Next Phase, New Wave*

CrimeFIction TrendsYou don’t need me to tell you that there are certain trends in crime fiction that become popular, especially if a particular book does very well. Other publishers and authors see that, and it doesn’t take much intuition to understand the appeal of doing what sells very well. It’s also easy to see how authors might be inspired to explore a topic if they see that it’s been ‘safe’ for another author to do so.

Those trends have been a part of the genre since its beginnings, and my guess is, they’ll keep happening. It’s interesting to see what’s been popular just lately, and perhaps speculate on what might be coming next. Here are just a few examples of what I mean. I know you’ll think of more than I could.

There’s been excellent Scandinavian crime fiction out there for quite a while. Many argue that it’s been a tradition since the work of Steen Steensen Blicher in the 19th Century. But many English-speaking readers didn’t experience it until the mid-to-late 1960’s, when Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series was translated. And it was even later, at the end of the 1990’s and beginning of the most recent decades, that a lot of English-speaking readers got to experience more of the richness of Scandinavian crime fiction.

Publishers saw the market, translations were commissioned, and the work of writers such as Peter Høeg, Åke Edwardson, Henning Mankell, and later, Liza Marklund and Karin Fossum (among many, many others) became better known in English-speaking markets (I can’t speak as well for other markets). This success could very well be part of what encouraged other authors and publishers to make other Scandinavian crime fiction available in English.

Scandinavian crime novels have been around for more than 150 years, but there’s been a particular interest in it in English-speaking markets in the last twenty years or so. Today it’s possible to read the translated work of many, many Scandinavian writers. Will this trend continue? Will interest fade in that particular kind of crime fiction? I don’t have the data to support myself here, but I don’t think it will fade out. Translated Scandinavian crime fiction is too well established, as I see it, and has been for some time. It’s also too broad a category. But it will be very interesting to see what form it takes as new generations of Scandinavian crime writers have their work translated.

Another trend we’ve seen, especially in the last seven or eight years, has been a large number of novels that are often called ‘domestic noir.’ In those novels, the focus is on families, intimate relationships, and the things that can go on underneath a seemingly peaceful surface.

Of course, that sort of story is not new. Work such as Margaret Yorke’s (and even work before hers) has featured this kind of plot line for some time. But since the popularity of work such as Gillian Flynn’s, publishers are seeing that domestic noir can be lucrative. That’s arguably part of why we’ve seen several such novels published in the last five years. I’m thinking, for instance, of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, among many others. Publishers are seeing that there’s a market for such work, and they’re happy to meet that demand.

Will the trend continue? Will interest in it fade? I’m less certain here. In one sense, it’s a well-established sub-genre if you include books such as Yorke’s and some of Margaret Millar’s. On the other hand, it’s not as broad a sub-genre, and doesn’t have a very long history if you put it in context. I’m not sure if the current intense interest in domestic noir will continue.

Another interesting development I’ve seen (have you noticed this?) is an interest in children involved in crime and how that affects them. Some of these novels (such as Ruth Dugdall’s Humber Boy B, Simon Lelic’s The Child Who, Kanae Minato’s Confessions, and William Landay’s Defending Jacob) focus on young offenders. Others, such as Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, feature young people who are impacted by crime among the adults in their lives. There are many other examples, too, of that sort of novel.

Of course, novels about children who are mixed up in, or the perpetrators of, crime are not new. There’s even an Agatha Christie novel that features a young person as the killer (No, I’m not saying which one. No spoilers here.).  And that’s not the only Christie in which a young person is one of the suspects. But there is a lot of interest in the last few years in how we treat young offenders, how responsible they are for what they do, and whether they can be reintegrated into society.

These aren’t easy questions, of course, and perhaps that’s part of why this sort of novel has gotten a lot of attention recently. Perhaps authors and publishers are seeing that readers are open to exploring some of these difficult issues. Or it could be that as we learn more about young people’s development, we’re learning more ways in which to work with them (and ways that don’t work!).

