One 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:
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:
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.