I think) to take a look at the groups not very well-represented. One of those groups is what I’ve termed self-selected. They are members of church groups, ethnic groups or other groups that don’t live in the mainstream of society. One example, for instance, is the Amish, who are the focus of Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series. There are also Indigenous groups that you might argue could fall into this category. Only 9 books (4%) in this data set feature those people.

Finally, only 3 books (1%) in this set feature, and really tell the stories of, the poor – people with no homes of their own, no jobs and no regular meals. It may be that we simply don’t want to be reminded that these people are there, or that their stories are unsettling (i.e. ‘There but for the grace of God….). It could be that authors simply haven’t explored those realities. Either way, the poor as main characters aren’t really represented in this data.

After looking at these numbers, I wondered whether they’ve changed over time. Our society has changed dramatically over time, and this has been reflected in a lot of different ways. Does it mean that the social classes are being represented differently?

To answer this question, I sorted the 251 books in this data set by year of publication, to see how many books in each time period featured the different social classes. Here is what I found:

 

ClassOverTIme

 

As you can see, the number of books featuring upper class characters hasn’t really changed much over time. You’ll see that there are fewer in the period between 1950 and 1990, but it’s also fair to note that fewer books in the data set belong to that era. You might argue that the same is true of the artisan class, although a few more books about that group of people have been published in the years since 1950.

The real change (at least as shown by this data set) has been in the number of books featuring middle and working class main characters. If you look at those columns, you see a marked increase in those categories, especially since 1990. It’s also worth noting that the few books featuring the poor are also recent, as are those featuring self-selected groups.

What does this spike in books featuring non-upper-class characters mean? Does it mean that readers are more diverse now? Does it mean that authors are now exploring different socioeconomic groups? In my opinion (I haven’t explored this in depth, so I don’t have the numbers), those are both factors. But I think this also reflects an overall change in our society. People are more interested in the stories of ‘regular’ people – ‘people like me.’ And what’s more to the point, publishers are seeing that stories of all of us – in all social classes – are relevant and are selling.

What do you think? Do you find yourself reading about certain social classes? All of them? Do you see a difference in the people whose stories are told? If you’re a writer, why did you choose the social class(es) about which you write?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Allentown.

22 Comments

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22 responses to “Every Child Had a Pretty Good Shot*

  1. This is a fascinating study! 251 books provides a good cross section so I think your results are very sound.

    To answer your question – I think we are attracted to characters in classes that we can relate to or aspire to be like. The sales of niche market including some religions make sense but the homeless rarely have a chance to assess whether they would like to buy a book they can relate to. This post gave me much food for thought. Thank you, thank you.

    • That’s very kind of you, Lesley. I’m glad you found this interesting. And you’ve given me much to think about too. It makes absolute sense to me that you wouldn’t see as much crime fiction (or any fiction, for the matter of that) targeted towards people who don’t have a chance to have their voices heard. That, of course, raises several important social questions, but they’re the stuff of another post…and as I say, solid ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks.

  2. Very interesting – and not entirely surprising data. I tend to get a lot more working class, middle class or poor in the books on my shelves (just a quick look tells me that). Maybe it’s reflective of the type of crime fiction I enjoy most (of the noirish persuasion). But if I were to add all of the library books I borrow, I am sure that the professional and upper classes would also get a good look in.

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. And thanks for sharing the impressions you’ve got from thinking about your own bookshelves. You’ve added another important dimension to this conversation – sub-genre. I think that does make a difference in terms of the kinds of people portrayed in a given novel. So does taste. So it makes sense that we’re not all going to have the same sorts of people represented in the books we read.

  3. Fascinating stuff! I wonder if the class of authors might influence the growth in middle and working class characters too. Pre-1950 many working class people in particular probably didn’t get the kind of education that would enable them to become authors, or at least that would give them the confidence to think that they could. Whereas now many kids from working class backgrounds get not just a good school education but also get the chance to go on to University. I’m surprised the upper class figures have held up so well, although I think there might be a bit of a difference in how the UK and the US define ‘upper-class’. We still tend to think of that in terms of aristocracy to a degree, I think.