What do you think about all this? What trends have you been noticing in the crime fiction you read? Do you think they’ll continue? If you’re a writer, do you pay attention to those trends when you choose your themes, characters and plots? And just as importantly, what do you think may be coming next?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Gillian Flynn, Helen Fitzgerald, Honey Brown, Kanae Minato, Karin Fossum, Liza Marklund, Maj Sjöwall, Margaret Millar, Margaret Yorke, Paula Hawkins, Per Wahlöö, Peter Høeg, Ruth Dugdall, Simon Lelic, Steen Seensen Blicher, William Landay

32 responses to “Next Phase, New Wave*

  1. What an interesting exploration Margot – I think you may well be right about the Scandinavian Fiction as that covers a broad range of types of books. As for domestic noir, as much as I enjoy the better written examples I’m sure something else will replace this tighter genre as already I’m seeing that there are limited numbers of storylines to explore and readers don’t want to read too many similar books. As you say there was a rash of books exploring child killers, I wonder if there was a similar raft of books about women killers at any point? I find these interesting as it does cause the reader to challenge preconceptions or ‘popular’ beliefs. I have come across a few books this year about human trafficking, a subject that I don’t recall seeing before so maybe this ‘modern’ crime is attracting the attention of the authors, raising awareness of the issue?

    • Thanks for the kind words, Cleo. I think you have a well-taken point about the relative narrowness of domestic noir as a sub-genre. There are, as you say, a finite number of plot lines in the category. You make a fascinating point about female killers, too. I’ve read some books, of course, that feature women who kill, but I wonder whether there will be more interest in that. And you have a very well-taken point about human trafficking! I’ve read several books in the last five or six years that deal with that topic; it’ll be interesting to see if that continues and if it gets a more thorough treatment.

  2. I’m with Cleo and you – I think there’s enough variety in Scandi crime for it to continue long-term. I can’t wait to see the demise of domestic noir – its claim to originality is long gone as far I’m concerned, and every new book reads as if it’s been written to a formula. With it hopefully will go the trend for book covers to all show a young woman looking backwards over her shoulder in terror! My least favourite trend which seems to be just kicking off is for books featuring the murder and/or abuse of young children. Of course, crime fiction has a place for all of these, but once they become a trend, they all start to feel the same, and in a desperate bid for differentiation they become either more and more graphic or less and less believable – often both…

    • You know, FictionFan, I’ve noticed that trend towards books about child disappearance and abuse, too. These things do happen, and it’s understandable that they would be written about in novels. But as you say, if you crowd the field too much, then books can become more and more graphic. That in itself is bad enough. Add the lack of credibility, and it gets even worse. I do wonder whether there will be restraint when it comes to such books or not. I know I have my limit when it comes to that kind of topic.
      I agree with you about Scandinavian crime fiction; I really do think it’s a robust sub-genre. As to domestic noir, I need a truly, truly excellent example of it to really draw me in these days. Not that they aren’t there, but fewer and farther between, if I can put it that way. And I could do a whole post about book covers…

  3. Very interesting observations, as usual, Margot. I too am getting a little weary of domestic noir, although there are some examples (past and present) which are very well done indeed. I’ve noticed a bit of trend in elderly protagonists, or cases of dementia and the like. Not always quite crime fiction, often of a more literary bent, yet with some mystery at the heart of things too (and some quite thrillerish): Elizabeth Is Missing, Norwegian by Night, The Hundred Year Old Man…, A Man Called Ove and so on. And of course the Oscar-winning adaptation of ‘Still Alice’. I wonder if that’s got something to do with the rising age of the Baby Boomers?

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. I think you’ve brought up a fascinating point about elderly protagonists and other characters. It would certainly make sense if it were related to the increasing age of Baby Boomers; that’s completely logical to me. And, sadly (well, sadly meaning that these things happen), that means that there’s a greater interest in dementia and other issues facing the elderly and those who love them. You give some fantastic examples, too. I’m very glad that you filled in that gap.