    • Oh, now that’s an interesting point too, FictionFan! I think we do have to take into account what we mean by ‘upper class.’ Is it just wealth? Is it birth? Some combination? I’m sure that impacts a person’s perception of whether a book features such folks or not. Your other point is really well-taken too. As access to writing has gotten more egalitarian, I’m sure the population of authors has gotten more diverse. And that includes diversity of social class. And a lot of authors do tap their own experiences in some way or another as they write. Well, that certainly adds logic to what I found about middle and working class characters/contexts.Thanks – this is a really helpful insight.

  4. Before I get into answering your question let me say, Wow. You remember the details of 251 books? Incredible! If only I had your memory…
    I’ve written about the middle class, artisan (writer), and the poor (homeless), but I didn’t set out to target one group or another. It just turned out to fit that specific character. Your data is fascinating.

    • Thanks, Sue. And thanks for your insights on your own writing. That’s sort of what happened to me, too. I created my characters and stories without really planning the demographics. I think once you do choose your characters (or, at least in my case, once they introduce themselves), it’s important to make their backgrounds credible. But like you, it starts with my characters.

  5. Keishon

    I’m reminded of Heyer when it comes to the upper class (and they’re usually broke, too). I find your data set interesting, Margot. I tend to be drawn to the working class, middle class stories. I love James M. Cain’s work whose POV is more about the working class. Ken Bruen, Donald Woodrell and the list can go on and on.

    • You’re right, Keishon; Heyer mostly really did write about the ‘upper crust.’ And all of us have different kinds of stories to which we’re drawn. I think that has a lot to do with the kinds of people we read about, and with the social groups depicted in what we read.

  6. Col

    I think my reading is a bit like Marina Sofia’s tending more to the lower class or even under-class.

    • That’s interesting, Col. I know you have a preference for stories about those groups; I’m sure you’re not the only one, either. I do think that our tastes are factors in the kind of contexts depicted in what we read.

  7. tracybham

    It is interesting how the groups featured have changed since the 1990’s. The amount of data you have on mysteries is amazing, Margot.

  8. Patti Abbott

    What a lot of work this was, Margot. Thanks for sharing the results with us.

  9. This is fascinating information, Margot. And I’m happy to say I read a broad range of books that feature characters from a variety of classes. So far the characters I write about are working or professional class (and thugs, of course).

    • Well, of course, thugs, Pat. They’re essential to crime fiction. I’m glad you’ve made the choice to read about all kinds of characters. In my opinion, doing that gives us a much broader and more accurate perspective on who we are as people.

  10. Another great analysis, Margot! I think it’s also fascinating to consider writers who specialize in settings and characters drawn from a certain milieu, line of work, or calling, and how it all fits in to the class mix. Examples: Dick Francis and horse racing; Stuart Kaminsky and Golden Age movies; John Le Carré and workaday espionage.
    This brings up questions like: is there a wider range of professions and backgrounds represented today? Are there more ‘niche writers’ today? and so on.

    • Thank you, Bryan. And I think your point is very well-taken. It’s certainly worth considering the many writers who to look at one context (such as racing in the case of Francis, or Golden Age film in your own case). And you’ve asked an absolutely fascinating question! I wonder if, indeed, we see more professions discussed in today’s crime fiction? I don’t have the data to address that question (‘though I suspect there is more diversity). That would be fascinating to explore!

  11. Great topic! I certainly think in the Golden Age of crime fiction, in the UK, there was an assumption that readers wanted to hear about the upper classes. I’m no sure all the portrayals of them were as authentic as they might be… and I’m glad that the assumption has changed over the years.

    • I’m glad too, Moira. And thanks for the kind words. I do think a lot (certainly not all!) of GA crime fiction assumes an interest in the upper class. And you make a well-taken point that those stories don’t always depict that group realistically. I wonder if a bit of it might have been escapism. There was, as you know, plenty to escape from during those years…

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