  4. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code started a real trend for books with dramatic religious tensions and weird conspiracy theories. That was 2003, and the other books flooded in for a good few years. You don’t hear so much about them now, but I think there’s still a trickle…

    • That’s quite true, Moira. For a few years there, you did see a lot of that sort of book. You don’t as much now, and I wonder whether that will prove to have been a ‘flash in the pan,’ or just a lull before another influx of that sort of story. Interesting point.

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  6. A thought-provoking post, Margot. I once remember a publisher at a forum saying, ‘If we knew what the next big thing would be, we’d all be publishing it!’ It’s hard to predict trends, though I’m tempted to link the emergence of older (and unreliable) characters to the aging population in Western countries.

    As for so-called domestic noir, I came across a fascinating anthology while doing research for a festival recently, called Domestic Suspense. Even for those jaded by contemporary domestic noir, works by authors in this anthology, writing from the 1940s through the mid-1970s, are worth exploring.

    • Thanks, Angela, for the kind words. That publisher you met had a point, and so do you, about predicting trends. We don’t know what the next ‘thing’ will be. But I think you’re right about the link between characters who are aging, and what’s happening to the population in Western countries. It just makes sense.
      Thanks, too, for that link. There’ve been well-written domestic stories for a very long time, and some of the classics are definitely worth a look. I appreciate your sharing what you found.

  7. Kathy D.

    More women are private detectives than ever. When I began reading mysteries in my teenage years, there were only a few, and then after the women’s movement, V.I. Warshawski, Sharon McCone and Kinsey Milhome appeared. Now there are women sleuths all over the globe, both privately hired detectives and those in other professions, as professors, as Ruth Gallaway. And there are seemingly, more women police detectives from Irene Huss to Lacey Flint to Fiona Griffiths to so many more.
    There also seem to be more books in first person, present tense than I remember years earlier.
    And there are more mysteries in the science fiction genre and more set during an apocalypse or post-apocalyptic world, not my cup of tea, but there they are.

    • You’re right about the increasing number of female PIs, Kathy. As you say, it started with a few, but now, strong female sleuths are featured throughout the genre. And you make an interesting point about post-apocalypse and apocalypse crime fiction. More writers are crossing the line between crime fiction and speculative fiction like that, and it’s interesting.

  8. I still love Domestic Noir – maybe I have been fortunate and haven’t read too many yet to become jaded with the sub genre – and the books I have read have not been at all similar or formulaic – maybe not as many have been published here in Australia… I also like “Scandi” crime fiction – there is such a range of styles within this genre.

    I think we will see more of the child abuse/trafficking type novels in crime fiction (in fact I have just read Ruth Dugdall’s new one – Nowhere Girl which features these themes) – they are current issues and as such are more likely to appear in our reads. But with these sort of themes and those depicting graphic violence – it is all about how you choose to tell your story – torture porn etc is not welcome in my home.

    • You are absolutely right, Carol. The real key to a novel is the way the author tells the story. As you say, there are several novels dealing with child abuse and trafficking; it’s a timely topic and serious issue. But although the topic is disturbing, authors don’t need to be gratuitous when they write. I believe that’s true of any novel, whether it’s Scandinavian crime fiction, domestic noir, or something else. And I’m completely with you – ‘torture porn’ isn’t welcome in my home, either.

  9. Col

    Was there a mini-spurt of books a year or two ago, after the case came to light of the Austrian girl who’d been kidnapped and held for many years?

    • Interesting point, Col. I do recall a few books with that sort of theme, now you mention it. A really good example of the way major news items can inspire or impact a trend.

  10. Kathy D.

    No torture porn here, or serial killers or mounting body counts either.
    I find the trend of including kidnapping, abuse and killing of children to almost be another form of “torture porn.” With the increasing number of European and U.S. TV series which focus on the disappearance and killing of children, it’s harder and harder to watch them.
    After all, it is contrary to our human instincts which have been instilled throughout evolution to protect, defend and care for children, who are so vulnerable. I hope this trend doesn’t keep up at this level.
    A new PBS three-part series began last night with a missing, murdered young child. It’s hard to take.

    • You make an interesting point, Kathy, about the number of books about child abductions/murders. As a species, our instinct ought to be to protect our young people. And yet, we don’t always – certainly not in fiction. I think I might wait on that PBS special…

  11. Margot: As you know I find regrettable a tendency to turn to the thriller in mystery fiction. Recent examples with Robert Crais, Craig Johnson and Louise Penny.

    That tendency leads to high body counts to the extent I now list in reviews DDB for Double Digit Bodies.

    • Oh, Bill, I like that term DDB very much! And you’re right about the move towards more thriller elements lately, even in other kinds of series. Crais, Johnson and Penny have all written rich series with engaging mysteries and well-developed characters. That thriller element isn’t necessary. I don’t know it that trend will continue; I hope it won’t.

  12. Keishon

    Hi Margot,

    I think I like the trend of domestic noir since some of the early books I’m reading features this trope. I’m not a Gillian Flynn fan by any means but some of the writers in her league are focusing on domestic issues. I like that trend. Just haven’t found an author I want to try yet.

    I’m not that enamored of child offenders so if I know ahead of time, I skip those. I’m sure they’re compelling reads but not for me.

    I thank Stieg Larsson everyday that I’m able to read translated crime fiction. Even though there are pioneers who started that trend like you said, I didn’t know about them until I read the 1st Lisbeth Salander book and have went on to discover excellent writers like Joe Nesbo. I still love the trend but am no longer rushing to read the latest. I’ve just stuck to my favorites in that area.

    • Oh, I don’t think it’s possible to read all of the fine Scandinavian crime fiction that’s out there, Keishon. I don’t blame you one bit for choosing instead to stay with a few authors whose work you like. Like you, I don’t tend to read books that feature child abductions and murders. It’s a difficult subject even in the best of books, and one I don’t tend to read about very often. In some cases it works, and there’ve been a few (like Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill) that have been excellent. A lot aren’t.
      As to domestic noir, you have a point that it raises some important issues, and I think that’s one role that crime fiction can play in society. There’ve been a few that fall into this category that I”ve really thought were exceptional. That’s really the key, I think: how well written is the story?

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  14. I am a bit late here, Margot. What I don’t like about trends like this is that they seem to generate a lot of books with the same premise or ideas, and it stops feeling original. That complaint doesn’t apply to mystery novels from a certain location, because there is usually variety in the writing there, although publishers still tend to look for the same types that have already proved popular. That is one of the reasons I stick more with older fiction than new authors. Not that the same thing was not happening at that time.

    • There’s no such thing as ‘late,’ here, Tracy. It’s a 24/7 party at this blog 😉 – I think you express very well the issue with trends. Once a book, theme, etc. starts to sell well, lots of others crop up, and they aren’t generally as original and interesting as the first. I don’t blame you for liking the older books on that score. As you say, emulating/imitating success certainly happened. Still, you can read real originals if you’re willing to read older books.

  15. Maybe it’s my bias as to the type of settings and characters I write about, but I see a trend toward historical detective and mystery fiction, especially stories in which the protagonist is a famous person: the Dorothy Parker mysteries, Edna Ferber mysteries, etc.

    • Now, that’s interesting, Bryan! And I’m not convinced that it’s just your bias. There are a lot of fine historical series out there, and some, like yours, do feature actual historical figures. There’s even one that features novelist Josephine Tey.

  16. I’ve also noticed the word girl appear in many recent novels; The Girl on The Train, The Good Girl, Gone Girl, The Girl in The Spider’s Web, Lost Girls…
    Interesting post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Carol. And you’re quite right about the use of the word ‘girl’ in a lot of crime novel titles. I hadn’t realized it until you,mentioned it, but it’s true.

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